Off The Bat: Week 3 Delivers Thrilling Weekend Of College Baseball
College baseball’s third weekend is annually one of the best of the season and it delivered in a big way again this year. Between the action at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston, the in-state rivalry showdowns and several upsets across the country, there was no shortage of excitement around college baseball.
Here are 12 thoughts on the weekend that was in college baseball.
1. Perhaps the loudest result of the weekend was one of the last: UCLA beating top-ranked Texas, 5-1, on Sunday evening at the Shriners College Classic to knock the Longhorns from the ranks of the unbeaten. For the Bruins, it secured a 2-1 weekend in Houston. UCLA (8-4) routed Oklahoma, 15-3, in seven innings on Saturday. Its lone loss on the weekend was a 2-1 setback against Baylor in the tournament’s opener and that game finished the bases full of Bruins.
It was nearly a perfect weekend for the Bruins and that was in large part thanks to their pitching staff. UCLA gave up just six runs on the weekend and did not make an error. Five of the seven pitchers UCLA used on the weekend were members of its top-ranked 2021 recruiting class and that group combined to hold opponents to one run in 12.2 innings with 19 strikeouts and three walks.
The kids are more than all right and with righthanders Jake Brooks and Max Rajcic—relative veterans—at the front of the rotation, UCLA is building another premium pitching staff. The Bruins are still finding their best alignment offensively, but the pieces are all there for an exciting spring.
2. For Texas, the loss isn’t a big deal. The Longhorns (11-1) weren’t going undefeated this season and there’s no shame in losing on a neutral site to a team as good as the Bruins. Texas played well on the weekend and held the powerful offenses of Tennessee and LSU to a total of three runs in the first two games of the tournament.
Potentially more concerning was the decision Sunday to scratch sophomore righthander Tanner Witt from his start. After the game, coach David Pierce told reporters that Witt is dealing with muscular tenderness in his right arm.
“He’s been nursing it since his last start, just trying to get a lot of treatment,” Pierce said. “It’s very tender, but it’s not anything that we’re concerned with long term. Just talking to him yesterday, he felt like when he maxed out, he had good tolerance. But I didn’t feel like he had 100% and it’s too early to risk that.”
Sophomore lefthander Lucas Gordon took his place in the rotation and held UCLA to one run on four hits and a walk in four innings. On just about any other team in the country, Gordon would already be in the rotation. So, if Texas has to be without Witt for a couple weeks in March, it can withstand the loss.
3. Saturday’s game between Texas and LSU at the Shriners College Classic drew a crowd of 24,787 fans at Minute Maid Park in Houston. That’s obviously a monster number for a regular season college baseball game and made for an electric atmosphere.
There were big attendance figures across the country this weekend. Clemson on Sunday set a record with a crowd of 6,636 at Doug Kingsmore Stadium to see it complete a sweep of South Carolina. Georgia and Georgia Tech on Sunday drew 9,942 fans to Coolray Field, home of Triple-A Gwinnett, for the finale of their series. Cincinnati drew 2,042 fans for a Saturday afternoon doubleheader against Northwestern. There were big crowds for Florida at Miami, Ole Miss at UCF and Mississippi State at Tulane, among many others.
Good weather across much of the country helped. Perhaps more fans sought out college baseball after MLB’s announcement this week that Opening Day would be canceled. Whatever it was, it made for a lot of fun atmospheres.
4. After Texas’ loss Sunday night, there are five undefeated teams left in college baseball: Clemson (11-0), Purdue (12-0), Tennessee Tech (10-0), Virginia (11-0) and Wake Forest (11-0).
Clemson has played the toughest schedule of the group and is coming off a sweep of archrival South Carolina. Following a disappointing season that saw it finish with a losing record for the first time in 60 years, the Tigers look to be well on their way to a turnaround.
Purdue and Tennessee Tech are both off to the best starts in program history, and like Clemson are coming off losing seasons. Neither has played an especially challenging schedule, but they’re doing what you’d want them to do.
Wake Forest is 11-0 for the first time since 1961 and, following the trend, is coming off a losing season. The Demon Deacons' best start to a season came in 1949 when they won 15 in a row. Matching that start won’t be easy with a trip to Coastal Carolina on tap Tuesday and a visit from No. 11 Florida State on the weekend. But Wake is already more than halfway to last season’s win total (20).
Virginia bucks the trend of undefeateds bouncing back from losing seasons, as the Cavaliers last year reached the College World Series. They’ve played just one team with a winning record (William & Mary), but they’ve bludgeoned those opponents. Virginia has scored at least 10 runs in eight straight games and this weekend outscored Penn State, 33-6. A tougher test awaits this week at Duke (6-5), but if that offense is for real, watch out for the Hoos.
5. Friday night brought the dispiriting sight of Mississippi State ace Landon Sims walking off the mound with a trainer. He struck out 10 of the 11 batters he faced before feeling something wrong with his right arm and then exiting the game.
There’s been little in the way of updates since then, but more should be known this week after he has an MRI. Needless to say, losing an All-American for any extended period of time would be a significant blow for the Bulldogs.
Beyond the injury, Mississippi State (6-6) had a rough weekend against Tulane. The Bulldogs won Friday night but lost the next two games of the series and are off to their worst start to a season since 2008. Saturday’s 11-10 loss in 10 innings was especially jarring as Mississippi State was ahead 10-2 in the fourth inning, before giving up nine unanswered runs.
Mississippi State will have to bounce back quickly before a pair of midweek games against Texas Tech in Biloxi, Miss. Winless Princeton (0-6) comes to town this weekend, but a trip to Georgia looms in two weeks to open SEC play.
6. It was also a rough week for North Carolina State (8-4). After racing out to an 8-0 start against Evansville, High Point, Longwood and Quinnipiac, the Wolfpack lost, 7-4, Tuesday at Campbell and then were swept at home by Northeastern. It was the first time NC State was swept in non-conference play since 2006 (UCLA).
NC State’s offense had hammered the subpar pitching it faced the first two weeks of the season but struggled against Campbell and Northeastern, both of which are favored to win their conference. The Wolfpack scored 10 runs on the week and were shut out Sunday—their first shutout in non-conference play since 2016. Freshman Tommy White, who led the nation with nine home runs coming into the week, went just 1-for-12 against Northeastern.
This week doesn’t need to be more than a wakeup call for NC State. But the Wolfpack need to break out of their funk quickly. Their ACC slate couldn’t start any harder, as they will face Notre Dame (8-1), Florida State (7-4), Georgia Tech (10-2) and Clemson (11-0) over the next month.
7. For Northeastern (6-5), the weekend couldn’t have gone better. The Huskies had mixed results the first two weeks of the season but were locked in from the start in Raleigh. They scored three runs in the top of the first inning Friday and never trailed in the series.
Starters Cam Schlittler (8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K), Sebastian Keane (6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 2 K) and Wyatt Scotti (7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 3 K) led the way for the Huskies and lived up to their billing as a premium rotation. Closer Dennis Colleran threw in each of the first two games and held NC State to one run in two innings.
Northeastern, the reigning CAA champion, proved this weekend it can play with anyone in the country and banked a marquee weekend for its NCAA Tournament resume. It gets another opportunity this week with a trip to Clemson.
8. Georgia did not play well in the first two games of its rivalry series against Georgia Tech and lost both games—11-7 at Georgia Tech on Friday night and 7-0 in Athens on Saturday. The Bulldogs never led in either game. Before Sunday’s game, coach Scott Stricklin had a clear message for his team.
“The thing I asked the guys today is, ‘Are we a good team?’ ” Stricklin said. “’We have to prove it. We haven’t played like it the last two days. We have to have some pride and some toughness today.’
“I thought we showed that. I think we learned that our team has some toughness.”
Georgia (9-2) responded with a 12-3 victory at Coolray Field. The Bulldogs were better in all facets of the game Sunday and never trailed. While the series loss is a tough one, they can feel good about how they finished the weekend. Catcher Corey Collins hit his second home run of the weekend and the Bulldogs pounded out 14 hits the day after getting shut out at home.
One surprising area of concern this weekend was in the rotation. Righthander Jonathan Cannon (2-1, 2.66) gave up six runs in six innings Friday, although he fought well against a powerful offense. Lefthander Liam Sullivan (1-1, 5.59) struggled with his control Saturday and didn’t make it out of the third inning. Righthander Dylan Ross missed the weekend after leaving his start Tuesday with the trainer after just one inning and Georgia is not expecting him to return anytime soon. The Bulldogs will on Tuesday welcome back righthander Will Childers, who missed last year due to Tommy John surgery, and he could eventually work his way into the weekend rotation.
Pitching and defense are areas of strength for the Bulldogs, and in the long run, they should be just fine. But Georgia has some rough edges to work out before SEC play begins in two weeks with Mississippi State coming to Foley Field.
9. Georgia Tech (10-2), on the flip side, looked great for the first two games of the series before Sunday’s loss. In some respects, the Yellow Jackets looked like the team we thought they were—powerful offense, a little short on pitching—but they also showed tantalizing promise on the mound.
Righthander Chance Huff looked like a true Friday starter and while righthander Zach Maxwell didn’t go deep enough into the game Saturday for the Yellow Jackets, he combined with freshmen Cody Carwile and Aeden Finateri for a four-hit shutout on the road.
Establishing a few more reliable options on the mound will be critical. Righthander Dawson Brown had been very good out of the bullpen before giving up three runs and recording two outs Sunday. Righthander Marquis Grissom Jr. has plenty of upside on the mound but was wild in Sunday’s start.
Scoring runs isn’t going to be a problem for the Yellow Jackets. But if they’re going to be a top-10 team, the pitching staff will need to continue to build. It’ll need to do so quickly, too, as Georgia Tech faces the powerful offenses of Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, NC State and Virginia to open ACC play.
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10. After losing Friday night in Miami, Florida bounced back to roll through the next two games and win its fourth straight series at Mark Light Field, a streak that dates to 2016. The Gators (10-3) outscored the Hurricanes, 19-4, in the final two games and never trailed.
Third-year sophomore Brandon Sproat on Saturday struck out eight batters in 6.1 scoreless innings, scattering four hits and two walks. It was the best outing of the powerful righthander’s career, and if he can keep that going behind lefthander Hunter Barco, Florida will have one of the best 1-2 punches in the nation.
The Gators are still looking to develop more depth in their bullpen, but they’ve bounced back well from their Opening Weekend series loss to Liberty. Florida has shown impressive resilience so far this season, especially considering its youth.
11. Of all the weekend’s upsets, the one that might resonate the most throughout the season is Gonzaga winning a series at Oklahoma State. The Zags won a pair of one-run games in Stillwater on Friday (4-3) and Saturday (2-1, 10 innings) and still have a chance to sweep the series as bad weather postponed the finale until Monday.
Gonzaga now stands at 8-2 and entered the Top 25 at No. 19. It has yet to play a home game and its only losses this season came against Oregon State on Opening Weekend in Surprise, Ariz. The Zags pitching has been particularly impressive so far, with righthanders Gabriel Hughes (2-0, 2.84, 30 K, 5 BB, 19 IP) and William Kempner (0-1, 1.69) leading the way.
The Zags are also laying the foundation for a strong NCAA Tournament resume. They have yet to play a home game and aren’t scheduled to until March 22. Their first home series is scheduled for April 1-3. All those road and neutral site games will bolster their RPI, and they’ve already played five games against major conference foes with another 12 scheduled.
If Gonzaga can keep its hot start up against that non-conference slate and in what looks to be a competitive WCC, it could again find itself in the hosting conversation. The Zags were shortlisted last season, but ultimately fell short and were sent to Eugene as the No. 2 seed. It’s early, but this weekend will pay dividends all season long.
12. One of the weekend’s most entertaining series was in Orlando, as Mississippi visited Central Florida. Ole Miss outslugged UCF on Friday night for an 8-7 win as it hit five home runs in a back-and-forth affair. The Knights bounced back for a 1-0 victory in 12 innings Saturday, handing the Rebels their first loss of the season. Ole Miss (10-1) finished the series with a 9-1 victory Sunday and heads home with a solid road series win.
Ole Miss putting up a couple of big offensive days isn’t a surprise—the Rebels have one of the best offenses in the country. The bigger development is that its bullpen held UCF to two runs in 15.1 innings. The Rebels used seven different relievers on the weekend and got more than two innings out of four of their relievers. That kind of usage probably isn’t sustainable through conference play and Ole Miss will need more length from its starters, but the depth is very encouraging.
The Rebels hadn’t played any close games before this weekend (previously the closest run differential was six, which they had done twice this season), so just getting their relievers in tight situations was significant. For the bullpen to deliver at such a high level is a big boost.
Eight for Omaha
Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas, Vanderbilt, Virginia
I’m leaving the field unchanged again this week after seven of the eight teams posted winning weekends. Only Oklahoma State did not, as the Cowboys lost a pair of one-run games to Gonzaga. But this is the same team that won a series at Vanderbilt just a couple weeks ago, so there’s no reason to panic. Tennessee definitely has my attention following this weekend in the Shriners College Classic and it looks like the Volunteers have real Omaha upside.
ACC play begins with several exciting series on tap. The headliner is No. 3 Notre Dame (8-1), the reigning champion, visiting No. 25 North Carolina State (8-4), although the Wolfpack’s four-game skid this week takes some of the shine off that matchup. Undefeated Wake Forest (11-0) will get its first big challenge this weekend with a visit from No. 10 Florida State (7-4), and No. 5 Virginia (11-0) faces a tricky trip to Duke (6-5). If you’re looking for offense, keep an eye on Virginia Tech (9-1) at No. 14 Georgia Tech (10-2).
The Pac-12 also opens conference play and will get right to the heart of the matter. No. 15 UCLA (8-4) takes on cross-town rival Southern California (9-2), which is on a seven-game winning streak. Oregon (7-5) visits No. 2 Stanford (8-3). Utah (7-2-1) is off to a fast start under first-year coach Gary Henderson and welcomes Washington (7-5) to Salt Lake City.
Iowa travels to UC Irvine and Long Beach State heads to Nebraska in a pair of Big West-Big Ten matchups between teams that could really use a boost to their resumes. Iowa (6-5) has gone 1-2 in back-to-back tournaments, while UCI (6-5) is coming off a tough series at Oregon State. The Dirtbags (4-6) made plenty of noise on Opening Weekend with a series win at Mississippi State but have struggled since. Nebraska (4-7) was the preseason Big Ten favorite but has started slowly against a tough schedule. It’s not do-or-die for any of these teams' at-large hopes, but picking up some momentum this weekend would be significant.