Off The Bat: USF Wins War On I-4, UNCG Takes Control in SoCon

Image credit: Shane McClanahan (Courtesy of South Florida)

South Florida Wins War on I-4

Separated by about 100 miles on I-4, Central Florida and South Florida have developed the fiercest rivalry in the fledgling American Athletic Conference. And with the American this season changing the format of its conference schedule to eliminate one of the two series the teams used to play every season, this weekend’s War on I-4 took on even greater importance.

UCF won the first game, going on the road Friday to beat USF and Preseason All-American Shane McClanahan, 1-0. The Bulls bounced back, however, winning Game 2, 5-4, and clinched the series with a 4-2 win Sunday in the finale. The series win kept USF (26-14, 9-6) in the heart of the conference title race, a game behind first-place Houston and a half game behind No. 7 East Carolina. It also propelled the Bulls into the Top 25 for the first time this season, as they enter at No. 20.

Coach Billy Mohl said the Bulls knew this weekend would be a tough, low-scoring series.

“We had to pitch well,” he said. “Whoever made the least amount of mistakes would win.”

In the end, that team was USF, and the Bulls got the payback they wanted after losing last year’s regular-season title to the Knights and then getting knocked out of the conference tournament by their rivals.

“We remember what happened in the conference tournament against UCF and at their place to close the season last year,” outfielder Duke Stunkel said. “It felt great to take the series.”

USF’s series win this weekend came on the heels of a big series win last weekend at East Carolina, the conference favorite. In both series, the Bulls have lost Game 1 with McClanahan on the mound and then come back to win the series. It is not the path to a series win that would be expected for a team that has a Preseason All-American and likely top-10 draft pick leading its rotation.

At East Carolina a week ago, McClanahan pitched poorly and was unable to land his offspeed pitches for strikes. Against UCF, he was much better and struck out 10 batters in six innings but got outdueled as righthanders Cre Finfrock and Thad Ward combined to throw a one-hitter for the Knights. The loss dropped McClanahan to 4-5, 3.04, though he has struck out 94 batters in 56.1 innings.

USF’s pitching was strong all weekend with Peter Strzelecki and Colin Sullivan delivering solid starts and the bullpen combining to hold UCF to just one run (unearned) in 11 innings. While the Bulls’ strength is on the mound, they also have been impressive at the plate.

USF leads the conference in runs (254) and is second in hitting with a .297 team batting average. Third baseman David Villar (.379/.478/.664, 8 HR) has taken a step forward this season, helping the Bulls offset the loss of All-American shortstop Kevin Merrill to the draft.

“He’s improved from an approach standpoint,” Mohl said. “He’s not an easy out anymore. (Assistant coach Chuck) Jeroloman has done a great job getting his mind right.”

The Bulls have grown up as a team. Many of them came to Tampa together in USF’s 2015 recruiting class that ranked No. 8 in the country. Those players are now in their third season on campus and form the backbone of the team. Headlined by McClanahan, that class accounts for seven starters in the Bulls’ everyday lineup, two members of its rotation and its closer. USF’s other two regulars are Stunkel, a senior, and a junior college transfer.

All the veteran players have helped ease Mohl’s transition this year from pitching coach to head coach. He was promoted last summer when Mark Kingston left USF to take over at South Carolina. After coaching with Kingston for 15 years, Mohl hasn’t felt the need to change much, further helping the transition.

“I was fortunate to be left in a good situation,” he said. “The transition was easy. I didn’t have to relearn a system, I just carried on what I’ve done with Mark for the last 15 years. I was fortunate to take over a situation like this.”

With a month to go in the regular season, the Bulls are well positioned to make their third NCAA Tournament appearance in the last four years—since Mohl arrived in Tampa with Kingston and former recruiting coordinator Mike Current, who followed Kingston to South Carolina.

USF has just four more home games before finishing with eight straight games on the road, including series at Florida and Cincinnati. Mohl said he wants to see the Bulls play better on the road after going 5-6 in their first 11 road games.

“We need to take care of business on the weekends,” Mohl said. “If we can play well on the road and win a few more series here, we’ll be in good shape.”

UNCG Takes Control in SoCon

UNC Greensboro last season broke through for its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years. Now, with much of the core of that team returning, the Spartans are rolling again.

UNCG this weekend welcomed Samford to Greensboro for a matchup between the top two teams in the Southern Conference. Samford came into the weekend with a 13-game winning streak, the third longest in the nation, and in first place in the league. Unfazed, UNCG snapped the winning streak with a 7-5 victory Friday night and went on to sweep the series and move into first place.

The Spartans (29-10, 10-2) stand out offensively and lead the SoCon in batting (.319) and slugging (.464). And while UNCG’s bats came to play against Samford, which leads the SoCon in ERA (3.42) and opponents’ batting average (.218), it is clear the Spartans are well-rounded.

“It starts with our starting pitching,” coach Link Jarrett said. “We’ve got an experienced lineup and we’ve got some variety in the lineup and we can do some things that puts pressure on people. Our defense has been good enough to where it’s an asset.

“I like our team. I like the way we’re playing.”

UNCG is led offensively by outfielders Andrew Moritz (.430/.506/.642, 11 SB) and Cesar Trejo (.387/.448/.627, 17 SB), who form a formidable one-two punch in the heart of the order. Moritz ranks fifth in the country in hitting, something he said he never could have imagined when he was coming out of high school. UNCG was the only school to offer him a scholarship, a decision that has worked out well for everyone.

Moritz said Jarrett has worked with him to improve his approach at the plate, as he does with all the Spartans hitters. Moritz quickly found success in college and is a career .405 hitter who already holds the program record for triples (21) and has walked as much as he’s struck out—64 times each.

Moritz said his approach at the plate has undergone the most development.

“Coach Jarrett is like a hitting guru,” he said. “He works with every player from freshman year and he gets this hitting thing down in your head where you’re looking for a certain kind of pitch in every count. The more you hear it, the more it’s in your brain and you can use it in the game.”

UNCG’s hitters get most of the attention thanks to their eye-popping stats, but the pitching staff has been solid all season. Matt Frisbee (8-0, 3.11) and Bryce Hensley (4-2, 3.72) give the Spartans a pair of strong arms at the front of the rotation and Jack Maynard (4-2, 1.62, 8 SV) and Andrew Wantz (4-0, 3.26, 8 SV) are part of an impressively deep bullpen.

UNCG also takes inspiration from senior righthanders Dan Loats (0-3, 4.56) and Easton Welch (4-1, 2.81), who have both battled cancer in recent years.

“You’ve got two guys that have dealt with difficult situations,” Jarrett said. “To be cancer survivors and to compete at this level and help our team—the resilience and character that those guys have spills over to all of us. It’s a big part of our team.”

UNCG’s sweep of Samford—the first in program history—pushed it into first place in the SoCon with a month to play in the regular season. UNCG will this weekend travel to Wofford, which passed Samford for second place, and then host Mercer, the three-time defending champion, to complete a stretch that will go a long way to deciding the conference champion.

UNCG has been in the title race the last two years but has twice suffered near misses—especially in 2016, when Mercer won a series in Greensboro on the final weekend of the regular season to edge UNCG for the title. The Spartans are aiming for that title this season and look to have the all-around talent to win the program’s first regular season title since 1998.

“This year I feel like is as complete of a team as we’ve had,” Moritz said. “Our pitching depth is absurd—we have so many great pitchers—and our hitting is pretty great, too. This is the most complete team I think I’ve seen.”

Eight For Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina State, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Tech, UCLA

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks debating Kentucky’s Omaha case. I’m not going to rehash it here after the Wildcats lost a home series to Florida, other than to say that a bullpen game against elite competition is maybe not ideal. Call me stubborn if you want, but I’m hanging tough with Arkansas after it was swept at Mississippi State.

That leaves me with one spot in the field to fill. I mulled this for at least 12 hours Sunday, considering East Carolina, North Carolina and UCLA. The Pirates are playing well in all facets and have been very tough outs in the postseason under Cliff Godwin. The Tar Heels are playing like the top-10 team we expected them to be coming into the season. But, ultimately, I’m going with the Bruins. UCLA is healthy and rolling in the Pac-12 Conference. Its offense has been especially impressive in recent weeks and John Savage’s teams always pitch well. UCLA would be a year ahead of schedule if it gets to Omaha this June, but, of these three teams, I believe it is the most talented. 

Eye Catchers

Six players or programs who stood out this weekend.

John Arel, RHP, Maine: Arel on Saturday threw six no-hit innings, but took the loss in a 1-0 defeat in a seven-inning game during a doubleheader at Massachusetts-Lowell. The senior struck out 12 batters, but the RiverHawks were able to scratch out a run on three walks, a hit batter and a wild pitch. It was the Black Bears’ first no-hitter in more than 15 years.  

Jacksonville: No team did more this week to help its NCAA Tournament resume. Jacksonville began its week Tuesday with an upset at Florida and then went on the road to sweep Saint Louis, which is in first place in the Atlantic-10 Conference. The Dolphins were rewarded with a 22-spot jump in RPI, all the way to No. 16, and a spot in the Top 25 for the first time since 1997.

Tyler Malone, INF, Oregon State: Malone has homered in five straight games, including all three this weekend against Oregon. The sophomore hit his first career home run last weekend at Missouri State after 100 career at bats and has now homered five times in his last 17 at bats. Malone is hitting .297/.411/.541.

Connor Van Hoose, Bucknell: Van Hoose celebrated his Senior Day on Saturday by throwing a seven-inning no-hitter in a 3-0 victory against Lehigh. He struck out eight batters and walked two to improve to 6-4, 2.69 on the season.

Washington State: Four Cougars, led by righthander Parker McFadden, on Sunday combined to throw a no-hitter in a 5-0 victory against Santa Clara to complete a sweep. The no-hitter was Washington State’s second of the season after Scotty Sunitsch threw a no-hitter against Oregon on April 8, marking the first time the Cougars have thrown two no-hitters in a season since 1976. 

Steven Wells, OF, Florida State: Wells had an outstanding week at the plate as Florida State went 5-0 against Stetson and Boston College. The senior went 14-for-17 with two doubles, two home runs and six walks and raised his batting average more than 100 points. He is now hitting .271/.474/.469.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend rivalry series we’re most excited for

(10) North Carolina at (2) North Carolina State: Last Tuesday’s game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park—won by North Carolina State—was just the warmup act. The two local rivals and Atlantic Coast Conference division leaders will meet in what will likely be an emotional series with plenty of title implications. North Carolina State (31-8, 15-6) has home field advantage and won the midweek matchup, but North Carolina (27-13, 15-6) will be eager to spoil the party.

Miami at (17) Florida State: This doesn’t have as many postseason implications as some Miami vs. Florida State showdowns of the past, but it still figures to have plenty of fireworks. Florida State coach Mike Martin is three wins away from becoming college baseball’s all-time winningest coach and the Seminoles (29-12, 11-10) will be looking to give him the record against their rivals. Miami (17-22, 10-11) is again fighting for its postseason hopes and a series win in Tallahassee would be the jumpstart it needs. For good measure, this will be the final series between Martin and Jim Morris, who is retiring after the season.

(22) Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State: Bedlam has long been one of college baseball’s best rivalries. This year’s edition comes with the added heat of a conference title race. Oklahoma State (23-14-1, 12-3) is in first place in the Big 12 Conference standings, two games ahead of Oklahoma (27-15, 10-5). Both are on the edge of the hosting race, but probably need a series win this weekend to stay in the hunt.

Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook

(23) Minnesota at Ohio State: The Big Ten Conference title race is heating up even if the weather in the Midwest isn’t. Michigan has raced out to an 11-0 start to lead the standings, with Minnesota (25-11, 9-2) and Ohio State (27-11, 8-4) in hot pursuit. Both the Gophers and Buckeyes are coming off big series wins—Minnesota against Iowa and Ohio State against Indiana. Neither plays Michigan, so winning this weekend to keep pace with the Wolverines is critical.

New Mexico State at Grand Canyon: The preseason Western Athletic Conference favorites have lived up to their billing thus far and are set for a showdown in Phoenix. Grand Canyon (22-17, 10-2) has bounced back from a slow start and is in first place in the standings. New Mexico State (25-14, 11-4) has the edge in the win column and will this weekend be looking to move into first place. 

One midweek series to keep an eye on

(4) Texas Tech at (8) Arkansas, April 24-25: Baum Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday will host what could be an Omaha preview when Texas Tech (32-9) visits Arkansas (28-13). With both teams in the top 10 of RPI there will be a lot on the line in the hosting and top-eight seed race. But beyond the postseason implications, the midweek series should simply provide entertaining baseball.

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