Off The Bat: Pitching Powers Oklahoma, Texas Tech To Big Weekends
Teddy Cahill runs through the biggest storylines that emerged from the weekend. To see the updated Top 25, click here.
Dane Acker’s No-Hitter Puts Stamp On Oklahoma’s Impressive Weekend
Oklahoma righthander Dane Acker couldn’t help but notice what was going on early Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park in Houston. For seven innings, he and Louisiana State righthander AJ Labas matched each other zero for zero and carried no-hitters into the eighth inning.
With so many zeroes on the scoreboard, Acker knew exactly what was happening at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic.
“I look up there and he’s got it and I look down and I’ve got it,” Acker said. “So, we’re battling seeing who can go the longest.”
In the end, it was Acker. Oklahoma catcher Justin Mitchell ambushed Labas’ first pitch of the eighth inning to drive a solo home run into the Crawford Boxes in left field and snap one half of the dual no-hitter.
Acker wasn’t about to relent, however. He battled through two more hitless innings to complete the no-hitter in the Sooners’ 1-0 victory. He struck out 11 batters and walked one, throwing 117 pitches.
Acker admitted he was losing steam at the end of the game and he fell behind all three batters in the ninth inning. But he was able to make enough pitches to get three more outs.
“I just kind of told myself throw it in there,” he said. “Make them hit it, make our guys make a play and we did.”
It was the first no-hitter in the 20-year history of the Shriners College Classic, college baseball’s premier nonconference tournament. It was also Oklahoma’s first nine-inning no-hitter since 1989 and the first time LSU had been no-hit since 1978.
The victory secured a 2-1 weekend for Oklahoma (9-3) at the Shriners College Classic after it split its first two games – a win Friday against Arkansas and a loss Saturday to Missouri. That pushed the Sooners to No. 11 in the Top 25 and showed just how much upside they have this spring.
Already this season, Oklahoma has four wins at neutral sites against Arkansas, LSU and Virginia, all of whom could be in the hosting mix in May. With nonconference series against Cal Poly, Sam Houston State and San Diego State, three mid-major teams with serious NCAA Tournament aspirations – as well as its Big 12 schedule remaining, Oklahoma will have the chance to put itself in position for a special June.
Coach Skip Johnson said what the Sooners experienced this weekend in Houston will pay dividends all season long.
“It’s going to help us in Big 12 play, in regional play, in super regional play or wherever it leads us,” he said. “When you play in this environment it’s always a great environment. You really get to see what we talk about a lot, which is being able to control yourself one pitch at a time and makings sure you’re present. I thought that was a big factor for us.”
Oklahoma leaned on its pitching for two big wins this weekend. In Friday’s game against Arkansas, Preseason All-American righthander Cade Cavalli struck out 11 batters in five innings and held the Razorbacks’ potent offense to three runs on six hits and no walks. Relievers Wyatt Olds and Jason Ruffcorn combined for seven strikeouts in four scoreless innings to secure a 6-3 victory.
It looked like the Sooners were going to follow a similar script Saturday when lefthander Levi Prater cruised through four scoreless innings before getting into trouble. The junior gave up four runs in six innings and the bullpen wasn’t able to hold the lead, giving up four more runs as Missouri won, 8-7, in 10 innings.
But on Sunday, it was all Acker. The 6-foot-2, 189-pound junior who this fall transferred to Oklahoma from San Jacinto (Texas) JC pounded the strike zone with his low-90s fastball and effectively mixed in his changeup and curveball.
Mitchell said there wasn’t anything different about Acker’s stuff or game plan Sunday. He simply went out and executed against the Tigers.
“That’s Dane Acker,” Mitchell said. “He attacks, he’s not scared to throw it in there and he’s going to challenge you.”
Acker was a high-profile recruit coming out of junior college and the D-backs drafted him in the 23rd round. He opted to come to Oklahoma instead of signing and added another premium arm to the Sooners’ staff.
In the last six months since arriving in Norman, Acker has taken some steps forward. Johnson said his biggest improvement has been with the mental parts of his game.
“Just polishing his approach to pitching and understanding what his strengths were pitch-to-pitch,” Johnson said. “I think that’s the separator for him and understanding where he’s at pitch-to-pitch because sometimes, like everybody else, they give up a hit and they get mad at themselves, they can’t reward themselves for making a pitch and get to the next pitch.”
Pitching is going to be the Sooners’ strength all season, as it was this weekend. They have a 2.72 team ERA and shown impressive depth on the staff with relievers like Olds, Ruffcorn and Ledgend Smith backing the rotation.
To reach their ultimate ceiling, however, Oklahoma is going to have to get its offense going. It’s had some encouraging signs so far – center fielder Tanner Tredaway has taken a step forward as a junior and freshman third baseman Peyton Graham has impressed – but that side of the ball remains a work in progress as the calendar flips to March.
After a special weekend in Houston, the Sooners are returning to Norman ready to put in the work necessary to reach their potential.
“We have a lot of fight and we have a lot to work for,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to get better every day and we can’t go into any game thinking we’re just going to roll through it.”
Texas Tech Sweeps Through Florida State Tournament
The format of Texas Tech’s weekend in Tallahassee was nontraditional. The result was not, as the No. 2 Red Raiders returned to Lubbock on Sunday night with three wins.
Texas Tech joined Florida Atlantic and Florida State this weekend for a three-team “tournament” – the result of a cancellation on its schedule. The Red Raiders made the most of the weekend, beating FAU, 7-1, on Friday and then edging Florida State, 6-5, in 11 innings Saturday and 4-3 in Sunday’s finale.
The weekend sweep was a part of a 5-0 week for Texas Tech (it also swept a mid-week series against Southern) and extended its winning streak to seven games. The Red Raiders (11-1) solidified their position in the rankings.
“It was fun going down there,” coach Tim Tadlock said. “We probably need to take coach (John) McCormack and (Mike Martin Jr.) out to dinner to let us get in on their weekend. We’re very appreciative of that.
“It was a good environment. There was a lot of value in playing those games in that environment.”
Texas Tech’s pitching shone in Tallahassee, as it has done all season long. The Red Raiders gave up a total of nine runs in three games and now have a 2.80 team ERA on the season.
It started with righthander Clayton Beeter, who has taken over this season as Texas Tech’s ace. He struck out seven batters in five hitless innings against FAU. The redshirt sophomore is now 1-1, 3.00 with 21 strikeouts and four walks in 15 innings this season.
Beeter, listed at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, last season served as the Red Raiders’ closer and earned Freshman All-America honors. Armed with a fastball that gets into the mid-90s to go with a changeup and slider, he’s handled the move this season to the rotation with aplomb.
“He’s got great makeup, great composure, good presence,” Tadlock said. “It’s getting more common now where you see guys throwing mid 90s. But this guy, it’s a different deal. He’s got a lot of late life.”
Despite moving Beeter to the front of the rotation, Texas Tech hasn’t missed a beat in the bullpen. The Red Raiders used six different pitchers in relief in Tallahassee and they combined to hold opponents to one run in 13.2 innings while compiling 24 strikeouts and five walks.
Texas Tech has built a deep staff full of hard throwers, which enables Tadlock and pitching coach Matt Gardner to mix and match as necessary. They have plenty of experienced options to deploy, including righthander Micah Dallas, who last year served as the team’s Friday starter. He’s thrived out of the bullpen this season, piling up 16 strikeouts and no walks in 10.2 innings. Junior righthander Ryan Sublette brings experience and junior lefthander Jakob Brustoski has fit right in after transferring from junior college.
Perhaps the biggest piece of the bullpen is senior righthander John McMillion, who chose not to sign as an 11th round draft pick last June. He’s got the biggest arm on the staff, capable of running his fastball into the upper 90s, and across two appearances in Tallahassee used that power stuff to record 10 outs – all via strikeout.
“McMillon threw the ball awful well,” Tadlock said. “The guys that threw (Sunday) threw awful well, Beeter threw awful well. Guys are trying to execute pitches. They’ve got good arms and they’re not just trying to throw hard. They’re trying to execute pitches. It’s pretty fun to watch.”
Just as Texas Tech can mix and match on the mound, it can also do a lot of that offensively. The Red Raiders have used 17 position players this season, giving Tadlock a lot of options as he puts his lineup together.
There are some constants, however. Veterans Dru Baker (.325/471/.550), Brian Klein (.372/.471/.558) and Dylan Neuse (.447/.509/.596, 7 SB) have established themselves at the top of the lineup and give Texas Tech a strong core to build around. The Red Raiders have also been able to mix in talented freshmen like Jace Jung and Nate Rombach.
There’s work to be done for Texas Tech over the next two weeks before it begins Big 12 play against West Virginia but the early returns on the season have been very encouraging. After a lot of turnover from last year’s College World Series team, including losing All-American infielder Josh Jung (Jace’s older brother) as a first-round draft pick, the Red Raiders have quickly come together and are playing at a high level.
Tadlock said the Red Raiders are having fun playing baseball. And he’s enjoying his front-row seat to the show.
“It’s been fun to watch those guys tee it up and play,” he said. “The guys on the mound have been really solid. It’s been fun watching them.”
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Eight For Omaha
Arizona State, Florida, Louisville, Miami, Michigan, Texas Tech, UCLA, Vanderbilt
A week ago, I said not having an SEC West team didn’t feel right. Well, here we are without an SEC West team. I dropped Arkansas, which is clearly working some things out right now, and replaced it with UCLA. The way the Bruins are pitching this year is otherworldly (0.96 team ERA, .126 opponents batting average, 135-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 99 innings) and they’re also rolling offensively (they scored 40 runs in four games last week against good competition). In short, worries about all the personnel the Bruins lost from last year’s outstanding team appear to have been overblown. Firmly in the mix is Georgia following an emphatic sweep of rival Georgia Tech.
Five players or programs who put together big weekends
Aaron Funk, RHP, Arkansas-Little Rock: In a 2-1 victory Sunday against North Alabama, Funk struck out 17 batters (matching his jersey number) to tie the Sun Belt Conference’s single-game record. It is also the highest single-game strikeout total this season. The junior threw a complete game to earn his first win of the season, holding the Lions to one run on four hits and one walk. Funk is 1-0, 2.42 with 28 strikeouts and seven walks in 22.1 innings this spring.
Hunter Goodman, C, Memphis: Goodman powered Memphis to a sweep against Western Illinois as he hit a grand slam in all three games this weekend. He went 9-for-16 with four home runs, seven runs and 22 RBI against the Leathernecks, capping the weekend with a massive game Sunday that saw him go 4-for-6 with a home run, two doubles and drive in 11 runs. Goodman this season is hitting .404/.472/.915 with seven home runs.
Long Beach State: The Dirtbags (8-3) continued their sizzling start to the season with a series win against Mississippi State. They shut the Bulldogs out, 4-0, in the opener and, after losing 9-0 Saturday, claimed the series with a 6-2 victory Sunday. Three weeks into the season and Eric Valenzuela’s tenure as coach, Beach has series wins against California, Mississippi State and Wake Forest and is back in the Top 25 for the first time since 2017.
Jake Miller, RHP, San Diego: Pressed into service Friday night against Monmouth due to illness, Miller made his first start of the season and made the most of the opportunity. He threw a no-hitter and struck out 10 batters in a 7-0 victory. Miller is 1-0, 1.10 with 22 strikeouts and five walks in 16.1 innings this season.
UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks (9-3) swept Kentucky on the road this weekend to earn win their first series against an SEC opponent. UNCW never trailed in the series and started the weekend with 20 scoreless innings against the Wildcats.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
(14) Florida State at (16) Duke: The ACC opens conference play this weekend and delivers a Top 25 matchup to begin the slate. The Seminoles (8-3) had their eight-game winning streak snapped this weekend by Texas Tech and now face another tricky test as they hit the road. The Blue Devils (9-2) had a nine-game winning streak of their own snapped Sunday against Iowa and have pitched at a high level in the early going. The series opens with an excellent pitching matchup between Florida State’s C.J. Van Eyk and Duke’s Bryce Jarvis, two potential top-100 draft picks.
(10) Michigan at Pepperdine: Following a series win at Cal Poly, Michigan (6-4) will stay in California for the week and heads to Malibu after midweek games at California and Stanford. Pepperdine (10-1) is off to an excellent start and is coming off a sweep of Florida International on the road. The Waves’ lineup has started hot and is averaging 7.73 runs per game this season. The Wolverines’ rotation of Jeff Criswell, Steve Hajjar and Blake Beers can slow that attack, but it’ll need to be ready to go this weekend.
UC Santa Barbara at Oregon State: Long Beach State’s hot start has drawn the bulk of the attention, but the Big West is quietly having a strong start to the season. As a conference, it’s 56-45 and has scored some strong series wins, which will help it come Selection Monday. UCSB (9-2), the reigning champion, has a chance to snag another big series this weekend when it visits Oregon State (5-6). The Beavers have had a mixed start to the season and are coming off a four-game series split at San Diego State, but now get to go home to Goss Stadium, where they are tough to beat. This series is a part of a big week for the Gauchos, who also host UCLA on Tuesday.
Two tournaments to watch
Southern California College Baseball Classic, Los Angeles
This tournament is typically known as the Dodger Stadium Classic, but with its namesake under renovations in preparation for this summer’s All-Star Game, it is operating under a different name for 2020. Southern California and No. 5 UCLA are still co-hosting the event, with No. 22 Texas Christian and No. 3 Vanderbilt rounding out the field. The format remains pretty much the same – UCLA and USC will host games against TCU and Vanderbilt on Friday and Saturday – but instead of finishing with the Bruins and Trojans facing off at Dodger Stadium, they’ll do it at USC’s Dedeaux Field (preceded by the game between TCU and Vanderbilt). It’s a strong field and the rivalry game at the end of the weekend is always a fitting end to the tournament. It’s a shame it won’t get the Dodger Stadium treatment this year, but that doesn’t detract any from the event.
Cox Diamond Invitational, Pensacola
Held at Double-A Pensacola’s Blue Wahoos Stadium, the tournament has an intriguing field of Louisiana-Lafayette (4-8), Michigan State (8-3), Samford (10-1) and Troy (8-4). While Louisiana and Michigan State may be the bigger names, Samford and Troy are the teams to watch this weekend. The Bulldogs face a step up in competition this week, beginning with a game Tuesday at Auburn, and are the Southern Conference favorites. The Trojans come to Pensacola following a series at top-ranked Florida. While they were swept in Gainesville, they played competitive baseball and look like they’ll be in the mix this spring at the top of the Sun Belt Conference. The Cajuns started the season 2-8 before winning the last two games of their series against Sam Houston State this weekend, while the Spartans are coming off a solid weekend at the First Pitch Invitational in Greenville, S.C.
One midweek game to keep an eye on
(21) Dallas Baptist at (11) Oklahoma, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET: This promises to be a fun Top 25 matchup in Norman. The Patriots (8-3) are off to a solid start to the season, highlighted by their series win at North Carolina last weekend, and will now get another chance at a marquee win. The Sooners (9-3) went 2-1 at the Shriners College Classic and will look to carry that momentum into this week.