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Off the Bat: Start Of ACC, Pac-12 Play Highlights Week 4



Bad weather affected seemingly every series east of the Rockies this weekend, but the winter storm couldn’t stop the excitement on the diamond. The ACC and Pac-12 opened conference play with thrilling series and South Carolina upset Texas, knocking the Longhorns out of the top spot in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time this year.

Here are 12 thoughts on the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. After living a charmed life for the first three weeks of the season, adversity came last week for Texas, the top-ranked team in the preseason and the first three weeks of the season. The Longhorns last Sunday lost their first game of the season after an 11-0 start to the season and then split a midweek home-and-home series against Texas State. Thursday morning, it was revealed that righthander Tanner Witt, who had been scratched from his start Sunday against UCLA, would be out for the season due to Tommy John surgery. A tricky weekend series at South Carolina followed, made even tougher when poor weather forced the series to be condensed to two days and conclude with a Sunday doubleheader. Texas won Saturday’s opener but was then swept in the doubleheader to finish its first losing weekend of the season.

Taken individually, none of those losses has to be a big deal. UCLA, Texas State and South Carolina all look like regional teams this season. No team is going undefeated in college baseball and a team hasn’t this century gone wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country. The fact the series loss doesn’t even effect Texas (13-4) in the Big 12 standings is all the better.

Witt’s injury is a tough loss, as he was a part of the reason why Texas entered the year with the best rotation in the country. The sophomore has the potential to be a high first-round pick in the 2023 draft and had pitched well in his first two starts of the season. But Texas has one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country and lefthander Lucas Gordon, who has taken Witt’s spot in the rotation, is plenty qualified.

But everything hit Texas at once last week. It lost its first game of the season and then almost immediately was challenged by Texas State. It got hit by the loss of Witt and then had to travel to South Carolina, where it lost a difficult series. Sometimes the tough breaks of a season pile up on each other and getting out of the skid is critical.

Texas has a veteran team and knows how to overcome adversity. The Longhorns started last season an inauspicious 0-3 at the State Farm Showdown in Arlington, Texas, and bounced back to be one of the last four teams standing in the College World Series. It'll need to snap out of its funk this week, as it travels to the College of Charleston and The Citadel in the midweek before taking on Incarnate Word on the weekend. Big 12 play is still a week away, giving the Longhorns a chance to catch their breath and get back on track. They’ll need to do just that.

2. South Carolina did a good job of breaking out of a funk itself this week. The Gamecocks (9-6) last week were swept by archrival Clemson and then on Tuesday lost to Xavier, 15-7. With Texas coming to Columbia, the funk really could have deepened this weekend. Instead, after losing the opener, the Gamecocks swept Sunday’s doubleheader, winning the first game, 4-2, in seven innings and then holding off the Longhorns, 9-4, in the finale.

“I’m sure not many of the prognosticators predicted that today,” coach Mark Kingston told reporters after Sunday’s sweep. “But we don’t care.”

South Carolina is banged up on the mound but found the answers Sunday in righthander Will Sanders, who delivered a quality start in the opener, lefthander Matthew Becker, who struck out 11 in six innings and held Texas to one hit while making his first start and freshman Michael Braswell, a two-way star who leads the team in hitting (.417/.527/.550) and has three saves in five scoreless appearances.

The Gamecocks still need to develop more depth on the mound—hardly a surprise given their injury situation—but Sunday was a reminder of their ceiling. It won’t get any easier over the next two weeks with a trip to No. 9 Tennessee this weekend and a visit from No. 6 Vanderbilt the following week, but in beating Texas, South Carolina showed it can’t be overlooked.

3. With Texas going 2-3 on the week, it fell out of the top spot of the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time this season. Taking its place is Notre Dame (11-1, 2-0), which swept a weather-shortened series at North Carolina State to open ACC play.

Notre Dame fell behind NC State early in Friday’s opener and tied the game with four runs in the seventh and eight innings. The two teams were deadlocked until the 12th inning, when the Fighting Irish broke out for four runs and went on to an 8-4 victory. Saturday’s game was rained out and was not made up as a Sunday doubleheader. Instead, the teams played a single game Sunday and Notre Dame never trailed, en route to an 11-4 victory.

The Fighting Irish are on a nine-game winning streak that dates to a 4-3 loss to Delaware on Opening Weekend. They have yet to play a home game (the home opener is scheduled for Tuesday against Valparaiso) and have shown outstanding pitching and defense. They have a 1.71 team ERA and all three of their starters—John Michael Bertrand (4-0, 1.80), Austin Temple (2-0, 1.71) and Aidan Tyrell (3-0, 1.80)—have been excellent. They’re fielding .991 as a team and have made just four errors in 12 games.

Notre Dame’s offense has been solid and come through when it needs it. But with the pitching and defense performing at an elite level, the Fighting Irish haven’t yet asked their offense to carry the load. That all makes for a slightly different look than Notre Dame used to win the ACC last season when first-team All-American first baseman Niko Kavadas anchored the lineup.

The formula is working for Notre Dame and coach Link Jarrett. The Fighting Irish are No. 1 in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time since April 30, 2001, and they’re off to their best start since 2015.

4. The weekend began with just three unbeaten teams—Clemson, Purdue and Virginia. All three were still undefeated entering Sunday, but by the day’s end, only Purdue was left standing.

Clemson was the first to fall, losing to Northeastern, 5-3. Virginia lasted a few more hours, winning the first game of its doubleheader at Duke, before falling, 7-6, in the nightcap. The Cavaliers nearly mounted a ninth-inning comeback, but the Blue Devils staved them off.

The Boilermakers, meanwhile, beat Bellarmine, 7-4, to complete a two-game sweep of their weather-shortened series. Purdue stands at 14-0, the best start in program history.

Purdue has not faced a challenging schedule to this point. Just one of the Boilermakers’ games has come against a team with a winning record (Charlotte), but until this weekend they had not played at home. They’ve just kept finding a way to win games and are now just two wins shy of their 2021 total.

Purdue on Tuesday hosts Dayton before taking on Illinois State next weekend in a four-game series split between West Lafayette and Normal, Ill.

5. The Pac-12 opened conference play with a bang this weekend. The visiting team won four of the five conference series, including Top 25 upsets of Southern California beating UCLA and Oregon knocking off Stanford.

Oregon’s series win at Stanford was the loudest of the group, as the Cardinal were ranked No. 2 in the Top 25 last week. The Ducks won Friday’s opener, 4-3, and then came back to claim a 16-13 slugfest Saturday. Stanford won the finale, but Oregon (10-6, 2-1) still goes home with a big series win.

The Ducks have had mixed results early this season—they lost three of four games at San Diego on Opening Weekend and split a four-game series last week against UC Santa Barbara—and this weekend were missing Opening Day starter Adam Maier, who left his start last week injured.

The Ducks remain a very intriguing team in the Pac-12 but need to find a way to build more depth on the mound. Still, this weekend’s series win is a reminder of their upside this spring.

6. USC went into its series at UCLA as something of a mystery. The Trojans were off to a 9-2 start to the season but hadn’t played a team with a winning record since their Opening Weekend matchup against Santa Clara. The Bruins, who were coming off a 2-1 showing in the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston, represented a much tougher test.

USC showed this weekend its strong start wasn’t just a product of its schedule. The teams split the first two games and then the Trojans clinched the series with a 6-3 victory Sunday in Westwood. It was their first series win against the Bruins since 2015.

In both of its wins, USC (11-3, 2-1) jumped out to early leads against UCLA’s starting pitching. It scored four runs in the second inning against righthander Jake Brooks on Friday and five in the first against righthander Kelly Austin on Sunday. While that might be the formula for beating UCLA, it isn’t necessarily a repeatable one for most teams. The Bruins' starters have been excellent so far this season, but the Trojans had no such problem Friday and Sunday.

USC this week entered the Top 25 for the first time since the 2016 preseason. Now, sustaining that success becomes the challenge. The Trojans face Connecticut (11-2) and California (7-8, 1-2) this week as they try to build off their big series win.

7. It’s gone under the radar to this point, but Utah (11-3-1, 2-1) is off to a strong start under first-year head coach Gary Henderson. The Utes this weekend won a series against Washington, their first Pac-12 series win since 2019.

UW (9-7, 1-2) is a bit of a mystery to this point and the rest of Utah’s schedule has not been stellar. But much like Purdue, Utah is finding a way to win games and is quickly approaching last season’s win total (17).

Utah this week faces rival Brigham Young and has a weekend series at Oregon, and those games will provide more of a contest after its fast start. But the Utes look to be much improved this season.

8. Coming into the weekend, Long Beach State had scuffled since winning the first two games of the season at Mississippi State. It endured a six-game losing streak, including getting swept at home by Sacramento State and losing last Friday to North Dakota State. The Dirtbags bounced back to win the series against the Bison and on Tuesday beat Pepperdine.

Still, the hits kept coming for Long Beach State. First, its series at Nebraska, which looked like a big opportunity to bolster any potential at-large resume for the NCAA Tournament, was canceled due to a bad weather forecast for the weekend in Lincoln. It found a great replacement series, as Gonzaga had to shift its own schedule around due to the forecast and the Dirtbags were able to bring in the Zags for a series at Blair Field. Then, Long Beach State learned it this weekend would be without ace Luis Ramirez, who was scratched due to a minor injury.

Gonzaga won the series opener, 7-2, but Long Beach State didn’t stay down. The Dirtbags broke out the bats for a 13-3 victory Saturday and then won a pitcher’s duel Sunday, walking off with a 1-0 victory for a huge series win.

The Dirtbags (7-7) seem to have righted the ship after a rough patch. They’ve continued to accumulate quality wins with several more chances in non-conference play to come, including Wednesday against Connecticut (11-2). Ramirez is expected to return for Friday’s Big West opener against Hawaii and with him at the front of the rotation, they have to feel good every Friday night.

It hasn’t happened the way Long Beach State probably thought it would, but the Dirtbags have gotten off to a fine start entering conference play. Now, they will have the opportunity to compete for their first conference title since 2017.

9. Dallas Baptist (9-6) has also righted the ship after a rough start to the season. The Patriots lost three of their first four games, including losing a home series against Southeast Missouri State. But after this weekend sweeping Southern Mississippi, DBU is rolling again.

The Patriots held the Golden Eagles to five runs on the weekend and have found something on the mound in righthanders Luke Eldred and Jacob Meador, who combined for 13 scoreless innings this weekend. DBU has strong options behind that 1-2 punch and is still working to find its best alignment on the mound.

When it does lock in on something, watch out. DBU has an explosive offense – it already has hit 24 home runs and stolen 30 bases in 15 games. Combine that with a dynamic pitching staff and the Patriots again have the upside to make a deep postseason run.

John Savage Photo By Stephen Dunn Getty Images 2 2

How Would UCLA, USC Moving To The Big Ten Impact College Baseball?

What are the effects on the diamond of such a significant change? We examine from a few points of view.

10. After an outstanding start to the season, Tulane saw that momentum dissipate this week. Coming off a series win against Mississippi State, the Green Wave lost Tuesday at Southern Mississippi and then were swept at home by Evansville, which was just 3-10 coming into the weekend.

Tulane (10-6) never got its offense going all week, scoring just 11 runs in four games. Five of those runs came in Sunday’s series finale, a 15-5 loss.

Tulane has a few weeks still to get ready for the start of American Athletic Conference play, but this weekend will leave a mark on its RPI if Evansville doesn’t turn its season around.

"There's a lot of ebbs and flows to baseball," coach Travis Jewett said. "It's a game of timing and rhythm and right now we have neither. I hope they dwell on this like crazy tonight, I know I will be. This needs to hurt, but if we're tough enough we will get this weekend back."

11. Louisville on Sunday claimed a series win against Michigan with a 13-1 victory. The two teams split the first two games, with the Cardinals winning the opener, 5-3, on Friday, before the Wolverines grabbed a 16-7 victory in the second game, which began on Friday but was suspended to Sunday due to heavy snow.

It wasn’t an easy series—both because of the weather and the opposition—but Louisville came away with two important wins. The Cardinals also grabbed a tough, 9-8 victory against Texas Christian on Tuesday and are now 11-4 going into ACC play this weekend.

Louisville is still figuring things out on the mound, but lefthanders Tate Kuehner (3-0, 1.74) and Riley Phillips (2-0, 2.37) were excellent again this weekend and look to be strong building blocks in the rotation. Offensively, the Cardinals are humming along and hitting .330/.430/.589 as a team with shortstop Christian Knapczyk (.441/.554/.661, 5 SB) leading the way.

Michigan was a good challenge and Louisville rose to meet it. ACC play is, of course, going to be the true test of the Cardinals and they will be thrown right into the deep end this weekend when No. 1 Notre Dame comes to Jim Patterson Stadium.

12. Jacksonville last year was just 11-33 going into the ASUN Conference Tournament. The Dolphins made a Cinderella run to win the tournament and improbably advance to regionals.

The Dolphins this season have completely flipped the script on their dismal start in 2021. They this weekend swept Florida International on the road, finishing the series with a 9-4 victory in 20 innings, to improve to 11-5. JU also this season owns a win against Florida State and a series win against Troy (11-5).

JU is tough on the mound, with righthander Mason Adams (3-0, 2.92, 43 K, 24.2 IP) and closer Tyler Vogel (1-0, 0.00, 6 SV) leading the way. The Dolphins are averaging 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings as a staff. If they keep pitching like this, they could challenge No. 12 Liberty for the conference title.

Eight for Omaha

Mississippi, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas, Vanderbilt, Virginia

I am stubbornly still not changing this field. I really wanted to find a way to bring in Florida State or Tennessee, two teams that are playing very well at the moment. I was particularly impressed with the way the Seminoles went on the road and quieted a powerful Wake Forest offense. The Volunteers, meanwhile, continue to mash ahead of this weekend’s SEC opener. And while Stanford lost a home series to Oregon and didn’t pitch well on the weekend and Oklahoma State has looked mortal over the last week, in the end, I’m not ready to move on from the Cardinal and the Cowboys. Both remain dangerous teams that have shown tremendous upside—Stanford in a resounding sweep through the Round Rock Classic two weeks ago and Oklahoma State with a series win at Vanderbilt on Opening Weekend. Both should find their stride sooner than later.

Looking Ahead

Conference play begins this weekend in the SEC with an intriguing slate. There’s not necessarily a blockbuster series on the slate, but the whole weekend is full of interesting matchups. No. 18 Georgia (13-3) hosts Mississippi State (10-7) in a battle of Bulldogs. South Carolina (9-6), fresh off its series win against Texas, travels to No. 9 Tennessee (15-1) and No. 7 Arkansas (11-3) hosts Kentucky (14-3), which is off to a strong start. Across the conference, the first weekend should provide plenty of excitement.

After a thrilling first weekend of conference play, the ACC looks set to again deliver this weekend. Top-ranked Notre Dame (11-1, 2-0) travels to Louisville (11-4, 0-0) for a series with plenty of intrigue. Wake Forest (13-3, 1-2) travels to No. 14 Georgia Tech (13-3, 3-0) for a battle of powerful offenses. North Carolina State (9-6, 0-2) will look to break out of its funk at No. 9 Florida State (10-5, 2-1) and Duke (9-7, 1-2) travels to No. 19 North Carolina (14-2, 3-0) for a Tobacco Road rivalry series. Seemingly every series in the conference has the potential to be must watch.

Big 12 play doesn’t start in earnest for another week, but there’s one conference series on the slate this weekend and it’s a good one between Baylor (9-6) and Texas Christian (11-4). Both figure to be in the mix for regionals at the end of the season and have had some big moments so far this season. As conference play begins for both teams, this weekend is an opportunity to set an early tone.

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