Tennessee, Wake Forest Notch Key Series Wins, Highlighting College Baseball’s Weekend (Off The Bat)


Image credit: Aaron Combs (Danny Parker/Four Seam Images)

As we enter the second half of conference seasons across the country, each series starts to take on greater and greater meaning as the postseason implications become clearer. This weekend delivered some fantastic baseball and a few key upsets that will reverberate over the next month.

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

1. Likely for the first time ever, the border-state rivalry between Kentucky and Tennessee took center stage in college baseball. The series was a top-10 showdown and between the top two teams in the SEC East standings. It was college baseball’s headlining series this weekend and the Wildcats and Volunteers delivered in a big way.

Kentucky and Tennessee played a series that wouldn’t have felt out of place during super regionals – except for the temperature. The Wildcats came back to win Friday’s opener, 5-3, scoring four runs in the seventh and eighth innings. The Volunteers on Saturday won, 9-4, behind a stellar relief outing from Aaron Combs (4.2 IP, 0 R) and then claimed the series with a wild, back-and-forth, 13-11 victory in Sunday’s finale, led by second baseman Christian Moore (4-for-5, 3 HR, 6 RBI).

“We got better as a team in a lot of different ways this weekend,” coach Tony Vitello said.

The series win was a big one for the Volunteers (33-7, 12-6). It wasn’t the cleanest series for either team and none of the games were easy. Tennessee got just one out on Friday from opener Chris Stamos, ace Drew Beam (4.1 IP) on Saturday had his second-shortest outing of the season and Vitello on Sunday pulled just about every lever available to him, using 18 players. Every time, the Volunteers answered the bell in a difficult road environment with someone new picking up his teammates every game.

Tennessee is one of the most complete teams in the country. Yes, the Volunteers are again slugging home runs at an elite rate (2.78 per game), but they’re also fifth in the SEC in fielding (.979) and third in ERA (3.98). They run out a deep, dangerous lineup and can show several different looks on the mound. And in Moore (.376/.443/.822, 19 HR), first baseman Blake Burke (.409/.470/.826, 14 HR) and Beam (5-1, 3.40) they have stars who are also their experienced leaders.

Tennessee has won nine of its last 10 games and just passed its biggest test yet. It’s still three games behind Kentucky in the SEC standings, but it served notice this weekend that it is the team to beat in the SEC East.

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2. While Kentucky took its first SEC series loss of the season, it’s hard not to feel good about where the Wildcats (32-7, 15-3) are at this point. They’re still in first place in the SEC, one game ahead of Arkansas and three ahead of Tennessee in the East. They’re third in RPI, probably one SEC win away from being a lock to host regionals and not much further away from being a top-eight seed.

Kentucky shouldn’t be counting any moral victories, and this was a missed opportunity, given that the Wildcats had home-field advantage. The schedule is a little tricky the rest of the way – at South Carolina, Arkansas, at Florida, Vanderbilt – and Kentucky will have to make sure this series loss doesn’t snowball on them.

But Kentucky proved it can play with anyone and it packed 21,023 fans into Kentucky Proud Park over the course of the weekend, showing what is possible in Lexington. This still has a chance to be a very special season for the Wildcats.

3. The most exciting series of the weekend was probably in Winston-Salem, where Wake Forest won its series against Florida State. All three games went down to the wire and the series finished late Saturday night with the Demon Deacons walking off the rubber game, 10-9, as Cameron Gill raced home to score on a wild pitch.

Wake (26-13, 10-9) has now won three straight ACC series to climb back above .500 in conference play. The rest of its conference schedule is still difficult – at Notre Dame, Clemson, at NC State – but this run – and especially the series win against Florida State – has shifted the conversation about the Deacs from the NCAA Tournament bubble to the hosting bubble.

Wake is still dealing with some of the same problems it has all season – it made five errors in four games this week and it’s still a little light on the mound beyond its biggest stars – but it looks a lot more like the team it was expected to be in the preseason than it did early in the season. The Deacs deserve a lot of credit for improving over the last two months. If they can make even more progress over the next month, they could be a very dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament.

4. This was a tough week for Florida State (31-8, 11-7), which also lost Tuesday against Mercer, its first non-conference loss of the season. The Seminoles continued to be without righthander Cam Leiter, who has missed three straight starts, and righthander Conner Whittaker, who has missed two straight starts, in their rotation. Coach Link Jarrett this week indicated Leiter and Whittaker, as well as righthander Ben Barrett, who has been out since early March, will all return this season. When and in what capacity remains to be seen, however.

This weekend’s series loss on its own can be excused. Florida State lost a pair of one-run, conference games on the road. It happens. The way in which it happened – Wake scored eight runs in the eighth or ninth inning during the weekend – doesn’t feel great, especially when coupled with the way in which Florida State was swept at Clemson earlier this year (the Tigers erased seven- and nine-run deficits).

In the macro, Florida State is fine. It ranks fifth in RPI and is still in the top four of the ACC standings. It’s on track to be a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the longer its without Barrett, Leiter and Whittaker, the greater the concern. Florida State this weekend travels to No. 5 Duke, then hosts No. 17 NC State, a team that just took down Clemson and North Carolina in consecutive weekends. The Seminoles could win both those series, but neither will be easy. And while they’re well on their way to hosting, their top-eight seed positioning is more precarious. For a team that is 22-2 at home and 5-6 in true road games and is very light on NCAA Tournament experience, playing at home as long as possible in the NCAA Tournament feels like it could be very important.

If Florida State can’t find the right answers on the mound, either through getting healthier or through pitchers stepping up, it’s fair to wonder just how high its ceiling is.

5. California delivered the upset of the weekend, sweeping Oregon State in Berkeley. The Golden Bears (24-14, 11-10) have won eight straight games, a streak that has pushed them above .500 in conference play and into the top 50 in RPI. They’re now back in the NCAA Tournament mix.

Cal had to come back in all three games this weekend, including walk-offs in each of the first two. But it found the late-game magic it needed every day. On Friday, it was outfielder Seth Gwynn hitting a walk-off, two-run home run for a 10-8 victory in a game that the Bears had just blown a two-run lead in the top of the ninth. On Saturday, they trailed by two runs going into the bottom of the ninth but took advantage of an error, a wild pitch, a hit batter and three walks – one of which was intentional and another which was a walk-off – to win 8-7. Sunday required slightly less heroics, as they pushed the go-ahead runs across in the seventh inning and freshman righthander Trey Newman, an Oregon native, finished off a 4-3 victory.

The job isn’t done for the Golden Bears, and they play their next seven games on the road, including series at Stanford and Southern California. But this is a team that has been on the cusp a few times this season. This time, it broke through and is in an advantageous spot in late April.

6. For Oregon State, the week was concerning. It split a midweek series at Nevada before the sweep and has lost five of its last six games. It’s also now 4-7 in true road games, including six straight losses in conference road games.

The Beavers didn’t play clean defense all week, committing six errors in their four losses, and the bullpen struggled on the weekend, giving up 10 runs (seven earned) in 8.2 innings. The defense has been a trouble spot before – the Beavers have a .969 fielding percentage – but the bullpen has been a strength this season – its 3.51 ERA in weekend games ranks eighth nationally, according to FridayStarters.com.

So, is this one bad weekend or have Oregon State’s weak points been exposed? I think it’s fair to say that the Beavers are not far and away the best team in the Pac-12, as they looked to be early in the season. They are beatable, especially away from home. Their defense is not as good as it typically is. They’re still dealing with injuries in the lineup – third baseman Trent Caraway hasn’t played in a month and outfielders Brady Kasper and Micah McDowell have only recently returned (Kasper last weekend, McDowell this weekend). That’s put more pressure on the pitching staff.

Everything is still in front of Oregon State. It’s only 2.5 games behind first-place Arizona in the Pac-12 standings and its RPI is in the top 15. It needs to snap out of this skid, especially because it has such a big stretch ahead, as it on Tuesday takes on Portland, the West Coast Conference leader, before this weekend hosting archrival Oregon.

7. NC State (22-15, 12-9) followed its big series win last week at Clemson with another strong weekend, taking down rival North Carolina. Thursday’s opener was a wild, back-and-forth game that the Wolfpack won, 9-8, on a walk-off home run from Brandon Butterworth. They trailed by three runs at the seventh inning stretch the following night but scored four runs in the seventh and eighth innings to win, 5-4. Butterworth again scored the winning run, this time coming home on a passed ball in the eighth inning. While UNC rolled in the finale, 14-3, it was still another solid weekend for NC State.

The Wolfpack have shown over the last two weeks that they can play with any team in the ACC. They’ve got a difficult closing schedule – after this weekend hosting Ball State, they visit Florida State and Virginia before finishing at home against Wake Forest – and probably aren’t going to get in a position to host (although if they keep playing the way they have the last two weeks, nothing can be ruled out). But this is a team that’s 6-3 against Clemson, Duke and UNC – three of the four teams ahead of it in the ACC standings. No one is going to be happy to draw NC State in their regional and don’t be surprised if the Wolfpack make some noise in June.

8. This weekend was a first-place showdown in the Sun Belt, as Coastal Carolina hosted Louisiana. That alone was enough to make for a very intriguing series, but the implications went far beyond that. The Ragin’ Cajuns brought a 14-game Sun Belt winning streak to Springs Brooks Stadium and were looking for a marquee series win to add to their NCAA Tournament resume. The Chanticleers were looking to close the gap on first place and for a marquee series of their own to shore up their hosting resume.

It was Coastal (27-12, 11-7) that came away with the prize. After splitting the first two games, the Chanticleers won the finale, 12-10. Combined with a 5-4 victory Tuesday at North Carolina, it was a huge week for Coastal, which pushed its RPI into the top 15.

Coastal scored 27 runs in the series, which is the most Louisiana has allowed in a weekend in a year. Second baseman Blake Barthol went 6-for-12 with three doubles and outfielder Graham Brown went 6-for-14 with three doubles and two home runs to lead the way.

Coastal’s schedule doesn’t ease up from here. It this week travels to Creighton (28-9) for two midweek games with series against Troy, at Southern Miss and home against Georgia State to follow. The Chanticleers are now well positioned to host regionals, but they can’t rest on those laurels.

9. A trip to Coastal was always going to be difficult for Louisiana (31-11, 15-3). Not only are the Chanticleers 21-5 at Springs Brooks Stadium, their offense is built for the park. The Cajuns have one of the best pitching staffs in the country, but they weren’t able to contain the Chanticleers.

It’s a tough series loss, but Louisiana can’t worry too much about it. Its closing schedule – Southern Miss, at Troy, at Georgia Southern, South Alabama – is too challenging to let this one linger. The series loss probably means any slim hope at hosting regionals is gone (their RPI is 43, a number that would probably need to be halved to get in the mix), but they still hold a four-game lead in the conference standings. Louisiana hasn’t won the Sun Belt regular season title since 2016, but it has a good shot at ending that drought this season.

10. I’ve written before this season about the parity within the Big 12. But nothing sums it up better than this.

After just seven weeks of conference play, the circle is complete, and every team has a series win over each other through the transitive property.

Does it mean anything? Yes and no. I don’t think it should be seen as a point of pride or derision. I can’t do this for other major conferences in part because they have teams that have yet to win a conference series. This shows how competitive the Big 12 is top to bottom, which is admirable, but it’s also evidence of how few elite teams there are in the league.

What it does mean, I believe, is why the conference’s RPI situation is what it is. No Big 12 teams rank in the top 20, but six rank in the top 35. Few distinguished themselves in non-conference play and now that they’re all beating up on each other, the bulk of the league is bunching up. Someone from this league is going to host a regional, maybe even two teams. But separating the teams won’t be an easy task for anyone.   

11. It hasn’t been an easy go this season for UConn. The Huskies, as usual, played an elite non-conference schedule and played just three games at home before April 1. That all took its toll and UConn was 9-15 on April 1.

Three weeks later, UConn (20-18, 7-2) has restored order. The Huskies are 11-3 this month and after sweeping Georgetown this weekend are in first place in the Big East.

The Hoyas came into the weekend at 8-1 in conference play having lost just two weekend games since Opening Weekend, a stretch that included a sweep at Ohio State. But UConn proved to be too much. They trailed in all three games and needed late comebacks in each of the first two days of the series. In the end, they came away with a trio of one-run victories.

UConn has now started conference play with series wins against Georgetown, St. John’s and Xavier, the three teams directly behind it in the conference standings. It gets Creighton, the other serious contender, at home later this season. The Huskies have won three straight conference titles since returning to the Big East and look to be steaming toward a fourth.

12. UNC Wilmington last season doubled up on Coastal Athletic Association titles, winning both the regular season and conference tournament. But it was Northeastern that was voted the favorite for 2024 in the preseason coaches poll.

The Seahawks this weekend showed why they, and not the Huskies, are still top dog in the CAA. After splitting the first two games at Northeastern, UNCW won the rubber game, 5-3, to claim the series. The series win at Northeastern came on the heels of a win Tuesday against Wake Forest in Durham, N.C., and the Seahawks (26-14, 12-3) have now won eight of their last nine games.

UNCW is a dangerous team. Tanner Thach (.331/.411/.763, 21 HR) has hit more home runs than anyone not named Charlie Condon, Jac Caglianone or Braden Montgomery. Its rotation of RJ Sales (7-2, 3.22), Jacob Shafer (3-4, 4.88) and Zane Taylor (5-0, 3.22) is formidable and the relief duo of Luke Craig (3-0, 2.72, 2 SV) and Connor Kane (1-2, 2.29, 3 SV) is tough at the ends of games.

There’s still a long way to go, but UNCW looks like a dangerous team as it chases a second straight conference title.

13. After last weekend being swept at Arizona, Louisiana Tech bounced back well this week. The Bulldogs on Tuesday beat local rival Louisiana-Monroe and then won a series at Dallas Baptist, becoming the first visiting team to win a series at Horner Ballpark since Southern Illinois in April 2022.

La Tech (29-13, 8-4) on Friday beat DBU ace Ryan Johnson, a projected top-50 draft pick, as Ethan Bates, its own superstar, shined. Bates hit a go-ahead, two-run home run off Johnson in the seventh inning and then came on to throw a scoreless ninth inning and earn the save in a 5-3 victory. DBU won the opening game of Sunday’s doubleheader before La Tech rolled to a 6-1 victory in the finale as Turner Swistak (6 IP, 0 R), Sam Brodersen and Bates combined to silence the Patriots.

The Bulldogs started the season 12-0 and have been a bit up-and-down since taking their first loss. But this series win could be a launching point for a strong second-half run. La Tech is 1.5 games behind first-place Western Kentucky (29-12, 11-4), but even with the Hilltoppers in the loss column. It also hosts WKU in a few weeks, perhaps giving it an edge in the conference title race. The Bulldogs have also pushed their RPI to 56 and a strong finish could see them get into at-large range.

14. DBU (28-10, 7-5) has now lost three straight series. The Patriots have lost at Western Kentucky and Air Force and now at home against La Tech. That slide sees them in fifth place in Conference USA, 2.5 games behind WKU. From an NCAA Tournament perspective, they aren’t in trouble, as their RPI remains in the top 20. But any hopes of hosting will require DBU to climb the standings at least a bit.

The more important question for DBU is what’s gone wrong? WKU, Air Force and La Tech are all solid teams, but early in the season DBU looked like an Omaha contender. Their power has stalled in recent weeks. While they had a five-homer game Tuesday in a win at Oklahoma State, the Patriots have hit four home runs in their last nine weekend games after averaging more than two home runs per game in the first 28 games of the season. Their starting pitching has been a little more human after excelling early. But there are few throughlines over the last three weeks.

That’s probably good news for DBU, as it suggests that just a couple better performances here and there might have flipped the script and instead of a stretch that saw them go 4-6, they could have gone 6-4 and no one would be talking about an April swoon. DBU faces a tough week ahead, as it travels to TCU and FIU, but there’s no reason to panic.

15. Michigan has been well off the radar for weeks. It dug itself a big, early hole as it was 7-14 at the start of Big Ten play. But the Wolverines (20-21, 10-5) have been climbing out of that hole over the last month and have won their first five conference series. They made some noise this weekend by winning the rivalry showdown against Ohio State, finishing it off with a 7-5 victory Sunday.

Kurt Barr (6.1 IP) and Jacob Denner (2.2 IP) combined for a shutout in Friday’s 4-0 victory. Denner, who earned the save Friday, picked up the win Sunday, as he threw 3.2 innings out of the bullpen and Michigan came back to win, 7-5. Barr (5-2, 2.72) and Denner (5-3, 4.25, 2 SV) are the team’s two leading pitchers and they delivered in a big way against Ohio State.

Michigan is now in second place in the Big Ten, 1.5 games behind first-place Illinois (23-13, 10-2). It’s still under .500 overall and only just inside the top 100 in RPI, meaning its way too early to think about what any of this means for its NCAA Tournament chances, but in a messy, confusing Big Ten, the Wolverines’ consistency is setting them apart and giving them a chance at a second-half redemption.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Clemson, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Wake Forest

A few changes to the field this week as we welcome back Oklahoma and Wake Forest and see Kentucky join even following the series loss. Kentucky arrives on the strength of my realization that the Wildcats will likely be a top-eight seed. I really like their chances playing at home this June. It’s a deep lineup and pitching staff and the team is playing with incredible belief. Oklahoma takes the designated Big 12 place in the field because while you can hold a College World Series without a Big 12 representative, it hasn’t been done in more than a decade. The Sooners seem to have fixed their mid-season swoon and are rolling again. Wake enters as I drop Florida State. The Seminoles, as I outlined above, have a lofty ceiling if their pitching is healthy. Until I see that original rotation again, however, I’m a bit hesitant to push them into the Omaha field. Wake, meanwhile, is much closer to playing to its significant potential.

Looking Ahead

No. 5 Duke hosts No. 6 Florida State in crucial ACC series. This figures to be a fantastic matchup. The Blue Devils (29-11, 13-8) have won four straight series and will have home-field advantage at Coombs Field, where they are 18-6. The Seminoles (31-8, 11-7) are coming off a tough series loss at Wake Forest and now have to return to North Carolina for another challenging series.

The Red River Rivalry returns. No. 16 Oklahoma (24-14, 14-4) is in first place in the Big 12 and welcomes Texas (24-17, 11-7) to Mitchell Park for a rivalry series. The Sooners are riding a seven-game winning streak, while the Longhorns have been up-and-down all season, but have won four of their last six games. Oklahoma swept this series a year ago in Austin and Texas will be looking for payback.

No. 13 Oregon State hosts No. 18 Oregon in rivalry showdown. Everything about this series feels significant. The Beavers (30-9, 10-7) have lost four straight games and need to get back on track. The Ducks (27-12, 11-7) are coming off a tough series loss at Stanford and also need to get right. Both teams are chasing first-place Arizona in the Pac-12 standings. And, looming over everything, is the fact that this is the last time they will meet as Pac-12 foes, as Oregon prepares to head to the Big Ten following the season and Oregon State will play next season as an independent. Rivalry series don’t get much bigger than this.

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