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Off The Bat: Rivalries Heat Up Around College Baseball

As the calendar flipped to April this weekend, college baseball approached the halfway point of the season and delivered plenty of rivalry fun around the country. Tennessee made another big statement, this time against its in-state rival, while Georgia and Texas claimed key rivalry series wins. Meanwhile, out West, the Pac-12 race heated up.

Here are 15 thoughts on the weekend that was in college baseball.

1. Tennessee last weekend swept then-No. 1 Mississippi in Swayze Field and took over the top spot in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time in the 42-year history of the rankings. It was a big challenge and an even bigger statement for the Volunteers.

This weekend presented another big challenge for Tennessee, as it traveled to Vanderbilt. The Volunteers responded with another big statement.

Tennessee swept Vanderbilt, winning 6-2 on Friday, 5-2 on Saturday and finishing the sweep with a 5-0 victory Sunday behind a two-hit shutout from freshman righthander Drew Beam. Tennessee (27-1, 9-0) ran its program-record winning streak to 19 games—the longest in the nation this season—and won a series against its in-state rival for the first time since 2016. It was the Volunteers’ first series win in Nashville since 2009.

Tennessee’s offense has gotten a lot of attention this year and rightfully so—it’s averaging 10.46 runs per game and has hit 69 home runs in 28 games. But the Volunteers have excelled on the mound as well—their 1.80 ERA is the best in the country—and their pitching staff was electric this weekend. They held the Commodores to four runs on 11 hits and three walks. Beam faced just one batter over the minimum Sunday, one day after righthander Chase Dollander threw eight innings in Saturday’s win. Tennessee needed just 4.2 innings from its bullpen in the series—and their relievers held Vanderbilt to one hit, one walk and no runs.

At 9-0 with sweeps of South Carolina, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Tennessee is off to the best start in SEC play of any team since 1994 Florida. The Gators began SEC play 10-0, which is the conference record since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1991. Tennessee will have a chance to match and break that mark next weekend when Missouri heads to Knoxville.

The Volunteers have reached the midpoint of the regular season and there can be no doubt that they are the best team in the country.

2. While Tennessee enjoyed a banner weekend in Nashville, it was a different story for Vanderbilt. The Commodores (20-7, 4-5) could get little going offensively and while their pitching staff held the Volunteers to a season-low 16 runs on the weekend, it wasn’t nearly enough.

Vanderbilt is now 4-3 in series this season with wins against Army, at Hawaii, Wagner and Missouri and losses to Oklahoma State, at South Carolina and Tennessee. Missouri (17-8, 3-6) has played pretty well since getting swept in Nashville two weeks ago and just won a series against South Carolina. But Army, Hawaii and Wagner are a combined 22-53 and rank outside the top 150 in RPI.

Halfway through the season, Vanderbilt is still an enigma. It’s dealt with some injuries—righthander Nick Maldonado hasn’t pitched in a month—that haven’t helped. But the Commodores got outplayed all weekend and were swept at home for the first time since 2012 (Oregon). Vanderbilt has lost back-to-back SEC series for the first time since 2018 and has lost five of its last six games. It all makes for an unfamiliar position for the Commodores.

A trip to No. 25 Auburn (19-9, 5-4) is on tap this weekend and the Tigers are coming off back-to-back road series wins against Texas A&M and Louisiana State. It won’t be an easy trip to The Plains. The Commodores will break out of their funk sooner than later, but they have some things to work out in the second half of the season.

3. After losing a series to Oregon and getting swept at Arizona to open Pac-12 play, Stanford got back on track last weekend with a sweep of Washington State. Still, a series this weekend at Oregon State loomed large for the Cardinal. They were just 12-8 overall and at 4-5 in the Pac-12, they risked losing touch with the conference leaders. The Beavers, meanwhile, had not lost a series this year and featured what looked like the best offense in the Pac-12.

Stanford this weekend answered the bell. The Cardinal and Beavers split the first two games, which were both one-run, extra-inning pitchers’ duels before Stanford came back to win Sunday’s finale, 8-5.

Stanford’s pitching stepped up in a big way in Corvallis. The Cardinal held the Beavers to eight runs on 24 hits over 30 innings and became the first team this season to shut out Oregon State. Lefthander Quinn Mathews had a big weekend, saving Friday’s game with a scoreless inning and then throwing seven innings out of the bullpen to win Sunday’s game. Mathews had previously been in Stanford’s rotation but came up big in the new role in Corvallis.

Stanford (14-9, 6-6) still has some growing to do. Its lineup has yet to lock in and be the kind of powerful offense it showed in last year’s College World Series run. More depth on the mound would also help, as Mathews cannot be counted on to shoulder that kind of load every weekend.

But the Cardinal have navigated a challenging first month of Pac-12 play. They are three games behind Arizona (21-7, 9-3) in the standings, but no other team is more than 1.5 games ahead of them and the schedule will relax in the second half of the season. Stanford, which was picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason coaches’ poll, is very much still in the mix and this weekend’s series win was vital to keeping its title hopes alive.

4. Because it came in a losing effort Friday, Oregon State lefthander Cooper Hjerpe’s day will naturally be a bit overshadowed, but it deserves a better fate. He struck out 17 batters in eight scoreless innings and held Stanford to two hits and a walk. His 17 strikeouts matched a single-game program record and no pitcher in the country has had more strikeouts in a single game since Feb. 26, 2021, when McNeese State’s Will Dion whiffed 19 batters.

Hjerpe is 6-0, 1.94 with 68 strikeouts and 10 walks in 41.2 innings this season. His development as an ace has been critical for the Beavers, particularly as injuries have sidelined righthanders Will Frisch and Jake Pfennigs, who were expected to make this a standout rotation.

Oregon State (20-7, 7-5) now has to put a tough series loss behind it before a trip to Southern California this weekend. This doesn’t have to be anything more than a blip for the Beavers, but the Cardinal also represented their toughest test yet this season. Bouncing back quickly is critical.

5. Georgia this weekend produced a spectacular response. After losing a series at Kentucky last week, the Bulldogs bounced right back and swept rival Florida in Athens.

Georgia (22-6, 6-3) walked off with a 7-6 win in the Thursday opener and carried that momentum through the rest of the weekend. The Bulldogs on Friday won 6-1 and then broke out the bats for a 14-8 victory in the finale. They have now won six straight against the Gators at Foley Field.

Only Tennessee (9-0) and Arkansas (7-2) have started SEC play better than Georgia and the Bulldogs this weekend climbed to No. 3 in RPI. There’s a long way to go still, but they’re building a strong resume to host regionals.

Georgia has done all this while fighting through some adversity on the mound. Righthanders Will Childers and Dylan Ross have been lost to injury for the season. Lefthander Liam Sullivan has missed the last three weeks due to injury—although he is due to return next week.

Preseason All-American righthander Jonathan Cannon (6-1, 1.71) has been outstanding at the front of the rotation and he delivered another quality start against Florida. But around him in SEC play, the Bulldogs have had to rely more heavily on their bullpen, which has answered the call.

Establishing more starting depth—whether from Sullivan’s return or someone else stepping up—will be important over the next two months. That starts this week with a challenging trip through the Palmetto State, as they play at Clemson on Tuesday before a weekend set at South Carolina. For now, however, the Bulldogs can feel very good about how they are positioned at the start of April.

6. After two disappointing weekends—a sweep at Louisville and a loss last Friday against Virginia Tech that turned out to be the only game the two teams played due to poor weather—Notre Dame this weekend went to Florida State looking to get back on track. The Fighting Irish did that and more—making a statement that they are not going anywhere in the ACC title race.

Notre Dame swept Florida State, handing the Seminoles their first series loss of the year. The Irish won a thrilling pitcher’s duel Friday night, 2-0, and came back for a 5-4 win Saturday with three runs in the final two innings. They closed out the sweep with a 9-7 victory Sunday in a back-and-forth affair, completing their first-ever sweep in Tallahassee.

The weekend started with lefthander John Michael Bertrand going toe-to-toe with lefthander Parker Messick, the 2021 ACC Pitcher of the Year and a Preseason All-American. It was a big start for the Notre Dame ace, who threw 7.2 scoreless innings, and it set the tone on the mound for the rest of the weekend. Florida State’s rotation is the best in the conference, but Notre Dame matched it on the weekend.

No matter how it happened, Notre Dame (16-5, 5-4) got the series win it needed. After a strange couple of weeks, the Irish are back on track and will get a big helping of home cooking for the next month. They have played just three home games so far this season but will play just four games away from Frank Eck Stadium the rest of April.

7. A week after a big road series win at Arizona, UCLA returned home and built on that with a sweep of Oregon, which came into the weekend in first place in the Pac-12 standings. The Bruins (19-8, 6-3) won three one-run games and have now won eight of their last nine games.

UCLA leads the conference in team ERA (2.50) and its pitching staff held the Ducks in check all weekend. Righthander Jake Brooks held Oregon to two runs in eight innings Friday night and righthander Max Rajcic delivered a quality start of his own Saturday. On Sunday, however, freshman righthander Thatcher Hurd left the game due to injury after recording just one out. The bullpen filled in well, especially lefthander Jake Saum, who threw four scoreless innings, and lefthander Gage Jump, who finished the game with two scoreless innings for the save.

Hurd has been excellent so far this season and is 2-0, 1.06 with 48 strikeouts and 10 walks in 34 innings. An extended absence for the freshman would be a blow, but if any team is built to weather an injury on the mound, it is UCLA.

The Bruins did get good injury news this week, as third baseman Kyle Karros returned to the lineup after being sidelined since Opening Weekend. He went 6-for-15 on the week and hit the go-ahead home run Sunday. His return is an important boost for the Bruins, who are averaging 6.14 runs per game this season.

8. The Red River Rivalry delivered this weekend as Texas and Oklahoma put on an exciting show at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The Longhorns came away with the series win, as they scored 11 unanswered runs in the final three innings Sunday to win the finale, 12-8, after splitting the first two games.

Texas’ comeback Sunday was its longest in four years and gave it a big series win. The Longhorns (21-9, 3-3) had lost two of their last three series—at South Carolina and at Texas Tech—and starting Big 12 play with back-to-back series losses would have been ill-advised for a team with title aspirations.

Instead, Texas returns home with some momentum ahead of its weekend series against Texas Christian (19-9, 6-3). Things haven’t come as easy for the Longhorns over the last month as they did early in the season, but Sunday’s game could be a take-off point for them.

9. Strange times are afoot in the SEC East. Not only is Vanderbilt scuffling at 4-5, Florida (18-10) and South Carolina (13-14) are both 3-6 after three weekends of conference play. That trio of teams has combined for five national titles and nine CWS finals appearances in the last 11 seasons.

Obviously, it’s just a moment in time and there are still 21 SEC games to turn those disappointing starts around. Florida and South Carolina are both facing down stiff challenges over the next few weeks. The Gators’ slate includes Arkansas, at Tennessee and Vanderbilt and the Gamecocks have Georgia, Ole Miss and Auburn on the road.

The next three weeks won’t make or break either team, especially Florida—which is in a much better position in terms of overall record and RPI. But both teams will be eager to avoid falling further behind the conference leaders.

10. Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech have had some great battles on the diamond in recent years, but this weekend met for what will be the last time as conference mates unless they face off in the Conference USA Tournament. Southern Miss is headed for the Sun Belt Conference next year, which may bring an end to the rivalry.

If this was it, it was a good way to go out. The games weren’t as tense as last year’s battles in the C-USA Tournament, but they played in a packed Pete Taylor Park all weekend—more than 16,000 fans attended the series—and the Golden Eagles came out on top. The teams split the first two games before Southern Miss won Sunday’s finale, 8-0. The series win pushed the Golden Eagles (19-8, 7-2) into the Top 25 for the first time this season and they look like the conference favorites.

Southern Miss is again pitching at a high level and held La Tech to six runs on the weekend. Sunday was the Golden Eagles’ third shutout of the season, and they have a 2.96 team ERA. Their rotation of Hunter Riggins (3-2, 2.61), Tanner Hall (4-0, 2.32) and Hurston Waldrep (3-1, 2.00) is the best in the conference and gives Southern Miss a chance every weekend.

Southern Miss faces a challenging week ahead, with a game against No. 7 Ole Miss on Tuesday in Pearl, Miss., and a trip this weekend to Charlotte (17-10, 4-5), the reigning C-USA champion. But after this weekend, Southern Miss will go into the week with plenty of confidence.

11. Wofford has been one of the most consistent programs in the country over the past five years. The Terriers have won 36 games in three of the last five full seasons and were off to a 14-3 start to the 2020 season. Coach Todd Interdonato again has them off to a strong start this spring.

Wofford this weekend won a series at Dallas Baptist, its biggest statement yet this season. The Terriers (20-9) won Friday’s opener, 8-5, and clinched the series with a 9-6 victory Saturday. The Patriots won the finale, but Wofford became the first team since Opening Weekend to win a series against DBU (17-10).

The Terriers have a strong offense that puts a lot of pressure on defenses. They’ve stolen 92 bases this season, but they swiped just three bases this weekend. Instead, they pounded out 38 hits in the series and never allowed the Patriots to settle into a game.

As good as Wofford has been over the last five years, it has not been able to break through for an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Southern Conference is typically a one-bid league, and the Terriers just haven’t been able to get over the hump in the conference tournament. This year, perhaps it will be different. Conference play begins next week and both Mercer (24-5) and Wofford rank in the top 40 of RPI. Getting an at-large bid won’t be easy for either team, but their early-season play has made it a possibility if they are able to carry their momentum into SoCon play.

Tracy Smith (Andrew Woolley Four Seam Images)

Michigan Hires Tracy Smith As Next Coach

Michigan tabbed Tracy Smith as its next baseball coach.

12. A sweep at Georgia Tech to begin ACC play left Virginia Tech flying under the radar the last few weeks. But the Hokies changed that this weekend when they went to North Carolina and won a series in Chapel Hill for the first time in program history.

The Hokies routed the Tar Heels, 12-1, in Friday’s opener and clinched the series with a 7-3 victory Saturday. They lost Sunday’s finale, 10-6, but it was still a big weekend for Virginia Tech (17-7, 5-5), which has won five of its last six ACC games.

The Hokies offense is operating at a spectacular level, as they are hitting .323/.425/.609 with 56 home runs as a team. Outfielder Gavin Cross, a Preseason All-American and a projected top-10 draft pick, is hitting .330/.422/.638 with five home runs and gives them a superstar, but his 1.060 OPS ranks sixth on the team. Outfielder Jack Hurley is hitting .453/.514/.884 with nine home runs and has a 23-game hitting streak. Second baseman Eduardo Malinowski is hitting .326/.434/.739 with a team-high 10 home runs.

Even in a conference with some powerful offenses like Virginia, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, Virginia Tech stands out at the plate. It returns home this weekend for another big series against North Carolina State.

13. Don’t look now, but here comes Pittsburgh. After last weekend sweeping a series against Clemson, which was shortened to two games by inclement weather, Pitt followed that up this week with a win Wednesday against West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl and a series win against Louisville, which had swept its first two ACC series.

The Panthers and Cardinals split the first two games, with Pitt holding off a ninth-inning rally Friday night for an 8-7 victory and Louisville bouncing back for a straightforward, 14-6 victory Saturday. The Panthers won the finale, 6-3, behind a complete game from Billy Corcoran and three home runs.

Pitt (15-11, 5-6) had an up-and-down start to the year as it spent the first month of the season mostly on the road. It was 10-10 overall and 1-5 in ACC play before it played its first home conference series last week against Clemson. That’s not unusual for a northern team in the ACC and the Panthers have enjoyed the home cooking the last two weeks.

The question now is can Pitt carry this momentum through the rest of the season and make regionals for the first time since 2012? The last two weeks were vital in pursuit of that goal. Six difficult ACC series remain on the schedule and it’s too early to say, but the Panthers at least have a path and have shown they can hang with anyone in the conference.

14. West Virginia beat Texas Christian, 5-2, on Sunday in Fort Worth to win its Big 12 opening series. After splitting a pair of one-run games on the first two days of the series, the Mountaineers took the finale with a bit less drama, as closer Trey Braithwaite threw 3.2 scoreless innings to finish the game.

West Virginia (16-10, 2-1) started the season 7-2 with a winning weekend in a tournament at Coastal Carolina and a series win at Charlotte before hitting a tough stretch in March. It looks like the Mountaineers are back on track, however, as Big 12 play gets underway. They’ve won six of their last eight games and picked up what could be a huge road series win. TCU has had some mixed results this season, but it still projects to be an NCAA Tournament team. West Virginia is moving into a similar position itself.

West Virginia returns home the next two weekends to take on Baylor and No. 4 Oklahoma State. The trip to Morgantown is always a difficult one and if the Mountaineers can take advantage of their home-field advantage, they could really build some momentum. My focus on the middle of the pack in the Big 12 has admittedly been focused on Baylor and Oklahoma, but it looks as though West Virginia is ready to assert itself. The Mountaineers could be tracking toward their third NCAA Tournament appearance in the last five seasons.

15. The American Athletic Conference opened conference play this weekend and Central Florida delivered the biggest result of the weekend, sweeping rival South Florida. The Knights (18-10, 3-0) had lost four straight series, all at home (Ole Miss, North Florida, UNC Greensboro and Samford), but shook that off this weekend in a big way.

UCF started the weekend with back-to-back one-hit shutouts (the second was a seven-inning game as part of a Sunday doubleheader). It finished the sweep with an 8-4 victory in Sunday’s finale.

Tulane (19-9-1, 3-0) also started conference play with a sweep of Memphis. Houston (19-9, 2-1) won its series against Wichita State and East Carolina (16-13, 2-1) won a series at Cincinnati.

The conference is without a clear at-large candidate for the NCAA Tournament at this point in the season, but there’s still time for such a team to emerge. UCF had the loudest weekend, while Tulane has the best resume to this point. This is sure to be a tight race again this spring and bears monitoring during the second half.

Eight for Omaha

Arizona, Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Tennessee, Texas, Texas Tech, Virginia

One change to the field this week, as Vanderbilt drops out after its third series loss of the year, and Arizona moves in. The Wildcats are coming off a sweep of Washington and moved into first place in the Pac-12. I still think Oregon State is the best team in the conference, but Arizona is building a hosting resume and it has a strong home-field advantage in Tucson. If the path to Omaha goes through Hi Corbett Field, I like the Wildcats’ chances.

Looking Ahead

No. 2 Virginia and No. 9 Miami square off with first place in the ACC Coastal on the line. It’s a top-10 showdown this weekend at Mark Light Field, with just one game separating the Cavaliers (25-3, 9-3) and the Hurricanes (21-6, 10-2). The matchup to watch is Miami’s pitching staff against Virginia’s high-powered offense, but Friday night also provides a strong matchup on the mound with Virginia lefthander Nate Savino and Miami lefthander Carson Palmquist facing off against each other.

The Big 12 provides plenty of intrigue with Oklahoma traveling to No. 4 Oklahoma State and TCU taking on No. 8 Texas. Oklahoma (16-10, 3-3) on Tuesday defeated Oklahoma State (20-8, 5-1) in the midweek version of Bedlam in Tulsa. Now, the Sooners and Cowboys will meet with Big 12 positioning on the line. TCU (19-9, 6-3) is coming off a tough series loss to West Virginia and now must hit the road to take on Texas (21-9, 3-3) in a key showdown. There’s a lot on the line this weekend.

No. 25 Auburn looks to stay hot against No. 19 Vanderbilt. The Tigers (19-9, 5-4) this weekend return to The Plains to take on the Commodores (20-7, 4-5), who are coming off back-to-back series losses. Auburn, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back road series wins. Can Vanderbilt halt its skid or will the Tigers keep rolling? This series suddenly has a lot at stake.

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