Pac-12 Shows Off Its Strength, ECU Asserts Itself In The American

Image credit: UCLA infielder Ryan Kreidler (Photo by Nick Wosika/Getty Images)

Pac-12 Produces Late-Night Drama

Pac-12 after dark is usually reserved for football season, but the wild, late-night West Coast action spilled over into baseball Thursday. The conference’s four best teams—No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 Stanford, No. 5 Oregon State and No. 14 Arizona State—all found themselves locked in tight games late in the night before ultimately prevailing.

UCLA (29-6, 10-3 Pac-12) scored the final five runs against California to walk-off with an 8-7 victory on a two-out, bases-loaded walk in the ninth inning. Stanford (25-6, 11-2 Pac-12) held off Oregon for a 5-4 victory in Eugene. Oregon State (26-8-1, 12-4 Pac-12) scored the final seven runs and exploded for a four-run eighth to beat Arizona, 8-4, and Arizona State (29-7, 11-5 Pac-12) was forced into extra innings at Utah but eventually its offense broke out for seven runs in the 12th and the Sun Devils defeated the Utes, 11-6.

When the dust settled, the top of the Pac-12 standings remained unchanged and all four teams were still separated by just 1.5 games. But it was a night of entertaining baseball that showcased the conference’s strength.

Cal jumped out to an early lead at Jackie Robinson Stadium, led by catcher Korey Lee, who homered twice in the first five innings. But after the Golden Bears chased righthander Zach Pettway in the fifth, they were stymied by the Bruins’ bullpen. Four relievers combined for 4.2 scoreless innings and held Cal to one hit, giving UCLA’s offense time to mount a comeback.

UCLA took advantage of eight walks and two hit batters by Cal righthanders Sam Stoutenborough and Sean Sullivan. The Bruins’ final two runs came as a result of Sullivan’s wildness as he hit Ryan Kreidler with the bases loaded in the eighth inning to tie the game and walked Garrett Mitchell with the bases loaded in the ninth.

For UCLA, Thursday marked its eighth straight victory and again highlighted the strength of its lineup and bullpen, two constants during the winning streak. For Cal, it represented another missed opportunity. The Golden Bears (19-13, 7-6 Pac-12) are on the NCAA Tournament bubble right now but could be firmly in the tournament if they had been able to pull out a couple close games. They are 2-6 in one-run games and four of those losses have come at Louisiana State, Oregon State and UCLA.

Of the Pac-12 powers, Stanford had the easiest time Thursday. Led by outfielder Brandon Wulff, who homered twice, the Cardinal scored five runs off Oregon starter Cullen Kafka, and righthander Brendan Beck, lefthander Jacob Palisch and All-American closer Jack Little made that early advantage stand up. Against Pac-12 teams other than UCLA this season, Stanford is 10-0, which has it sitting in first place.

Oregon State found itself trailing Arizona, 4-2, at the seventh-inning stretch before its offense came alive. The Beavers tied the game with two runs in the seventh and then broke out for four in the eighth. Arizona pitched around All-American catcher Adley Rutschman after he hit an inside-the-park home run in the fifth, but Ryan Ober made the Wildcats pay, hitting a home run of his own and finishing the night 3-for-5 with four RBIs.

Arizona got to lefthander Brandon Eisert early, but the reliever-turned-ace rebounded to give the Beavers 6.1 solid innings. He hasn’t been as dominant since he moved to the rotation to replace the injured Kevin Abel, but Eisert has held his own in that role and is giving the Beavers what they need at the front of the rotation.

It took Arizona State’s offense 12 innings to really take advantage of the thin air at the high altitude of Salt Lake City, but it eventually broke out against Utah. The Sun Devils scored seven runs in the 12th and combined for four extra-base hits in the inning, capped by a two-run home run from Spencer Torkelson. The homer was his 12th of the year and extended his hitting streak to 21 games.

Arizona State lost its last two series coming into this weekend and had lost six of its last nine games. With a tough closing stretch to the season, starting next week with a tricky trip to Washington, followed by UCLA’s visit to Phoenix Municipal Stadium, it is important that Arizona State get back on track this weekend in Utah. It got off to a good start with that goal Thursday night.

Of the four biggest conferences, the Pac-12 has the clearest delineation at the top of the conference. But just because the top four teams in the league have already separated from the pack doesn’t mean they can expect to coast to the finish. The depth of the Pac-12 is improved this year and the lead pack won’t be allowed to run away from the rest of the conference, as Thursday illustrated.

East Carolina Continues AAC Dominance

Last weekend, East Carolina took it on the chin and got swept on the road by top-ranked UCLA. But the Pirates were competitive in all three games and could easily have won two of them had things gone a little differently. As a result, coming out of the weekend, little changed about their perception as the clear class of the American Athletic Conference.

On Thursday night, ECU (27-10, 9-1 AAC) reaffirmed its place in the conference pecking order with a 5-1 win against Connecticut (24-14, 7-6 AAC).

Lefthander Jake Agnos has been solid this season at the front of the ECU rotation, and he turned in his best work of the year against the Huskies. He threw 8.2 innings, giving up five hits and one run with one walk and a career-high 14 strikeouts.

Agnos gave up a solo home run to UConn catcher Pat Winkel in the second inning, but after that point, he cruised. He faced the minimum in every inning but the fifth and the ninth, and he didn’t issue a walk until his final batter of the night.

Coming into the season, whether or not ECU had a dominant arm to front the rotation was an open question, but Agnos has answered it in the affirmative. On the season, he’s 5-2, 2.85 with 91 strikeouts and 18 walks in 60 innings.

Offensively, the Pirates were able to get to UConn ace Mason Feole for three runs on eight hits and four walks in 5.1 innings.

Second baseman Brady Lloyd was a particularly sharp thorn in Feole’s side. In a 1-1 game in the second inning, he drove home a run on a double, and then drove in another with a single in the fourth on the way to going 3-for-5 on the day.

As the team nears the halfway point of conference play, ECU is in great shape to host a regional, as it is projected to do in our latest Projected Field of 64. And a top-eight seed is becoming more realistic as the Pirates continue to blitz through the conference. Their margin for error is small to land a top-eight seed, but there is a path, especially if they double-up on conference titles with the regular season and AAC Tournament crowns.

Ace Watch

Here we highlight some of the best pitching performances of the day.

Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia: Hancock was dominant in the Bulldogs’ 3-0 victory against Missouri. The sophomore struck out 11 batters in eight scoreless innings and held the Tigers to three hits and no walks. He faced just one batter over the minimum, retiring 19 of the final 20 batters he faced. Hancock improved to 7-2, 1.04 with 77 strikeouts and 15 walks in 69 innings.

Connor Lunn, RHP, Southern California: Lunn threw a four-hit shutout against Washington State to lead USC to a 4-0 victory. The junior struck out five, walked none and needed just 101 pitches to throw the Trojans’ first shutout since 2015. Lunn has been a revelation for USC since transitioning from closer to ace and has thrown 15 straight scoreless innings. He is 6-1, 2.30 with 49 strikeouts and 21 walks in 54.2 innings on the season.

Drew Parrish, LHP, Florida State: Parrish continued his second half renaissance Thursday with six scoreless innings in a 14-2 victory at Virginia. Over the last two weeks, Parrish has held opponents to no earned runs on eight hits and three walks in 14 innings while striking out 18. The Seminoles have won both games as they’ve made up significant, needed ground in the RPI and ACC race to put themselves in better position for a regionals bid.

Zach Peek, RHP, Winthrop: Peek threw a six-hit shutout to lead Winthrop to a 2-0 victory against Gardner Webb. The junior struck out eight, walked two and scattered six hits. He improved to 5-2, 3.79 with 67 strikeouts and 28 walks in 61.2 innings.

Tyler Thornton, RHP, Saint Mary’s: Facing Loyola Marymount, the West Coast Conference leader, Thornton struck out 12 batters in eight scoreless innings to lead Saint Mary’s to a 5-0 victory. The freshman held the Lions to two hits and three walks. Thornton is now 6-1, 2.62 with 62 strikeouts and 21 walks in 44.2 innings.

Around The Horn

No. 10. Arkansas opened a crucial SEC West showdown against No. 3 Mississippi State with a 5-3 victory at Baum Stadium. The Razorbacks (28-10, 10-6 SEC) got a strong start from righthander Isaiah Campbell, who struck out 10, walked none and held the Bulldogs (32-7, 10-6 SEC) to two runs on five hits in 7.2 innings. Shortstop Casey Martin provided a two-run double in the sixth to give Arkansas the lead, and center fielder Dominic Fletcher capped a 3-for-4 day with a two-run home run in the eighth that proved to be the difference. Arkansas’ victory actually pushes Texas A&M into first place in the SEC West, a half-game ahead of the Razorbacks and Bulldogs. The next two games in Fayetteville, however, will be highly influential in the division race.

— It wasn’t easy, but No. 19 Baylor ground out an 11-10 victory at No. 16 Texas Tech in 11 innings. The Bears (26-10, 9-3 Big 12) opened up a 9-3 lead in the fourth thanks in large part to Mack Mueller’s third-inning grand slam, but the Red Raiders (23-13, 6-7 Big 12) fought back to tie the game at 10 in the eighth inning. Senior outfielder Richard Cunningham drove in the go-ahead run in the 11th, and Kyle Hill held off Texas Tech in the bottom half of the inning to seal the victory and complete a strong relief outing that saw him throw 3.1 scoreless innings. The victory keeps Baylor in first place in the Big 12, 1.5 games ahead of Oklahoma State. Texas Tech has lost five of its last seven games and needs to get back on track this weekend to stay within touching distance of Baylor and hold its spot in the hosting race. The Bears are looking to get themselves into the hosting race and climbed into the top 30 in the RPI with Thursday’s victory.

— In the marquee ACC series of the weekend, No. 7 Louisville claimed a series-opening, 7-5 win against Miami (26-13, 10-9 ACC). For the third weekend in a row, Cardinals lefthander Reid Detmers wasn’t as dominant as he was throughout the first half of the season, but he was solid in allowing three runs in 5.2 innings against a good Hurricanes’ lineup. The Cardinals (30-8, 14-5 ACC), meanwhile, did more than enough offensively against Hurricanes’ freshman righthander Slade Cecconi, who allowed five runs in four innings. First baseman Logan Wyatt led the way with two hits, including a two-run home run and four RBIs.

Virginia Tech is in good shape for a postseason appearance from an RPI perspective, as it has a top-40 RPI, but it has some work to do to get its ACC record closer to .500, and time is running short. In a 3-2 win against No. 18 Georgia Tech (25-13, 11-8 ACC), the Hokies (22-16, 7-12 ACC) took a step in the right direction. In a staff effort, led by lefthander Ian Seymour and his 4.1 innings of work, a quintet of Virginia Tech pitchers did a good job with a quality Georgia Tech lineup, and a two-run homer off the bat of left fielder Tanner Thomas in the bottom of the sixth delivered the deciding blow.

— The 2019 season might not be going according to plan for Wake Forest (23-16, 10-9 ACC), but it is still a dangerous team on any given night, and No. 9 North Carolina State (30-9, 12-7 ACC) learned that in a 7-3 loss. Wake Forest righthander Colin Peluse threw six innings, giving up three hits and one run with three walks and seven strikeouts, and right fielder Michael Ludowig led the offense with a 3-for-3 day at the plate.

Kansas State (18-21, 4-6 Big 12) played spoiler in winning two out of three against Texas on the road last weekend, and it backed that up with a 7-4 win against No. 22 Texas Christian (22-14, 5-5 Big 12) to begin another tough weekend set against a ranked foe. After giving up just one run over five innings against the Longhorns a week ago, freshman righthander Griffin Hassall held the Horned Frogs to one run on three hits over 7.2 innings. Offensively, the Wildcats got to Horned Frogs ace Nick Lodolo for seven earned runs in five innings. Lodolo, a likely top-10 draft pick, had previously allowed no more than three earned runs in any start this season.

No. 8 UC Santa Barbara won a wild game against UC Davis, 9-8. The Aggies (11-19, 3-7 Big West) jumped on lefthander Ben Brecht for four runs in the first inning, only to have UCSB fight back for four in the third inning, and that was only the start of the seesaw action. The game was later tied 5-5 after four innings and was tied again 7-7 after seven innings. Then, after UC Davis took an 8-7 lead in the eighth, the Gauchos plated the deciding two runs in the bottom half of the inning on a passed ball and a sac fly off the bat of left fielder Tevin Mitchell. UCSB (28-6, 6-1 Big West) has won 10 straight games, the longest winning streak in the nation.

No. 24 Auburn has dropped two straight SEC series, but with a 7-4 win against No. 18 Mississippi (26-13, 9-7 SEC), perhaps it is on the way to stopping the bleeding. The Tigers (25-13, 9-7 SEC) fell behind 4-1 after just two innings, but the offense kept chipping away. They added two runs in the third on a two-RBI single from third baseman Edouard Julien, two more in the sixth, two more in the seventh on a Julien two-run homer, and then one more in the eighth. Righthander Richard Fitts turned in the best pitching performance of the night for Auburn, throwing 4.1 scoreless innings of relief to give the offense a chance to go to work.

— Southern Conference leader Samford (27-11, 9-1 SoCon) held on to its two-game edge in the standings with a 7-3 win against UNC Greensboro (22-13, 5-5 SoCon). Sophomore lefthander Samuel Strickland turned in one of his best outings of the season in holding the Spartans to six hits and three runs in six innings. A five-run first inning for the Bulldogs, highlighted by a two-run single from left fielder Ayrton Schafer, gave Strickland some breathing room early and he held on. The preseason favorites in the SoCon have looked the part so far this season.

Georgia Southern grabbed a 9-2 win against Coastal Carolina to hand the Chanticleers (23-15-1, 8-7 Sun Belt) their third consecutive loss in Sun Belt Conference play. The Eagles (22-16, 9-7 Sun Belt) got great work from righthander Seth Shuman, who threw seven innings, giving up five hits and one run. Offensively, three runs in the eighth and three more in the ninth blew open what was a tight game beforehand. After starting 6-0 in conference play, Coastal is just 2-7 over the last three weeks and has matched its loss totals from each of its first two seasons in the Sun Belt.

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