Off The Bat: UCLA Wins Blockbuster, Ole Miss Breaks Out Bats
Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.
UCLA Bounces Back Against Stanford To Win No. 1 vs. No. 2 Showdown
UCLA and Stanford, the top two teams in the country, converged on Sunken Diamond this weekend for a series that had all the makings of an entertaining showdown. It delivered on the hype as No. 1 UCLA claimed the series Sunday with a 10-7 victory against No. 2 Stanford.
The series was the first time since 2016 that the top two teams in the Baseball America Top 25 met during the regular season and the 13th such matchup in the history of the rankings. The weekend began with an instant classic that Stanford won, 3-2, on a walk-off hit from Will Matthiessen. UCLA romped to an 11-5 victory on Saturday and then used a six-run seventh inning Sunday to claim a crucial series win.
Coach John Savage said winning the series after losing Friday night, as they did last week at Southern California, was an important step for the Bruins (23-6, 9-3 Pac-12).
“Being able to come back and win those series definitely is a big step for our team,” Savage said. “We know we’ve got to get a lot better. But the key to really being in the upper echelon of the conference is you have to play well on the road. Coming out 4-2 in the last two weekends, specifically after losing on Friday, is a step in the right direction.”
Friday’s game was a taut, pitching-dominated affair. Stanford got a strong start from righthander Brendan Beck and held a 2-0 lead going into the ninth. But UCLA was able to rally despite facing All-American closer Jack Little and tied the game. Stanford wiggled out of a jam to keep the score level and then Matthiessen struck the decisive blow with a two-out, bases-loaded single.
“Friday really set the stage, set the tone for the weekend,” Savage said. “It was a tough loss. Our guys did a good job of responding and got back to our game a little bit and did a nice job of beating a really good team at their park.”
Over the next two days, UCLA scored 21 runs against the Cardinal pitching staff that came into the weekend having allowed only 60 runs and ranked first in the country in team ERA.
UCLA has stood out on the mound this season, but its offense has big potential. Infielder Ryan Kreidler (.321/.389/.532) and outfielder Garrett Mitchell (.328/.405/.466) have taken steps forward, and the Bruins have gotten strong contributions from a couple unexpected sources in Jack Stronach (.439/.518/.606) and Jake Pries (.322/.411/.506).
Even with the likes of freshman center fielder Matt McLain struggling and junior outfielder Jeremy Ydens hurt, UCLA still has the pieces to make life tough for opposing pitchers.
“Stanford’s pitching is very good,” Savage said. “We feel that we’re very capable offensively. We’ve got a bunch of very capable guys. It seemed like we’ve been putting a lot of good at-bats together, there’s been some damage with runners on base that has opened up some things.”
First baseman Michael Toglia played a key role this weekend, going 3-for-7 with two doubles, a home run, thee runs and six RBIs in the final two games. The junior came into the season with high expectations as one of the Bruins’ best hitters and a chance to be a top-two rounds draft pick. After a slower start, he has gotten locked in at the plate. He is hitting .265/.344/.496 with a team-high four home runs.
“He’s seeing the ball much better and is putting good swings on the ball,” Savage said. “He had a good weekend. It was good to see him have a couple big at-bats and have some impact.”
UCLA’s own pitching staff did a good job against Stanford, holding the Cardinal to 15 runs on the weekend. Righthander Ryan Garcia, making his third weekend start of the year after missing the first month due to injury, struck out a career high 11 batters in seven innings Sunday’s victory. Garcia is 3-0, 1.67 with 33 strikeouts and 10 walks in 27 innings and has been a big boost for the pitching staff.
Stanford coach David Esquer praised UCLA for playing with plenty of confidence throughout the weekend, something the Cardinal (20-5, 7-2 Pac-12) is still learning. He said they may have to shuffle the pitching staff after the weekend but said the series showed they are capable of playing at the highest level.
“Our goal is to be able to flip the outcome of this series by the end of the year,” Esquer said. “If we do that, we’re going to be able to play on a national stage against anyone in the country.”
As for UCLA, it remains the No. 1 team in the country for the fourth straight week, but things don’t get much easier for the Bruins. UCLA returns home to host No. 16 UC Irvine on Tuesday and then welcomes No. 10 East Carolina to Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend.
“Irvine is playing as well as anybody out here, and East Carolina is playing as well as anybody out there,” Savage said. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge and another tremendous opportunity for us to see where we’re at and see where we need to improve.”
Ole Miss Storms To Sweep Of Florida
The Mississippi offense brought the lightning and the thunder this weekend in a sweep against Florida. The Rebels matched a program record with 40 runs in a Southeastern Conference series as they pounded out 49 hits over three games in Oxford.
Ole Miss stormed out of the gate with a 12-4 victory Friday in the opener and clinched the series with a 16-4 drubbing in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader. It looked like the Gators would bounce back to salvage the nightcap as they jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the third, but the Rebels scored eight runs coming out of a rain delay off closer Nolan Crisp and went on to a 12-10 victory to finish the sweep.
Ole Miss scored 10 runs in last Sunday’s series-clinching win at Arkansas, giving it 50 runs in its last four SEC games. With back-to-back series wins, the Rebels (23-10, 8-4 SEC) have pushed into a three-way tie with LSU and Arkansas for first place in the SEC West and are up to No. 15 in the Top 25.
In a division where the top six teams are separated by just one game, every victory is meaningful. After the Rebels clinched the series win, coach Mike Bianco’s message to the team was to not get complacent.
“We challenged them after the first game (of the doubleheader), ‘That’s such a mediocre attitude to think we have two in the bag and if we lose this one it’s OK,” he said. “It’s never OK. You only get 30 of these games.”
Ole Miss made all three games count against Florida, showing off the potent lineup that was expected to make the Rebels so dangerous this year. It started at the top of the order with leadoff hitter Ryan Olenek going 7-for-11 and two-hole hitter Grae Kessinger adding eight hits.
Olenek is the team’s leading hitter at .398/.473/.523 with 11 doubles. Kessinger has been especially locked in at the plate lately and is hitting .312/.409/.420 with a team-high 12 doubles and nine stolen bases.
“He’s looking more and more comfortable up there with all pitches,” Bianco said. “He had some really good two-strike at-bats (Saturday). He saw the breaking ball good; he got some good swings off the breaking ball. He’s quick enough to get to some big fastballs. He’s just really swinging it well.”
With Olenek and Kessinger setting the table, the heart of the Rebels’ lineup—Tyler Keenan, Thomas Dillard and Cole Zabowski—have had plenty of chances to drive in runs, and they’ve taken advantage of them this spring. The trio is all hitting better than .300 and has at least 30 RBIs, keeping the Ole Miss offense rolling.
With Cooper Johnson and Anthony Servideo providing consistent production in the bottom of the lineup, Ole Miss has one of the deepest, most dangerous lineups in the nation.
Freshman lefthander Doug Nikhazy, who has emerged as the Rebels’ No. 2 starter behind righthander Will Ethridge, said it was a challenge facing their hitters during fall ball.
“From experience inside all the intrasquads, they’re tough to pitch to,” he said. “They weathered me to be able to go out and pitch against Florida.”
Nikhazy delivered another quality start Saturday, holding Florida to one run in six innings to improve to 3-2, 2.95. Ethridge (4-2, 2.12) was solid Friday night before a blister forced him out of the game in the fourth. Closer Parker Caracci threw the final 3.2 innings of the series finale, holding Florida scoreless on one hit and one walk.
But pitching remains Ole Miss’ biggest concern moving forward. It hasn’t been able to settle on a third starter as freshman righthander Gunnar Hoglund (1-0, 4.32), an unsigned supplemental first rounder, has scuffled and was dropped from the rotation against Florida. Righthander Houston Roth (1-1, 5.50) got an audition in Saturday’s nightcap and had mixed results.
The bullpen trio of Caracci, Austin Miller (2-0, 1.93) and Tyler Myers (2-0, 2.82) has been strong. But otherwise, Ole Miss is still working to fit its pieces together.
It may still be a work in progress, but the Rebels’ offense gives it a healthy margin for error. As Ole Miss prepares to take on Southern Mississippi and Kentucky this week, it is well positioned overall for a strong second half of the season.
“We’ve been pretty good, especially the last two weeks,” Bianco said. “If we swing like this and pitch in the clutch, we can be all right.”
Bubble Watch: LSU, North Carolina Bolster Hosting Cases
As conference tournaments continue, we look at NCAA Tournament bubble winners and losers from Friday.
Eight For Omaha
Arizona State, Georgia, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt
One change this week as Louisiana State returns to the field and North Carolina exits. I was counting on the Tar Heels being able to pitch their way to Omaha, but they don’t have their full complement of arms right now and just gave up 21 runs the last two days at Georgia Tech. So, they move out to make room for LSU, which returns after about a month out of the field. It looks like LSU largely has things figure out after its early rough patch. I’ve always liked the Tigers’ talent and now it looks like they’re rounding into form. I’d expect that to continues in the second half of the season as their younger players continue to gain experience.
Seven players or programs who put together big weekends.
Tristin English, 1B, Georgia Tech: English on Saturday hit for the cycle in an 11-10 victory against North Carolina. The redshirt junior went 4-for-5, scored five runs and drove in three and became the first Yellow Jacket to hit for the cycle since 2001. English went 7-for-12 with two home runs on the weekend and threw the final inning of Sunday’s series-clinching, 11-5 victory. He is hitting .314/.419/.636 with eight home runs this season and is 2-0, 4.72 in nine appearances on the mound.
Georgia: The Bulldogs won a series against Vanderbilt for the first time since 2008, finishing it off with a 3-1 victory on Sunday. Georgia threw a combined one-hitter in the series finale, capping an impressive weekend for its pitching staff, which held one of the best offenses in the country to a total of six runs. The Bulldogs have a 2.85 team ERA this season and are holding opponents to a .186 batting average.
Kyle Johnson, 1B, UC Santa Barbara, Pat McColl, 1B, Harvard: In a pair of wild games Saturday on opposite ends of the country, Johnson and McColl both hit walk-off grand slams. UCSB had fallen behind Stephen F. Austin, 12-9, in the 11th but rallied in the bottom half of the inning. Johnson, a redshirt freshman, completed the comeback with his second career home run and UCSB went on to sweep the series. In Cambridge, Harvard trailed Yale, 8-1, going to the ninth. The Crimson mounted an epic comeback and got McColl to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. The senior launched a grand slam and Harvard beat its archrival, 10-8. McColl is hitting .459/.495/.867 with eight home runs.
Craig Larsen, OF, Pennsylvania: In Penn’s epic 21-15 victory in 21 innings Saturday at Dartmouth, Larsen became the first Quaker to hit for the cycle since 2000. He went 5-for-12 with two doubles, a triple and a grand slam, completing the cycle with a bunt single in the 13th inning. On the weekend, he went 8-for-19 with three doubles, a triple and two home runs and is now hitting .395/.470/.693 with six home runs.
Jake Mangum, OF, Mississippi State: Mangum on Friday broke Mississippi State’s career hits record, passing Jeffrey Rea. Mangum now has 339 career hits, leaving him just 10 hits behind former LSU great Eddy Furniss’ career SEC record. Mangum this season is hitting .416/.455/.578 with 18 stolen bases.
Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams swept LaSalle, outscoring the Explorers 48-12 on the weekend. VCU extended its winning streak to six games, tied for the third longest in the nation, and improved to 25-7, 8-1. The Rams have an early lead in the Atlantic 10 Conference and rank fifth in the nation in wins.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
(10) East Carolina at (1) UCLA: The good news for UCLA (23-6): It gets to go home after back-to-back Pac-12 weekends on the road, including its showdown at Stanford. The bad news: Waiting for it is East Carolina (24-7), which has won 12 of its last 13 games. For the Pirates, this is an opportunity to make a non-conference statement to add to their hosting resume. This is a tricky series for the Bruins, who must avoid a letdown after winning a series at Stanford and stepping out of conference play.
(7) Oregon State at (13) Arizona State: It’s not quite the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup we had last week in the Pac-12, but it’s nearly as interesting. The winner of this series will emerge as the chief competitor to UCLA and Stanford for the conference title and have an inside track on a top-eight overall seed. It also presents a fascinating matchup as Oregon State (23-6-1, 9-3 Pac-12) has one of the best pitching staffs in the country and Arizona State (26-4, 9-3 Pac-12) has one of the best offenses. The Sun Devils are 22-1 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, but they also haven’t faced a team like the Beavers.
(16) UC Irvine at (19) UC Santa Barbara: It’s hard to overstate this series’ importance. These are the only two Big West Conference teams with winning records and it’s hard to see them not finishing 1-2 in the standings, meaning this series will have outsized importance in the title race. It also is vital for both teams’ hosting hopes. UCSB (23-5, 2-1) has the RPI to host already, but establishing itself as the best team in the conference would be a big boost to its resume. UCI (21-5, 5-1) has RPI work to do and this is its best opportunity to do it.
Two weekend series to watch
Louisiana Tech at Florida Atlantic: FAU (23-9, 11-1) and LaTech (21-10, 8-4) sandwich defending champion Southern Mississippi (20-9, 10-2) in the Conference USA standings, and if either team is going to dethrone the Golden Eagles, they need to win this series. They have matching seven-game winning streaks, but both need a series win for their postseason resumes. FAU made a big RPI move after going 4-0 on the road this week and would make another jump with a series win this weekend. LaTech got swept by Southern Miss last month and can’t afford to miss another opportunity against a conference power.
Pepperdine at Brigham Young: The West Coast Conference is as bunched up as ever, with just three games separating the top seven teams in the standings. Both BYU (22-8, 8-4) and Pepperdine (16-11, 7-5) harbor title hopes and regional aspirations, which should make for a compelling series.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
(16) UC Irvine at (1) UCLA, 9 p.m. ET: Did we mention it’s a big week for UCI and UCLA? To add to their important weekend series, they’ll square off at Jackie Robinson Stadium on Tuesday for what could be a postseason preview.