Off The Bat: Missouri, Texas Tech Make Statements To Open Conference Play

Image credit: Trevor Austin (Photo courtesy of Missouri)

The start of the NCAA basketball tournaments may have gotten more attention this weekend, but everyone that watched college baseball got a big treat. The start of conference play in the SEC and Big 12 served up some great games and delivered the season’s biggest shake up to date.

Here are 15 takeaways from the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. The weekend’s biggest upset was a genuine stunner, as Missouri, which finished last in the SEC East a year ago, swept Tennessee, the reigning SEC champion. While it was already apparent before this weekend that the Volunteers (15-6, 0-3) were not the same juggernaut that rolled through last year’s regular season and the Tigers (16-3, 3-0) looked to be improved, expecting Missouri to win the series—let alone sweep it—would have been a bold prediction.

Still, that’s just what happened in Columbia, Mo. The Tigers won Friday’s opener, 9-1, scoring six runs on nine hits in 5.2 innings against All-American righthander Chase Dollander. Poor weather forced the series to conclude Sunday with a pair of seven-inning games and Mizzou won them both, 7-4 and 7-1. The Tigers’ series win was their first on the opening weekend of SEC play since 2017 and pushed them into the Top 25 for the first time since 2019.

Tennessee came into the weekend leading the nation in team ERA (2.05) and Mizzou scored 23 runs in just 20 innings over the weekend. The Tigers never trailed and got to all three of the Volunteers’ starters. After scoring six runs Friday against Dollander—the most he’s allowed since he was a freshman at Georgia Southern, Mizzou scored seven runs (six earned) in five innings against righthander Chase Burns and four runs (none earned) in three innings against righthander Drew Beam.

Mizzou has a solid offense, averaging 7.58 runs per game, but seeing any team get to Tennessee’s pitching staff consistently over a three-game series was jarring. The 23 runs the Tigers scored over the weekend was the most any team has scored in a series against the Volunteers since Arkansas scored 30 against them in 2019.

Mizzou coach Steve Bieser said it was a good matchup for his team, which can start five lefthanded hitters or switch hitters.

“Each weekend is sometimes just a simple matchup between the two teams,” he said. “We match up really good against Tennessee. They have a lot of righthanded pitching and we handle righthanded pitching.”

While Mizzou has a lot of lefthanded hitters, it was righthanded-hitting Trevor Austin who led the Tigers over the weekend. He went 5-for-9 with two doubles and four runs and is now hitting .387/.506/.661 to lead the team in batting and on-base percentage. Freshman Dalton Bargo (.386/.481/.682) stayed hot with four hits, including a home run.

The Tigers were also excellent on the mound. They struck out 32 batters in 23 innings and held the Volunteers to six runs, their lowest scoring output since scoring six runs in a series win against Georgia in 2019.

So, what does all this mean for Mizzou going forward? The Tigers have two strong weekends—going 2-1 on Opening Weekend at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, and this sweep—which shows they can play with anyone. It’s too early to make any sweeping declarations about Mizzou being ready to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, but the Tigers are starting to build a resume worthy of the postseason.

Now, they have to build on this weekend with visits to South Carolina and Kentucky on tap the next two weeks with midweek rivalry games against Kansas and Illinois mixed in.

“We’ve got to move on,” Bieser said. “Nobody cares about that. We’ve got to take the next step and right now my thoughts are how do we get ready for KU.”

2. This was a tough weekend for Tennessee. Very little went right, as the Volunteers’ offense went quiet, its vaunted rotation faltered and it committed six errors. It never led and none of the games was particularly close—even the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, which Missouri won, 7-4, was only that close because of a two-run home run that came with two outs in the seventh (and final) inning.

The bad news for Tennessee is that it has to get right in a hurry. It hosts Texas A&M this weekend and it’s facing a brutal stretch in the weeks to come—A&M, at LSU, Florida, at Arkansas and then Vanderbilt. There are no easy weekends in the SEC (and this weekend was an example of that) but that four-week stretch is about as tough on paper as you could draw up.

The good news for Tennessee is that it does at least get to go home to Knoxville. Tennessee is just 1-5 away from home and four of its next six weekends will be at Lindsey Nelson Stadium, where it is 14-1.

Home cooking alone won’t right the ship for the Volunteers, but it’s a good place to start.

3. Opening weekend of SEC play delivered a top-10 showdown between Mississippi and Vanderbilt. Coming into the weekend, it looked like a fascinating series between contrasting styles—the Rebels’ powerful offense against the Commodores’ pitching. Ole Miss was averaging 9.4 runs per game to Vanderbilt’s 6.5 (146th nationally). Meanwhile, the Commodores had a 3.36 team ERA to the Rebels’ 4.84.

In the end, Vanderbilt’s pitching took over. The Commodores swept the series and held the Rebels to four runs on 13 hits for the weekend. Lefthander Hunter Owen led the way on the mound with a two-hit shutout in Friday’s 8-0 victory, but it was a complete effort from the Commodores staff.

Lefthander Carter Holton (6 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 5 K) turned in a quality start in Thursday’s opener and lefthander Devin Futrell (5 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 2 K) was solid in the finale. Relievers Bryce Cunningham, Sam Hliboki and Nick Maldonado all threw two scoreless innings each, holding the Rebels to two hits and three walks.

Vanderbilt (16-5) now has a 3.09 team ERA. Owen is 2-0, 2.20 with 35 strikeouts and nine walks in 28.2 innings and is rising on draft boards. Holton is 2-0, 2.39 with 30 strikeouts and seven walks in 26.1 innings. Cunningham (0-0, 0.00, 2 SV) and Maldonado (1-0, 0.00, 3 SV) still haven’t allowed an earned run in a combined 27 innings.

Vanderbilt was expected to have one of the best pitching staffs in the nation. It proved this weekend it does.

4. Just as importantly, Vanderbilt’s offense came to play against Ole Miss. The Commodores scored 27 runs on the weekend and hit seven home runs.

Outfielder RJ Schreck went 4-for-10 with two home runs and five runs in the series. The Duke transfer is now leading the team in hitting at .329/.455/.645 with five home runs. His presence in the heart of the lineup has been a big boost for a team that is slugging .451.

One big weekend against an Ole Miss pitching staff that doesn’t have ace Hunter Elliott doesn’t mean that Vanderbilt is now an offensive juggernaut. But there’s been a lot of chatter in the first month of the season about why the Commodores started so slow at the plate. Their pitching and defense is always going to lead the way, but they showed this weekend they can’t be overlooked offensively.

5. For Ole Miss (14-6, 0-3), the week was one to forget. The Rebels went 0-4, also losing at Jacksonville State. The Rebels gave up 37 runs in those four games and now have a 5.55 team ERA, which ranks second-to-last in the SEC.

The Rebels have obviously missed lefthander Hunter Elliott, who hasn’t pitched since Opening Day due to a sprained UCL. The Commodores got to righthanders Jack Dougherty and Grayson Saunier, combining for 20 hits in 8.1 innings against the Rebels’ first two starters of the series. Dougherty filled in well for Elliott for two weeks against Maryland, but has struggled in his last two starts. Saunier, a freshman, hasn’t pitched past the fifth inning in any of his five starts. Lefthander Xavier Rivas has been better of late, giving up four runs in 11 innings in his last two starts against Purdue and Vanderbilt.

Elliott is due back next month, but Ole Miss needs to find the right combination on the mound before then. The good news is that the Rebels went through a similar tough spot last season before finding the 1-2 punch of Dylan DeLucia and Elliott.

Until Ole Miss can find this year’s answer, it needs its offense to pick up the slack. That didn’t happen on the road at Vanderbilt, which has perhaps the best pitching staff in the country. Unfortunately, things won’t get much easier this weekend with No. 2 Florida (18-4, 2-1) coming to Oxford. The Rebels need to use their home-field advantage to avoid digging a big hole at the start of conference play.

6. Well, hello, Kentucky. The Wildcats came into SEC play on an 11-game winning streak and had picked up some solid wins along the way. But they made a much bigger statement this weekend with a sweep of Mississippi State, outscoring the Bulldogs, 35-11, in the series.

Now, Kentucky (18-2, 3-0) is ranked for the first time since 2018. The Wildcats are pitching at a high level (2.88 team ERA, fourth in the SEC), led by righthander Darren Williams (1-0, 2.53) and a deep, talented bullpen. Ryan Hagenow (2-0, 0.00) hasn’t allowed a run in 12.1 innings over seven appearances and closer Mason Moore (0-0, 0.61, 3 SV) has allowed just one in 14.2 innings.

The Wildcats have an athletic, dynamic lineup and their 33 stolen bases are tied for the most in the SEC. While they posted some big run totals this weekend, that’s probably not the blueprint they’ll use most weekends the rest of the season, but their offense is potent enough to make teams pay.

As SEC schedules go, Kentucky has an inviting start, with a trip to Alabama followed by a home series against Missouri. Nothing is easy in this conference, but if the Wildcats can build on this weekend with another couple series wins before the schedule really stiffens in the second half, they will really be able to start thinking about their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017.

7. For Mississippi State, this was a particularly disappointing weekend. The Bulldogs (13-8, 0-3) came in on a seven-game winning streak and had chances early in the series. They led the Wildcats, 5-4, in the eighth on Friday, only to lose, 6-5, in 10 innings. They led, 3-0, in the fourth on Saturday before the wheels came off and the Wildcats outscored them 29-3 the rest of the series.

“We’re not in a good spot after this weekend,” coach Chris Lemonis said. “We came up here and I felt really good about us. We let one get away on Friday night, and the last two games we just haven’t competed.”

So far this season, Mississippi State has been good at punching back when it gets knocked down. The Bulldogs weren’t able to do that over the weekend, however, and now face a crucial series against Vanderbilt this weekend in Starkville. It’s far too early to say Mississippi State’s season is on the brink, but the Bulldogs need to show something to avoid digging a big, early hole.

8. It’s hard to understand how the Big 12 allowed a series as big as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to be played on the first weekend of conference play, before three teams have even played a conference game. But it did and already we know that the path to the Big 12 title is going through Lubbock.

Oklahoma State (16-5, 1-2) had its chances over the weekend, but Texas Tech (18-4, 2-1) came away with a huge series win. After falling behind, 7-1, in the fifth inning of Friday’s opener, the Red Raiders came back to win, 8-7, in 10 innings, taking advantage of four Cowboys errors. Oklahoma State evened the series with a 9-4 win Saturday, but Texas Tech rolled to a 12-2 win in Sunday’s finale to claim the series.

Texas Tech has dominated the matchup under coach Tim Tadlock and has now won six straight series against Oklahoma State, including the 2019 Lubbock Super Regional. This wasn’t the prettiest series win during that stretch, but the Red Raiders’ offense shone against a solid Cowboys’ pitching staff. Second baseman Austin Green went 6-for-11 with two home runs to lead the attack, while Kevin Bazzell, Nolen Hester and Tracer Lopez all added five hits.

The Red Raiders were without center fielder Dillon Carter (.400/.548/.844, 5 HR) and their offense kept rolling anyway. There are other quality teams in the Big 12, but, at this stage, they’re all chasing Texas Tech.

9. Oklahoma State (16-5, 1-2) is no doubt a talented team and one that will compete near the top of the Big 12 this season. But the Cowboys have already missed two chances this season to make a big statement.

Oklahoma State opened the year going 1-2 at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, beating Missouri, but losing to Vanderbilt and Arkansas (giving up 29 runs in the two losses). Now, it lost a series to Texas Tech on a weekend it made six errors and blew a six-run lead in the opener.

There’s no shame in either result—Arkansas and Vanderbilt are top-10 (if not top-five) teams and Texas Tech is nearly unbeatable at home. Everything is still on the table for Oklahoma State, but it will need to tighten up its pitching and defense if it is to reach its ceiling.

10. Oklahoma (13-7, 2-1) grabbed a key series win to open Big 12 play, as it took down TCU. After the teams split the first two games, the Sooners came back twice to win the rubber game, 7-5. After a tough 2-4 start to the season, Oklahoma has won 11 of its last 14 games and looks like it can contend in the Big 12.

The Sooners are still working some things out on the mound—no surprise after losing so much of last year’s staff. Their offense has been solid despite slower starts from sophomores Jackson Nicklaus (.254/402/.465) and John Spikerman (.179/.301/.282, 9 SB). They’ve also had some issues defensively and are fielding just .963.

Despite all of that, Oklahoma is winning games. There’s still another gear for the Sooners to get to and that makes them all the more dangerous as the season continues.

11. TCU (10-9, 1-2), meanwhile, is just 8-8 since its big Opening Weekend at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas. The Horned Frogs have played a very tough schedule—of their nine losses this year, only one has come against a team that didn’t make the 2022 NCAA Tournament (Texas-Arlington)—and they’ve dealt with some early season injuries.

Because of that, it’s hard to get too concerned about where TCU is today. The Horned Frogs should be able to pull out of this funk and five games this week (four at home) against teams that didn’t make the 2022 NCAA Tournament should help. But the Horned Frogs need to find some more consistency and some answers in their lineup beyond Tre Richardson (.333/.405/.458, 5 SB) and Brayden Taylor (.268/.422/.577, 7 HR).

12. Miami was scuffling going into the start of ACC play two weeks ago, having lost four of its last five games. The Hurricanes turned it around with a solid series win against North Carolina State and then built on that last week, going 4-0 and sweeping Virginia Tech.

The Hurricanes’ offense came alive in a doubleheader sweep Saturday, scoring 33 runs. CJ Kayfus went 10-for-13 with three home runs and six runs to lead the Hurricanes and he’s now hitting .355/.462/.658 with five home runs and five stolen bases.

Miami has five regulars with an OPS over 1.000, making its lineup one of the deepest and most dangerous in the ACC. That sets the stage this weekend for fireworks in Winston-Salem, as Miami travels to Wake Forest (18-3, 4-2).

13. After starting the season 12-2, Virginia Tech has lost five straight, all in ACC play. The Hokies (12-7, 1-5) took it on the chin at Miami, getting walked off on Friday night and then giving up 33 runs in a Saturday doubleheader.

It’s hard not to be concerned about the reigning ACC champions after such a tough weekend, but there’s time to turn it around. Just about nothing went right on the mound Saturday in Miami, but Virginia Tech’s powerful offense means that it doesn’t need its pitching staff to completely turn things around to get back to winning games.

The Hokies do, however, need to get right this weekend. They travel to Pittsburgh before returning home next weekend to take on Virginia. Building some momentum ahead of the rivalry series will be crucial.  

14. After losing its first Pac-12 series last week at Southern California, Stanford (13-5, 4-2) got the response it needed, sweeping Oregon State. The Cardinal didn’t make it easy in the first two games of the series, holding off late comeback attempts in both wins and then staged a comeback of their own Sunday in a 5-4 win to complete the sweep.

Freshman righthander Matt Scott (3-0, 2.16) delivered a quality start in Saturday’s win, holding the Beavers to one run on five hits and a walk in six innings. Scott was making his second start and if the rotation of Quinn Mathews (3-1, 2.97), Scott and Joey Dixon (2-0, 5.40) is able to lock in over the next few weeks, the Cardinal will have answered one of the key questions that has faced them so far this season.

15. Brown freshman Olivia Pichardo on Friday became the first woman to play in a Division I baseball game. She made her debut as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of Brown’s 10-1 loss to Bryant (6-7). Facing M.T. Morrissey, she grounded out to first base. The Bears (1-10) were making their home opener Friday.

Pichardo said it was a special moment.

“It was a lot of fun and I’m glad that I was able to get something out of my first at-bat,” she said. “There probably aren’t going to be as much nerves for the rest of my at-bats.”

Eight For Omaha

Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Louisville, Texas Tech, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Virginia

I’m not overthinking the changes this week. Ole Miss and Tennessee are out after getting swept. Arkansas and Vanderbilt are in after starting SEC play with sweeps. I had questions about the Razorbacks coming into the season, particularly following the injury to Jaxon Wiggins. All the Hogs have done is start 18-2 and look great doing it. Vanderbilt’s pitching staff is rolling and its offense looked pretty good over the weekend against Ole Miss. It’s hard to pick against those clubs right now.

Looking Ahead

No. 1 LSU hosts No. 6 Arkansas in blockbuster series. The whole SEC slate is fascinating this week. No. 18 Missouri at No. 14 South Carolina. No. 11 Tennessee at No. 12 Texas A&M. No. 2 Florida at No. 15 Ole Miss. Mississippi State needing a response against No. 5 Vanderbilt. No. 25 Kentucky looking to stay hot at Alabama. Auburn and Georgia in a get-right series. It’s all great. But the Tigers hosting the Razorbacks and both teams coming in red-hot with potent offenses? Yes, please.

No. 13 Miami, No. 4 Wake Forest ready for fireworks. These are two powerhouse offenses getting ready to go at it in Winston-Salem. The Hurricanes (14-6, 5-1) have won their first two ACC series and represent the biggest test the Demon Deacons (18-3, 4-2) will have faced yet. Should be fun.

Connecticut hosts Rutgers in Northeast battle. The Huskies (12-5) come home this week after a month on the road and will host the Scarlet Knights (10-8) in a showdown between two of the best teams in the region. Rutgers got hot during its trip through Georgia, going 6-1 against Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State and Mercer. But the Huskies are playing well themselves and have home-field advantage this weekend.

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