Ole Miss Wins Key Series, Big Ten Race Tightens

Image credit: Ole Miss lefthander Doug Nikhazy (Courtesy of Ole Miss)

Series Win for Ole Miss Highlights Crazy Friday in the SEC

It’s never a dull Friday in the SEC, and this particular Friday was no different. There were some upsets, there were teams righting the ship with big series wins, and you better believe there were some wild games.

Continuing a topsy-turvy season, No. 23 Mississippi (29-15, 12-8) highlighted the action by capturing its series against No. 10 Texas A&M (30-14-1, 11-8-1) thanks to a come-from-behind, 13-3 win—just one day after winning a 5-4, extra-innings game in walk-off fashion.

Through five innings, it looked like a typical Friday night game. A&M lefthander Asa Lacy had allowed just one run to that point, and the Aggies took a 2-1 lead in the sixth. With the way Lacy was throwing, it looked like that might be enough.

But then things went off the rails for the Aggies. The Rebels scored six runs in the bottom of the sixth, two charged to Lacy, with the big blow coming on a three-run home run by third baseman Tyler Keenan. Then they came back out and scored six more in the seventh, taking advantage of two A&M errors in the inning.

Meanwhile, lefthander Doug Nikhazy was really good on the mound for Ole Miss, throwing seven innings, giving up four hits and two runs (one earned) with no walks and 10 strikeouts.

After back-to-back series losses to Kentucky and Auburn, two series they likely feel they should have won, this was just what the doctor ordered for the Rebels. Suddenly, they are back in the thick of the SEC West race and their hopes to host a regional are much improved.

The Magnolia State’s other SEC team, No. 9 Mississippi State (34-9, 11-8), won a more conventional blowout against No. 3 Georgia (33-10, 13-6), leading wire-to-wire in a 19-3 victory.

Georgia ace Emerson Hancock was held out of his typical Friday start due to some mild soreness and Mississippi State took full advantage. They scored eight runs on eight hits and eight walks in 4.2 innings against lefthander C.J. Smith, who was moved up a day from his usual Saturday spot.

Center fielder Jake Mangum moved just one hit away from tying the SEC all-time hits record with a 3-for-4 day at the plate, and first baseman Tanner Allen went 3-for-4 with four RBIs.

On the mound for Mississippi State, lefthander Ethan Small was able to throw free and easy with the big lead. He ended the day with six innings pitched, having given up two hits and two runs (one earned) with one walk and 11 strikeouts.

The wildest game in the conference on Friday, however, was between No. 21 Tennessee (31-12, 9-10) and No. 6 Arkansas (32-11, 13-6) in Fayetteville. With the Razorbacks’ Isaiah Campbell set to face off with the Volunteers’ Garrett Crochet, you would have expected a quick, efficient, low-scoring game, but this was anything but.

The teams traded blows through the middle innings. Each team scored one run in the first, three runs in the third and three more in the fifth, which knocked both starters out during that fifth inning.

Campbell, the Arkansas righahnder, surrendered seven runs (three earned) in his 4.2 innings. Crochet, meanwhile, allowed seven runs (six earned) in his own 4.2-inning outing.

The Razorbacks put some distance between themselves and the Vols with a four-run sixth that featured a solo homer from first baseman Trevor Ezell, an RBI single by second baseman Jack Kenley and a two-RBI single from third baseman Jacob Nesbit.

Tennessee mounted a bit of a comeback with two runs in the top of the seventh, but ultimately came up short, as Arkansas righty Jacob Kostyshock and lefthander Matt Cronin combined to hold the Vols at bay over the final 2.1 innings.

The metaphorical cherry on top of a fun Friday in the league was the 6-1 upset win for Alabama (26-17, 5-14) over No. 14 Louisiana State (27-16, 11-8).

Crimson Tide righthander Sam Finnerty has done a nice job of keeping his team in games when he’s taken the ball, and on Friday he did more than just keep his team in the game; he delivered a big victory.

He threw six innings, giving up five hits and no runs with one walk and six strikeouts. His efforts were supported by home runs from left fielder T.J. Reeves and right fielder Tyler Gentry, both of which came in the first inning, and a 4-for-4 game from catcher Brett Auerbach.

With the Tigers fighting for a spot as a regional host, it’s very important that they get back into this series over the next two days.

Looking at the big picture, as the weeks roll by, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that any team runs away with the SEC West. After Friday’s action, the top six teams in that division, from first place Arkansas at 13-6 to sixth-place Auburn at 10-10, are separated by just 3.5 games.

That, in turn, also muddies the hosting conversation, as it creates a scenario where any series win is a big series win, and any series loss likely puts you behind some other team that won their series.

Big Ten Race Tightens

The Big Ten this year has one of the closest title races in the country, and a wild Friday night only served to tighten that race further. After Friday’s games, Michigan is in first place in the standings, but four teams are within two games of the Wolverines.

Michigan had one of the most straightforward nights of any Big Ten team, beating Rutgers, 8-3, at home. The Wolverines (29-11, 9-3) jumped on the Scarlet Knights with a pair of first-inning home runs and got eight scoreless innings from righthander Karl Kauffman, which they parlayed into their sixth straight win. The win, combined with losses by No. 25 Indiana and Nebraska, elevated Michigan into first place.

Indiana entered the weekend in first place but faced a tough home series against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers, the defending Big Ten champions, are under .500 overall after a brutal non-conference schedule, but have proven to be a tough out in conference play. They showed that again Friday in a 7-3 victory over the Hoosiers, as righthander Max Meyer delivered a quality start and they got to Indiana lefthander Pauly Milto for seven runs on 12 hits.

In the conference’s other marquee series, Illinois traveled to Nebraska, which started the week just behind Indiana in the standings. The Illini are the lone Big Ten team with a top-25 RPI, but they lost their first two conference series of the year, including a sweep at Iowa, leaving them a couple games off the pace. But on Friday they showed how dangerous they can be, defeating the Huskers, 8-1, as they pounded out 17 hits. Third baseman Grant Van Scoy led the way, going 4-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs.

When the dust settled Friday night, Michigan was in first place in the standings. Nebraska (22-15, 11-5) and Indiana (28-14, 9-4) were just off the pace. Iowa (23-15, 10-6), which beat Ohio State, 4-2, is a game behind, and Minnesota (16-20, 8-5) is just 1.5 games behind Michigan.

As Iowa and Michigan surge, so do the Big Ten’s chances of matching its record of five teams in the NCAA Tournament. Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska all have solid resumes now and rank in the top 40 of the RPI. But Iowa and Michigan are closer to the bubble now as they rank around 60. The more they win to stay near the top of the standings, the more it improves their RPIs and overall resumes.

After Minnesota last year clearly established itself as the best team in the league, winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles, the Big Ten race looks to be wide open this year, getting back to its more normal nature. That makes the conference less likely to produce a regional host, but it should make for an entertaining race down the stretch.

Ace Watch

Friday night is for college baseball’s aces. Here we highlight some of the best pitching performances of the day.

Bryan Delgado, LHP, Grambling State: Facing archrival Southern, the Southwest Athletic Conference West Division leader, Delgado threw a shutout in a 12-0 victory in seven innings. He struck out seven batters, walked none and held the Jaguars to three hits. The junior improved to 6-2, 2.71 with two shutouts on the season.

Ryan Garcia, RHP, UCLA: Garcia threw a two-hit shutout in a 5-0 victory against Utah. The junior struck out 14 batters, walked one and retired the final 11 batters of the game. Garcia, who was sidelined for the first month of the season, improved to 5-0, 1.10 with 69 strikeouts and 15 walks in 49 innings.

Dan Metzdorf, LHP, Boston College: Facing Duke, which came to Boston on a six-game winning streak, Metzdorf threw 8.1 scoreless innings in a 5-0 victory for the Eagles. The senior struck out nine batters, walked none and scattered seven hits in the longest outing of his career. Metzdorf improved to 5-2, 3.10 with 53 strikeouts and 23 walks in 58 innings.

Jonathan Pendergast, RHP, Pepperdine: Pendergrast threw a five-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory against rival Loyola Marymount. The senior struck out a season-high 10 batters and walked one. Pendergrast improved to 5-2, 3.17 on the year.

Dalton Stambaugh, LHP, Morehead State: Stambaugh threw a two-hit shutout in a 5-0 victory at Jacksonville State in a matchup of two of the top teams in the Ohio Valley Conference. Stambaugh struck out eight batters, walked one and didn’t allow a hit after the first inning. Stambaugh is 5-2, 3.68 with 74 strikeouts and 24 walks in 63.2 innings this season.

Around The Horn

— With a 6-3 win at No. 2 Stanford (29-7, 13-3), Arizona (19-20, 7-12) provided the upset of the day. Lefthander Randy Labaut did a nice job against a Stanford lineup that last weekend scored 35 runs in three games at Oregon, throwing 6.1 innings, giving up five hits and three runs with no walks and four strikeouts. Offensively, four different Arizona players, catcher Matthew Dyer, designated hitter Dayton Dooney, shortstop Cameron Cannon and left fielder Branden Boissiere, had two hits.

— The Big 12 race has had all of the twists and turns of your average soap opera this season, and that continued as No. 15 Texas Tech beat No. 22 Oklahoma State, 12-4. The Cowboys entered the day in first place, but the Red Raiders (27-12, 9-7) did an outstanding job taking it to righthander Jensen Elliott, scoring seven runs in two innings to jump out to a quick lead. Josh Jung, now playing some shortstop for Texas Tech, went 2-for-3 with a home run and four RBIs, with first baseman Cameron Warren adding a home run of his own. The Oklahoma State (25-14, 10-6) loss, combined with a 6-3 win for Baylor against a fading Texas Christian team, now has the Bears up by a half-game in the conference standings, with Texas Tech 1.5 games back.

No. 11 East Carolina welcomed second-place Tulane to Greenville in a matchup of the top two teams in the American Athletic Conference standings, and with a 14-0 series-opening win, the Pirates greeted them rudely. Lefthander Jake Agnos battled his command for East Carolina (32-10, 12-1), as he walked five in his five innings, but he allowed just two hits and worked around trouble to keep the Green Wave (26-15, 8-4) off the board, all while striking out nine batters. ECU had four homers in the game, including one each from the usual suspects, designated hitter Bryant Packard and first baseman Spencer Brickhouse.

— It hasn’t been a banner season for Virginia (26-18, 10-12), but it is still dangerous game-to-game, as No. 17 North Carolina (31-12, 13-9) learned in a 12-5 loss. The Cavaliers jumped on righthander Tyler Baum for four runs in his five innings, and they also took advantage of some sloppy Tar Heels defense, scoring six unearned runs over the course of the game on four errors. Shortstop Tanner Morris and left fielder Brendan Rivoli paced the Virginia offense with three-hit games.

Notre Dame (18-22, 11-11) has fallen back after getting off to a quick start in ACC play, but it continues to be good in ACC series openers. A 5-4 win at No. 16 North Carolina State (32-11, 13-9) gives it a fifth series-opening win in eight tries. Down 4-3 in the seventh inning, the Fighting Irish got a go-ahead, two-run double from left fielder Jack Zyska. The relief duo of righthander Andrew Belcik and lefty Tommy Vail combined to throw three scoreless innings to close it out. Coming off of back-to-back series losses to Louisville and Wake Forest, NC State badly needs to rally back to win this series and stop the bleeding.

No. 8 UC Santa Barbara’s chance to host took a hit on Friday night with a 9-4 loss to UC Riverside. The Highlanders (14-25, 4-6) scored seven runs in four innings against UCSB lefthander Ben Brecht, which served to mitigate the affects of the Gauchos scoring four runs of their own in the first three innings. Designated hitter Connor Cannon led the way for UCR at the plate, going 2-for-4 with two homers and four RBIs. With the RPIs in the Big West being what they are, UCSB (31-6, 8-2) can’t afford too many slipups in league play if they want to host, and this loss certainly eats into its margin for error.

— With an 8-1 win at Creighton (24-9, 5-2), Xavier moves to 8-1 in the Big East, two games up on the Bluejays. The Musketeers (18-23) got a solid outing from righty Damien Richard, who threw 5.2 innings, giving up five hits and one run, and a three-hit day from shortstop Chris Givin. After taking some lumps against a brutally difficult non-conference schedule, it appears that Xavier is playing its best baseball at the right time.

Illinois State, with a 9-8 win over Dallas Baptist (28-13, 6-4), is 9-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference, a full two games up on the field. The Redbirds (27-15) got a little bit of something from everyone in the lineup, as all nine starters had hits, and seven of nine scored a run. Center fielder John Rave provided some pop out of the leadoff spot, hitting a home run and driving in three. Lefthander Brent Headrick was solid in his start, throwing six innings, giving up three hits and three runs (one earned) with two walks and 11 strikeouts.

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