Tennessee, Arizona Win Conference Titles, Highlighting College Baseball’s Weekend (Off The Bat)


Image credit: Christian Moore (Photo by Eddie Kelly / ProLook Photos)

The final weekend of the regular season (for most conferences) delivered some thrilling baseball and conference title races that went all the way to the wire. It was all you could ask for as a college baseball fan.

Here are 16 takeaways from around the country on the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. The SEC title race came down to the final day of the season for the second year in a row. Kentucky went into the weekend with a one-game lead on Tennessee, but the Volunteers held the tiebreaker thanks to their series win in Lexington last month. Both teams were at home this weekend with Kentucky hosting Vanderbilt and Tennessee hosting South Carolina.

The Wildcats and Volunteers won the first two games of their series, setting up a big finale Saturday. Kentucky had a chance to win its first outright SEC title in program history, while Tennessee was aiming for its second conference title in three years.

Both games started at the same time and were close through the early innings. Tennessee scored four runs in the middle innings, including a three-run fifth. At about the same time, Vanderbilt pushed ahead of Kentucky with four runs in the sixth inning. Those leads would hold, as the Volunteers went on to a 4-1 victory and the Commodores won, 12-4, in Lexington.

With those results, Tennessee (46-10, 22-8) won the SEC title. The Volunteers had won three conference titles in program history before coach Tony Vitello was hired after the 2017 season and hadn’t won one since 1995. Now, they’ve won two of the last three.

Tennessee was led this weekend, as it has been all season, by second baseman Christian Moore. The junior went 7-for-12 with three home runs against South Carolina and is now hitting .388/.454/.808 with 27 home runs, a program record. His SEC numbers are even better (.429/.461/.925, 20 HR), which led one SEC assistant coach to last week tell me he had Moore ahead of Georgia slugger Charlie Condon on his personal SEC player of the year ranking.

The Volunteers are playing like the best team in the country. They have a deep, powerful lineup that has five players who have hit more than 15 home runs. Their pitching staff isn’t set up conventionally – ace Drew Beam (8-2, 3.59) pitches in the middle of the rotation, bookended by a pair of openers (though No. 3 starter Zander Sechrist has shown the ability to pitch deeper into games, as he did Saturday) – but it’s excellent and ranks third nationally in ERA (3.68). The defense (.978) is solid, ranking 31st nationally. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tennessee leads the nation in wins.

As the postseason begins, the Volunteers have earned their status as national title favorites.

2. Kentucky (39-12, 22-8) fell short of the outright SEC title, but still can claim a share of the conference crown. I don’t like the concept of shared titles and the Wildcats aren’t even the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament despite finishing with a better conference record than Arkansas (the SEC gives its division winners the top two seeds).

Regardless of my personal opinion on shared titles, this has been an objectively great year for the Wildcats. They had only once before won an SEC title (2006) and this year were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East in the preseason coaches poll. Instead, they won eight SEC series and 22 conference games, the most in program history. Kentucky is also on the cusp of a 40-win season, which will mark the first time in program history it has done that in back-to-back years, and it can reasonably set its sights on the program record of 45, which has stood since 2012.

Coach Nick Mingione and the Wildcats have a lot to be proud of. A top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament is on the way and Kentucky looks to be plenty capable of playing well into June.

3. The Pac-12 title came down to the final day of the season in Tucson. Oregon State won the first two games of its series at Arizona, setting up a winner-take-all showdown in Saturday’s finale.

While the first two games had been Oregon State routs (9-2 and 16-1), Saturday was a much tighter game and was tied at 2 going into the ninth inning. The Beavers pushed ahead with a two-out RBI single from nine-hole hitter Jabin Trosky. Closer Bridger Holmes had been in the game since the seventh inning for Oregon State and now had a chance to finish off the championship decider.

Arizona wasn’t going to go quietly, however. Tommy Splaine led off the inning by getting hit by a pitch. After a strikeout and a four-pitch walk, Holmes had run his pitch count to 37. Oregon State went back to the bullpen for Joey Mundt, but Brendan Summerhill greeted him with a walk-off, two-run double to give the Wildcats a 4-3 victory.

Arizona (33-20, 20-10) edged Oregon State (41-13, 19-10) in the standings for its ninth – and final – Pac-12 title. The Wildcats will move to the Big 12 after the season.

Arizona’s run to the title has been incredible. The Wildcats were picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches poll and started the season slowly. They were 10-13 on March 27 and had lost two of their first three conference series. They swept UCLA that weekend and haven’t looked back since, going 23-7.

The Wildcats’ sluggish start means they don’t have a great RPI (28) and so they won’t host a regional unless they sweep through the Pac-12 Tournament. But with their rotation – Jackson Kent (3-3, 3.56), Clark Candiotti (6-3, 3.27) and Cam Walty (8-1, 2.76) – and the way they’ve played in the second half, they’re a dangerous tournament team.

4. For Oregon State, Saturday’s loss was a tough one. The Beavers had done everything they needed to win all weekend in a difficult road environment but came up a couple outs short. Instead of the fairytale story of one of the only two schools that will remain in the Pac-12 after this academic year winning the final regular season championship, it ended with heartbreak.

On a less dramatic note, Oregon State can feel good about its weekend in Tucson. It rolled Arizona in the first two days of the series, outscoring the Wildcats 25-3. Its rotation outpitched Arizona’s, as Aiden May (7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K), Jacob Kmatz (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 8 K) and Eric Segura (5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 5 K) all delivered.

The Beavers got the marquee series win that their hosting resume kind of needed, cemented a top-20 RPI and go into the Pac-12 Tournament having won eight of their last 10 games. They’re in a good place.

5. North Carolina came into the weekend needing just one win or a Clemson loss to clinch the program’s first ACC title since 2018.

The results on Thursday went against the Tar Heels, as they lost their opener to Duke and Clemson won its opener against Boston College. UNC didn’t miss its next opportunity, however, as it took care of business on Friday with a 6-4 victory at Duke. The Tar Heels (41-12, 22-8) won again in Saturday’s finale, clinching the rivalry series.

UNC had to weather some storms this season. Projected Opening Day starter Jake Knapp was lost for the season due to injury in January. Opening Day starter Folger Boaz also was lost due to injury in April and is out for the season. Freshman Jason DeCaro (4-1, 3.93) and junior Shea Sprague (3-1, 4.03) have stepped up to lead the rotation. A deep bullpen, anchored by Matthew Matthijs (12-4, 3.83), has helped, as has a lineup that averages 9.1 runs per game and includes five hitters with at least 13 home runs.

The season hasn’t played out the way coach Scott Forbes drew it up in the fall, but UNC hasn’t missed a beat. The Tar Heels look like true national title contenders.

6. While the ACC title was on the line in Durham, a few miles down Tobacco Road in Raleigh, NC State hosted Wake Forest in a series with big implications in the hosting race. The Wolfpack emerged as emphatic winners, as they swept the Demon Deacons. With the sweep, NC State (32-19, 18-11) climbed to third in the ACC standings and No. 14 in RPI, likely sealing a home regional.

The highlight of the weekend came Friday when NC State walked off with a 2-1 win. The Wolfpack were held down by Wake ace Chase Burns (7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 13 K), as every team has been this season. But NC State’s Dominic Fritton (4.2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 5 K), Andrew Shaffner (1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 1 K) and Jacob Dudan (2.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 2 K) didn’t give the Deacs anything to work with either. In the bottom of the ninth, Zach Johnston walked the bases loaded with one out before yielding to closer Cole Roland, who walked nine-hole hitter Noah Soles to force in the game-winning run.

It wasn’t the prettiest win, but it was a big win nevertheless. And it fit NC State’s overall aesthetic this season. The Wolfpack often haven’t won pretty, but they’ve found a way to get it done on big stages.

NC State fought through a brutal second-half schedule, going 14-7 since April 9 and winning series against Clemson, UNC, Virginia and Wake, to go with an abbreviated series split at Florida State. The Wolfpack are as battle tested as any ACC team, which should help in June as they look to make a deep tournament run.

7. Illinois came into the weekend holding a one-game lead on Nebraska in the Big Ten standings. The Illini faced a difficult series at Purdue, which was still alive in the title chase itself. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers traveled to Michigan State, which was fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. It looked like holding onto the lead wasn’t going to be easy for Illinois.

Instead, the Illini largely cruised through their weekend in West Lafayette, sweeping the Boilermakers. Nebraska lost Saturday’s finale at Michigan State, giving Illinois (33-17, 18-6) its first Big Ten championship since its magical 2015 season.

The sweep also pushed Illinois all the way to No. 43 in RPI. Combined with the conference title, that has the Illini well positioned to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019. They’re also playing very well right now, having gone 25-6 since the start of Big Ten play in mid March.

8. Louisiana Tech earned some early attention this season when it started the season 12-0. It was the best start in program history, the program’s longest winning streak in more than 30 years and made the Bulldogs one of the last five unbeaten teams in college baseball, alongside Florida State, Texas A&M, TCU and UC Irvine.

Once that streak ended, La Tech slipped from the forefront of college baseball. It lost a series to Southern Miss, dropped a few tough midweek games and lost a series at FIU to finish March. It went into a mid April series at Arizona with a big opportunity to land a premium at-large series win and instead got swept in Tucson. At that point it was 26-12 and No. 89 in RPI.

But since then, the Bulldogs have been one of the best teams in the country. They won a series at Dallas Baptist the next week, announcing themselves as serious Conference USA contenders. And on Friday, they finished off the conference title, their first since 1986.

La Tech is 15-3 since it left Arizona and is riding a six-game winning streak that took it to the championship. It last weekend swept Western Kentucky and this weekend swept Liberty on the road, finishing off the championship with a 10-1 victory Friday.

La Tech (41-15, 18-6) bounced back in a big way after a disappointing 2023, when it had a losing record for the first time since 2015. Coach Lane Burroughs and the Bulldogs responded with their third 40-win season in four years and, with an RPI of 26 coming out of the weekend, they’re well positioned for their third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years. If they keep winning this week in the conference tournament – which they’re hosting – maybe hosting a regional isn’t out of the question. But, no matter what, they’re a team no one is going to be excited to play in June.

9. Air Force went into the weekend in third place in the Mountain West standings, one game behind Fresno State and New Mexico. The Falcons were playing the Bulldogs at home, while the Lobos were on the road at San Jose State. A conference title wasn’t out of reach for Air Force, but it was fighting an uphill battle.

Air Force on Thursday won its opener against Fresno State, 3-1, and then on Friday won a wild, back-and-forth affair, 14-13, walking off with the win when Sam Kulasingam hit an RBI single. With New Mexico losing its first two games to San Jose State, suddenly Air Force was one win away from its first ever conference title.

The Falcons on Saturday left no doubt. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back, beating the Bulldogs, 11-1, in seven innings. First baseman Charlie Jones went 3-for-4 with a double, a home run and six RBI, while righthander Ben Weber threw a complete game, holding Fresno State to one run on six hits.

With that victory, Air Force (26-26, 18-12) won the Mountain West for the first time since the conference was formed in 2000. The Falcons matched their program record for conference wins, set in 2021, when the league expanded its conference slate due to the pandemic.

Air Force is in the midst of its most successful run in program history. In 2022, it reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1969. Over the last three seasons, it is 50-40 in Mountain West play, its best three-year stretch. Seniors like Jay Thomason (.366/.463/.767, 19 HR, 14 SB) and Kulasingam (.312/.406/.468, 8 SB), the 2022 and 2023 Mountain West player of the year, have been at the forefront of that stretch and on Saturday celebrated senior day in the best way possible. That class also originally included Paul Skenes, who had a big weekend of his own with his sensational start Friday for the Pirates.

Recruiting a class with players the caliber of Skenes, Kulasigam and Thomason would be impressive for any mid-major. To do it at a service academy is that much louder. But it just goes to show what kind of level the Falcons and coach Mike Kazlausky are operating at as a program right now. And they won’t be resting on their laurels this week – they’re sure to be aiming for a second conference tournament title in three years.

10. With a series win at New Orleans, Lamar (41-13, 17-7) won the Southland title. The Cardinals finished one game ahead of Nicholls State (30-20, 16-8), the reigning champion. This is Lamar’s first conference championship since 2004, which was also the last time it had a 40-win season.

Lamar has been led by its pitching all season. The Cardinals lead the nation in ERA (3.50), with senior righthander Brooks Caple (7-3, 2.29) leading the way in the rotation and righthanders Jackson Cleveland (5-0, 2.93, 7 SV) and Andres Perez (2-0, 1.71, 6 SV) anchoring the bullpen. Both the rotation (3.36 ERA, fifth-best in the country) and the bullpen (2.83 ERA, best in the country, according to FridayStarters.com) have been outstanding on the weekend and they have plenty of depth on the pitching staff behind Caple.

Lamar probably won’t have a strong enough RPI to get an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament, should it trip up this week at the Southland Tournament in Hammond, La. But the Cardinals would be a dangerous team in a regional because of their deep pitching staff and experience against high-level opponents (they swept Oklahoma on the road in April). Regardless of how this week turns out, Lamar and coach Will Davis deserved their celebration this weekend.

11. On paper, Arkansas and Texas A&M finishing the season against each other seemed great. They proved to be the two best teams in the SEC West, and, for a while, it looked like it might be a conference title showdown. But by about a month ago, I was no longer looking forward to the series, fearing that it would end up as a disappointment with both teams more focused on the postseason than on the series at hand.

Ultimately, those fears largely came to pass. Arkansas was on the periphery of the SEC title race coming into the weekend; A&M was out of it. The Razorbacks needed just one win in College Station to secure the SEC West title and a top-two seed in the conference tournament. Neither team was in danger of falling out of the top-eight seed race.

The series still produced some excellent baseball – Thursday was a classic pitcher’s duel between A&M’s Ryan Prager (7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K) and Arkansas’ Hagen Smith (6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 14 K) that took 11 innings to decide before A&M walked off with a 1-0 victory and Friday was a tight game that hung in the balance until Arkansas scored three runs in the eighth for a 6-3 victory – but it lacked some juice.

A&M scored a quality series win thanks to a 14-4 victory in seven innings in the finale. That win pushed it to No. 1 in RPI and should give it some needed momentum after back-to-back series losses at LSU and Mississippi. But I wish this series had been played a few weeks ago, with both teams at full bore instead of trying to best set themselves up for the postseason.

12. LSU (36-20, 13-17) scored a big sweep of Mississippi to push to 13 SEC wins and into the top 30 in RPI. After starting SEC play 3-12, they went 10-5 in the second half of conference play to put themselves back in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

Leading the way this weekend for the Tigers was All-American third baseman Tommy White. The junior went 8-for-13 with two doubles, a triple and three home runs. Those three homers pushed his career total to 74, matching Florida’s Matt LaPorta for the 21st century career record.

LSU can’t yet be considered safely in the NCAA Tournament, but with the way they’re playing and White is hitting, nobody would be pleased to see the reigning champions show up in their regional draw.

13. Florida had its back firmly against the wall Friday. After losing Thursday’s opener at Georgia, the Gators were 26-26 and on the road taking on a team that was on a nine-game winning streak. They needed to win the next two games or reach the semifinals of the SEC Tournament to guarantee themselves a winning record on Selection Monday, a prerequisite for receiving an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. To make matters worse, Florida on Friday trailed, 4-2, after seven innings.

But the Gators got off the mat. Cade Kurland hit a game-tying home run in the eighth inning and Luke Heyman blasted a three-run home run in the 10th, giving Florida a 7-4 victory. The Gators again fell behind early in Saturday’s finale, trailing 3-0 after three innings. But they exploded for a 12-run fourth inning and went on to win, 19-11, clinching a critical series win.

Florida (28-26, 13-17) has very strong metrics (RPI 24, SOS 1, KPI 20) and its now hard to imagine it getting left out of the NCAA Tournament. Consistency has escaped the Gators all season long, but their star power and the NCAA Tournament experience many of its players got last year during the run to the College World Series championship series could make for a powerful combination in June.

14. Despite UConn running away with its fourth straight conference title, the Big East has been a highly entertaining conference this season. And that carried through the final weekend of the regular season, possibly to the detriment of the conference’s chances to be a multi-bid league.

Xavier came into the weekend at No. 26 in RPI, appearing to be well positioned to make the NCAA Tournament. But the Musketeers (29-25, 12-9) lost a home series to Villanova, which cemented them in fourth place in the conference standings and dropped their RPI by more than 10 spots. Meanwhile, St. John’s (34-16-1, 14-7), which came into the weekend with a bubbly RPI of 56, lost a home series to Georgetown (34-19, 13-7) and dropped out of the top 60.

The Big East runs a tight, four-team conference tournament and all four teams that qualified – UConn, St. John’s, Georgetown and Xavier – have RPIs in the top 65, ensuring that every game in the tournament will be no worse than a quad 2 game. The tournament should only help the teams that win. But winning games will be necessary for everyone, except probably UConn. It will be an interesting tournament to watch later this week at Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio.

15. Saint Thomas on Saturday defeated Oral Roberts, 7-5, to win the Summit League championship. The Tommies came into the day needing a win to clinch the title and jumped out to an early lead, scoring six runs in the first inning. While the Golden Eagles chipped away at the lead throughout the game, they never cut the deficit to less than two runs.

Saint Thomas’ conference championship came in just its third season after making an unprecedented move from Division III to Division I. The baseball program, which was the Division III runner-up in 2021, its final season at the level, faced a steep climb to contention in the Summit League. But after two difficult seasons, Saint Thomas (21-24, 16-10) this year finished 1.5 games ahead of Nebraska-Omaha (18-30-1, 16-13-1).

Because the Tommies are still in their transition period to Division I, they are still ineligible for the NCAA Tournament. That also means they aren’t eligible for the Summit League Tournament and so their season is over. But even without the postseason, this was a significant, historic milestone for Saint Thomas to reach.

16. One of the best scenes of the season happened Saturday at Valparaiso’s senior day game against Indiana State. Valpo third baseman Kaleb Hannahs was honored as a part of the senior day ceremonies, with his father, Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs, there to take part. Mitch Hannahs walked Kaleb Hannahs onto the field while wearing his full Sycamores uniform before producing a Valpo hat he had hidden and putting it on. The father-son duo also exchanged the lineup cards before the game.

Valpo coach Brian Schmack had two years ago put the plan for such a moment in motion. Knowing the Missouri Valley Conference works on the schedule well ahead of time, he in 2022 put in a request to the league office for the Beacons to conclude their home 2024 schedule against the Sycamores. The day was also a special one for Schmack. His own son, outfielder Kyle Schmack, completed his five-year career at Valpo.

Kaleb Hannahs went 1-for-3 with a home run, while Kyle Schmack went 1-for-3. Indiana State won, 15-4, in seven innings.

Eight For Omaha

Arkansas, Clemson, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, West Virginia

It’s getting real with these Eight for Omaha selections. I moved Clemson back into the field after dropping them a week ago. I’m back feeling a bit better about the Tigers and trusting that coach Erik Bakich will be able to guide them through a couple weekends at home. I again flipped my Big 12 representative to West Virginia. The Big 12 has had a team in Omaha every year for a decade and while I think there are at least four teams from the conference capable of making a CWS run, there’s no clear standout from the group for me. The Mountaineers were my preseason Omaha sleeper and I’ve decided I’m going to live or die on that hill.

Looking Ahead

Intrigue abounds at the SEC Tournament. At every level of the NCAA Tournament picture – the No. 1 overall seed, the top-eight seeds, hosting, at-large bubble – the SEC has teams fighting for spots. Any of Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee or Texas A&M could still be the No. 1 overall seed. Georgia is trying to push its way into the top-eight seeds. Mississippi State is in the hosting mix. Probably most interestingly, five teams tied at 13-17 in the conference standings, and all are in the top 30 of RPI as the week begins. Can all five make the NCAA Tournament and give the SEC a record 11 bids? There’s a lot at stake in Hoover.

The ACC Tournament returns to Charlotte. I don’t much like the ACC’s pool play format (giving the tiebreaker to advance to the higher-seeded team doesn’t sit right with me) but the baseball promises to be excellent. A couple teams go to Truist Field with some bubble urgency (Louisville needs RPI help and Georgia Tech shouldn’t feel secure), while a few others are looking to sew up their hosting cases. Hopefully we can get a matchup of North Carolina and Clemson, the two division winners, in the championship game, as they did not play this season.

The American Athletic Conference Tournament has bid-stealing potential. Bubble watchers should keep an eye on Clearwater, Fla., and the AAC Tournament. East Carolina has owned the regular season (winning five straight titles) but has not had that same stranglehold on the tournament (its won just once in the last five seasons). To make things more interesting, the Pirates this season lost series to UTSA and Tulane, the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. The Roadrunners (RPI 107) and Green Wave (RPI 96) are well out of at-large contention and will need to win the ACC Tournament to advance to regionals, while the Pirates are in solid shape to host regionals.

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