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Off The Bat: Texas Tech's Sweep Upends Big 12 Title Race

Brandon Birdsell Brandon Birdsell
Brandon Birdsell (Ken Murphy/Four Seam Images)

This weekend was jam-packed. There was a top-10 series in Blacksburg and a top-25 series in Fayetteville. There were big upsets in Baton Rouge and Tucson and Tennessee clinched the SEC. But I consistently found my eyes drifting to Stillwater, where the Big 12 race was getting upended by Texas Tech. All the postseason and championship implications that games hold this time of year make for outstanding entertainment.

Here are 13 takeaways from week 13 of college baseball.

1. Coming into the weekend, Oklahoma State looked to be in control of the Big 12 title race. It controlled its own destiny and it looked like four wins in its last six conference games—at home against Texas Tech and at Baylor—would be enough to secure its first conference championship since 2014.

It wouldn’t be easy, of course, but for a team of Oklahoma State’s caliber, it was the kind of scenario that you hope for coming into the year. Everything was there for the Cowboys’ taking.

But that orderly title race was thrown on its head this weekend. Texas Tech rolled into O’Brate Stadium in Stillwater and swept Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, in Lawrence, Kan., TCU swept Kansas. All of a sudden, TCU (32-18, 16-8) was leading the Big 12 standings. Texas Tech (35-16, 14-7) was a half-game back in second place and Oklahoma State (34-17, 13-8) had slipped to third place and, by virtue of a series loss to TCU, had been eliminated from title contention.

Driven in part by the fact it plays just 24 conference games, the Big 12 annually has one of the closest title races in the country. It typically goes down to the final day of the regular season—as it did last year, when Texas edged TCU—and this year again promises to be a barn burner.

TCU is already in the clubhouse after its sweep of Kansas. It will conclude the regular season against Santa Clara on a weekend that is sure to include a lot of scoreboard watching. Texas Tech hosts Oklahoma (31-18, 13-8), which is still alive for the title itself. Oklahoma State visits Baylor (24-24, 6-15), which has a magic number of 1 to clinch its spot in the Big 12 Tournament.

TCU holds the tiebreaker on Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, but Oklahoma holds it against the Horned Frogs. So, both the Red Raiders and Sooners could snatch away the conference title with a sweep next weekend in Lubbock.

2. For Oklahoma State, it was a brutal weekend. The Cowboys saw their Big 12 title hopes dry up and were swept at home for the second time this season (Gonzaga). Their hopes for a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament were dealt a serious blow, as their RPI dropped out of the top 10 following an 0-4 week that also included a walk-off loss at Dallas Baptist on Tuesday.

Very little went right for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first inning Friday and held it for three innings, until the Red Raiders scored five in the fourth against ace Justin Campbell. Oklahoma State would not lead again in the series.

Despite that, Oklahoma State had chances much of the weekend. The Cowboys were simply stymied by righthander Brandon Birdsell in Saturday’s 9-3 loss—held to just four hits on the day, but they lost Friday, 7-6, and Sunday, 6-4. In Friday’s loss, the would-be tying run was thrown out at home in a rundown trying to score on a ball in the dirt. In Sunday’s loss, the Cowboys got the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth inning but couldn’t cash in.

The Cowboys aren’t short on promise. Campbell (7-2, 3.39) is an All-American-caliber starter. Righthander Roman Phansalker (5-2, 1.76) has been a reliable bullpen ace and two-way star Nolan McLean (.272/.373/.539, 12 HR; 1-1, 4.35, 4 SV) brings power at the plate and on the mound. Jake Thompson (.335/.444/.609, 12 HR) and Griffin Doersching (.318/.408/.691, 10 HR) anchor a solid lineup. And Oklahoma State has proven that’s a winning formula. It won a series at Vanderbilt on Opening Weekend. It swept Texas in Austin and won the Bedlam Series against Oklahoma.

But Oklahoma State has also shown some real cracks. It’s now lost series to arguably the best three teams it’s played—Gonzaga, TCU and Texas Tech. To make matters worse, all three of those series were in Stillwater.

So, how good is Oklahoma State? It has two weeks until Selection Monday to rebuild some momentum and answer some questions. When it all clicks, the Cowboys have an impressive ceiling. Maybe playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, rather than getting chased will suit them better.

3. It wasn’t so long ago that Texas Tech found itself in a similar position to Oklahoma State. A month ago, the Red Raiders lost five straight games, including getting swept at TCU. They gave up 47 runs in that losing streak and looked far from the part of Big 12 title contender.

Since then, however, Texas Tech is 8-3 and has won three straight Big 12 series. The Red Raiders are 6-1 away from home in that stretch, which is especially notable because they had started the season 9-12 away from Lubbock.

Perhaps we should have seen this weekend coming. Texas Tech improved to 15-3 against Oklahoma State since 2016 and has not lost a game in Stillwater in that stretch.

It isn’t always pretty, but Texas Tech simply knows how to win. The Red Raiders have had some unbelievable finishes, like Friday night’s game-ending rundown and Kurt Wilson’s walk-off steal of home against Texas.

Regardless of whether Texas Tech sweeps Oklahoma to chase down TCU for the Big 12 title, the Red Raiders have engineered an impressive stretch run. Their RPI (33) is still higher than what is typical of a regional host, but it’s moving in the right direction. And Texas Tech is going to be a team that no one will want to be drawn with in June, whether it’s in a regional or a super regional.

Would it surprise anyone if Tim Tadlock led the Red Raiders back to Omaha? Of course not. At this point, in fact, I’m expecting to see them there.

4. While Texas Tech’s sweep upended the Big 12 race, it was not the biggest upset of the weekend. That belonged to Arizona, which won its series against Oregon State. The Beavers came into the week ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America Top 25 and in first place in the Pac-12.

Arizona bounced back from a tough, 12-9 loss in Friday’s opener to win the next two games and claim a massive series win. The Wildcats (35-18, 16-11) won Saturday’s game, 5-2, and then won the finale, 10-5. With the series win, they moved back into the Baseball America Top 25 at No. 25 after a four-week absence.

Arizona’s offense put together a big weekend against one of the best pitching staffs in the country. The Wildcats scored 24 runs on the weekend, the most the Beavers have allowed in any series this season. They on Friday gave lefthander Cooper Hjerpe his worst game of the season, as they knocked him out in the fifth inning after scoring five runs (four earned). They on Sunday knocked righthander Jake Pfennigs out in the third inning after he gave up five hits and five walks, though the Wildcats managed just one run.

The Wildcats have the potential to have one of the best lineups in the country and at times—like this weekend—they’ve shown it. Catcher Daniel Susac (.368/.433/.583, 9 HR) has hit like a first rounder and veteran Tanner O’Tremba (.364/.463/.598, 8 HR) has stepped up in a big way. But Arizona hasn’t been able to string together games at the plate like it did this weekend, which has led to some of its inconsistency overall.

Arizona has one of the sport’s most confounding resumes. It went 5-1 against Oregon State and Stanford—which are this week both ranked in the top five and are the top two teams in the Pac-12 standings. But it also has series losses against Utah, Washington State and Southern California, which are the three worst teams in the Pac-12 standings. The Wildcats have lost three home series, something they haven’t done since 2015.

Arizona has shown it can beat any team in the country and has the ceiling of an Omaha team. It’s also shown, however, that it can lose to anyone in the Pac-12. With the postseason approaching, the optimistic view is that the Wildcats can rise to even the biggest challenges. A more pessimistic view would be concerned about the inconsistency they have shown.

One thing is certain: that dynamic will make Arizona and first-year coach Chip Hale a fascinating watch in June.

5. After that series loss, Oregon State (40-11, 19-8) goes into the final weekend of the regular season with a one-game lead on second-place Stanford (33-14, 18-9) in the Pac-12 standings. The Cardinal hold the tiebreaker after winning the head-to-head series earlier this season, so the Beavers will have to at least match them this weekend to win the championship.

The Pac-12 title isn’t quite as important as it has been in years past because the conference this year is holding a tournament for the first time, which means the regular season standings won’t decide the automatic bid. But both the Beavers and Cardinal will be fighting hard for the title this weekend. Oregon State hosts No. 22 UCLA, while Stanford gets last-place Southern California.

At the other end of the Pac-12 standings, California (25-25, 11-16) and Utah (25-24-1, 10-17) are dueling for the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament. They’ll settle it on the diamond, as they meet in Berkeley.

6. Tennessee brushed aside last week’s series loss at Kentucky with a series win against Georgia. Along the way, the Volunteers (45-7, 22-5) clinched the SEC title, their first outright since 1995.

Winning the SEC title with a week to spare is impressive and is yet another piece of evidence of just how dominant Tennessee has been this season. But the big news out of Knoxville this weekend was the way in which coach Tony Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson managed the pitching staff.

Righthander Chase Dollander on Thursday made his return to the rotation after missing two weeks after he was hit in the arm by a line drive and then last week pitching in relief. On Saturday, righthander Ben Joyce, the hardest thrower in the country, made his first start of the season. Freshmen righthanders Chase Burns and Drew Beam, who have been in the rotation all season long, both pitched in relief this weekend instead.

As the postseason approaches, Tennessee is getting several pitchers experience in a variety of roles. Vitello recalled in 2006, when he was an assistant coach at Missouri, that the Tigers fell into the loser’s bracket in regionals and had to play five games to win the Malibu Regional. To win the SEC Tournament, Tennessee would play either four or five games in five days in Hoover. With that in mind, Vitello wants the Volunteers to be prepared for anything.

Vitello also said he was mindful of not relying too heavily on Beam and Burns, who are just freshmen and had abnormal high school careers due to the lost 2020 season.

“Just would like to manage the whole thing so that wherever we’re at when we hand these guys the ball the last time this particular season, they’re able to run through the finish line as opposed to stumble,” he said.

Seeing Joyce as a starter was particularly interesting this weekend. Earlier this season, he hit 105 mph on the radar gun and watching him air it all out in short relief has been special. He showed similar velocity Saturday in his four innings and all 53 of his fastballs registered at least 100 mph. Joyce has now thrown four innings twice in the last three weekends and it’s increasingly likely he’ll have extended postseason outings, whether that’s out of the bullpen or as a starter. It’s also of interest for scouts evaluating him ahead of July’s draft, as he’s showing it may be worth letting him try starting as a professional, rather than sending him to the bullpen right away.

7. Virginia Tech may not win the ACC—it trails Miami by one game in the conference standings—but it would be hard to argue the Hokies (36-11, 16-9) aren’t the best team in the conference. Virginia Tech this weekend won a series against Louisville (35-15-1, 16-10-1) to all but lock up a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Hokies are also up to No. 3 in the Baseball America Top 25, matching the Preseason 1982 poll for their best ranking in the poll’s 42-year history.

Virginia Tech did it the hard way this weekend. It lost Friday’s opener, 8-1, before bouncing back for two tight victories to win the series. The Hokies won Saturday, 4-3, holding off a late Cardinals rally, and then won Sunday’s finale, 6-4. Righthander Drue Hackenberg was outstanding on Saturday, as he has been all season, and the Hokies put together a complete team effort to win the finale, led by outfielder Gavin Cross.

Since getting swept at Georgia Tech on opening weekend of ACC play, Virginia Tech has not lost a series. That includes going 7-3 against Louisville, Miami, Notre Dame and Virginia—the other teams occupying the top five of the conference standings. Closing that one-game gap on the Hurricanes (37-14, 18-9) on the final weekend of the regular season won’t be easy, but the Hokies have a chance. They host Duke (21-29, 10-17), while Miami hosts Notre Dame (31-11, 15-9). The disparity in total games may ultimately be Virginia Tech’s undoing, but the way the two teams are trending, it has to feel good about its chances.

Regardless of whether the Hokies are the top seed in the ACC Tournament or not, they look like they’ll earn a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. They are certain to snap their regionals drought (since 2013) and look like they’ll be a problem for any opponent in June. No matter how this year ends, this season has been a true breakthrough for the Hokies under coach John Szefc.

8. Miami (37-14, 18-9) may still be leading the ACC, but after a series loss at rival Florida State, it’s clear that the Hurricanes have slowed from their early season heights. They have lost three of their last four ACC series—all on the road. Where it once looked like the Hurricanes were going to run away with the ACC title, they are now in a fight to the finish with the Hokies.

Things started well this weekend for Mami. Lefthander Carson Palmquist and righthander Gage Ziehl combined to hold Florida State to two unearned runs on seven hits in the opener, outdueling lefthander Parker Messick, the 2021 ACC Pitcher of the Year. But Florida State was able to jump on starters Karson Ligon and Alejandro Rosario in the next two games, scoring 11 runs (eight earned) in 8.2 innings against the pair. It’s not a new development for the Hurricanes—Ligon (6-4, 4.03), a freshman, has not been as good in the second half of the season and Rosario (2-3, 6.98) has been up and down all year—but it is one that could cause Miami problems in June.

The Hurricanes have a deep, talented bullpen anchored by closer Andrew Walters (0-0, 0.32, 13 SV). But they need to be able to hand their relievers more leads if they’re going to make a deep tournament run. Miami is still tracking toward a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament, but it needs a strong series this weekend against Notre Dame to start to build some momentum ahead of the postseason.

9. Meanwhile, it was a big result for Florida State (32-18, 15-12). The Seminoles shook off a tough loss in the opener and won the rivalry series. They are now 6-1 against the Hurricanes under coach Mike Martin Jr.

Lefthanders Bryce Hubbart and Wyatt Crowell combined to hold Miami to four runs (one earned) in game 2 and lefthander Ross Dunn came out of the bullpen to throw five good innings to pick up the win in the finale.

Florida State showcased its depth on the mound this weekend. It didn’t get a quality start and its All-American ace had one of his worst starts of the season, but the Seminoles overcame it thanks to long relief outings from Crowell (4 IP) and Dunn (5 IP) and solid play from their lineup.

Florida State moved back into the top 20 in RPI and is firmly in the mix to host. It has four tough road games this week—at Florida (32-19) and North Carolina (31-19)—but a couple wins would provide another boost to its RPI. It’s all there for the taking for the Seminoles, who have won seven of their last eight games.

Tracy Smith (Andrew Woolley Four Seam Images)

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10. Vanderbilt also got a big boost to its hosting resume with a series win at Arkansas. For weeks, it has been clear that the Commodores would have the RPI necessary to host regionals. The question was whether they could win enough SEC games, as history says a winning record in conference play is all but required to host.

Following this weekend’s series win, Vanderbilt (34-16, 14-13) finished the weekend with a winning conference record for the first time since March. The job isn’t done for the Commodores—they still need two more wins between this weekend’s regular season finale against LSU and the SEC Tournament—but it was a big step.

Vanderbilt did it in dramatic fashion. In Friday’s opener, Enrique Bradfield Jr. hit a go-ahead, three-run home run in the 10th inning to power the Commodores to a 9-6 victory. And in Sunday’s finale, freshman lefthander Carter Holton threw a two-hit, seven-inning shutout to lead them to a 5-0 victory.

Vanderbilt has won five of its last seven games, including series at Georgia and Arkansas. The Commodores seem to be finding their form at the perfect time of the season.

11. While Vanderbilt took a big step to hosting, Arkansas missed an opportunity this weekend. The Razorbacks (37-14, 17-10) slipped into a tie with Texas A&M atop the SEC West—and the Aggies hold the tiebreaker. Their RPI dropped to 29—a mark that if it remains in that range could cost them a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Friday’s game in particular will hurt. After falling behind, 5-0, in the third inning, they battled back twice to tie the game. But they couldn’t get anything going against Vanderbilt closer Thomas Schultz, who shut them out for three innings, and it was Bradfield who provided the late fireworks. In Sunday’s loss, the Razorbacks were stymied and got just one runner into scoring position after the third inning.

The good news for Arkansas is that it finishes the regular season at Alabama (27-24) and it will have a bye in the SEC Tournament. That gives it the opportunity to improve its RPI and keep it in the mix as a top-eight seed.

12. I, like many around college baseball, left Mississippi for dead weeks ago. A series loss to archrival Mississippi State in late April dropped its SEC record to 6-12. A turnaround over the final four weeks, which included series against Arkansas, LSU and Texas A&M, seemed unlikely.

But the Rebels weren’t dead yet and after sweeping the Tigers in Baton Rouge for the first time in program history, they are on the cusp of finishing the comeback with an NCAA Tournament berth. Ole Miss (31-19, 13-14) probably just needs a win this weekend against Texas A&M to secure its spot in regionals.

So, how did this happen? Ole Miss has won seven straight and in that streak it’s given up 18 runs. Righthander Dylan Delucia (5-0, 4.28) has been excellent for a month now. Freshman lefthander Hunter Elliott (3-3, 2.84) has delivered three straight quality starts, including a win Saturday at LSU. Closer Brandon Johnson (1-3, 3.93, 9 SV) has made seven straight scoreless appearances. It might have taken longer than anyone in Oxford wanted, but the Rebels have found their guys on the mound.

Offensively, Tim Elko (.301/.395/.640, 19 HR) has heated up, Kevin Graham (.338/.373/.631, 10 HR) has gotten healthy and Peyton Chatagnier (.236/.298/.437) looks to have broken out of a slump.

The Rebels and coach Mike Bianco deserve credit for fighting through a brutal stretch that led to a lot of chatter about what was wrong in Oxford.

13. Southern Mississippi came into this weekend in a tight spot. The Golden Eagles had lost five of their last eight games and were welcoming Texas-San Antonio to Hattiesburg for a clash between the top two teams in the Conference USA standings.

Southern Miss lost Friday’s opener, 8-7, as its comeback bid fell short. But the Golden Eagles bounced back to win the next two games, winning the series and all but sealing the C-USA title. Southern Miss (38-14, 20-7) holds a two-game edge on second-place Louisiana Tech (36-17, 18-9) and owns the tiebreaker thanks to its head-to-head series win.

The Golden Eagles are also aiming to host regionals for the first time since 2017 and this weekend’s series win was critical in that endeavor. Not only did it keep Southern Miss in first place in the conference standings, it kept it in the top 20 in RPI. The Golden Eagles need to keep winning – both next weekend at Middle Tennessee State and in the C-USA Tournament – to keep their hosting hopes alive, but they did what they needed to this weekend.

As for the rest of C-USA, La Tech, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion and UTSA are now all bunched within two games of each other in the standings and have RPIs that range from 47-54. They’re all bubbly and if any can separate from the pack over the next two weeks, the conference should get at least one more NCAA Tournament bid.

Eight for Omaha

Arkansas, Florida State, Oregon State, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech

This exercise remains as difficult as ever. There are not eight teams nationally that have the consistency to inspire confidence in picking them to reach the College World Series, so I’m riding with some hot hands here. Texas Tech looked excellent this weekend at Oklahoma State and I feel good about the Red Raiders' ability to grind out wins. Florida State and Vanderbilt stand out for their depth on the mound, something that should play up in the postseason. So, in come the Seminoles, Red Raiders and Commodores.

Looking Ahead

The first NCAA Tournament bid will be handed out. The Field of 64 will start to take shape as the Ivy League will hold its best-of-three series to crown a champion and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference holds its tournament. Penn (31-13, 17-4) won the regular season title on Sunday and will host Columbia (27-15, 17-4) this weekend. The Quakers have not reached regionals since 1995, while the Lions are looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2018. The Big West, which does not hold a conference tournament, could also wrap up its automatic bid next weekend, as No. 23 UC Santa Barbara’s magic number to clinch the title is two.

The Big 12 title race comes down to Oklahoma at Texas Tech. With TCU’s conference season all wrapped up, all the Horned Frogs can do is watch from afar and see if the Sooners or Red Raiders can chase them down. If either Oklahoma or Texas Tech sweeps the series, they will be crowned champions. Otherwise, it will be TCU taking home the title.

One last weekend of ACC chaos for 2022. The ACC has been topsy turvy all season long with surprises regularly popping up in conference play. The conference’s final weekend of the regular season figures to be no different. The ACC will serve up a pair of top-15 series with No. 9 Miami taking on No. 8 Notre Dame and Louisville hosting Virginia. Beyond those headliners with hosting implications, watch Georgia Tech at Pittsburgh for a series that will impact the NCAA Tournament bubble.

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