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Off The Bat: Conference Titles Come Down To Nail-Biting Finishes

For most conferences around the country, this weekend marked the end of the regular season. There was still much to play for from coast-to-coast, including championships, conference tournament qualification and NCAA Tournament resume improvement. Not surprisingly, with so much on the line, the weekend delivered some big moments and drama.

Here are 10 takeaways from the weekend that was.

1. Stanford was the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12. Not only did we at Baseball America pick the Cardinal to win, so too did the Pac-12 coaches in their preseason poll. And that’s exactly where they ended the regular season.

Stanford (37-14, 21-9) swept Southern California this weekend. That result, combined with Oregon State’s series loss to UCLA, gave the Cardinal the outright conference title, as they finished a game ahead of the Beavers (41-13, 20-10). It was their second Pac-12 title in five years under coach David Esquer.

Stanford took the long route to the conference championship. It started Pac-12 play 1-5 with series losses to Oregon and Arizona, and it didn’t spend a day atop the conference standings until this weekend. But a 12-game winning streak helped it pass Oregon State on the final weekend.

The long way worked for the Cardinal. It allowed the pitching staff to take shape behind righthander Alex Williams (8-1, 1.67), who established himself as an ace and an All-American candidate. Righthander Joey Dixon (5-3, 3.12) and lefthander Quinn Mathews (8-1, 2.58, 5 SV) flipped between starting and relief but have both shown the ability to get outs in either role. That trio, along with lefthander Drew Dowd (6-0, 4.76), accounts for 277.1 innings this season, more than 60% of the innings Stanford has thrown.

Offensively, Brett Barrera (.372/.422/.612, 9 HR) and Carter Graham (.344/.405/.665, 19 HR) have been strong all season long. But after a slow start by his lofty standards, Preseason All-American outfielder Brock Jones (.330/.468/.675, 16 HR, 14 SB) has gotten to where he was expected to be. Freshman Braden Montgomery (.296/.361/.624, 15 HR) went through a midseason rough patch and has recovered, bringing more power to the lineup.

Coming off a College World Series appearance a year ago, expectations were high this year for the Cardinal. They’ve lived up to them in the regular season. Now, they’ll be tested by the postseason. Their finishing kick means they’ll head into it with momentum and homefield advantage, as they’ve positioned themselves to be a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.

2. While Stanford surged to the finish, Oregon State tripped up the last two weeks. The Beavers went 2-4 against Arizona and UCLA, allowing Stanford to pass them for the outright Pac-12 title.

Missing out on the conference championship hurts, certainly. Is it a sign of bigger problems for the Beavers?

On the one hand, every team is bound to have a bad weekend or two. Stanford’s came at the start of the Pac-12 season and not at the end, giving it time to dig out of the hole. Oregon State has been remarkably consistent all season long and has the all-around talent to win a national title.

On the other hand, Oregon State lost three series this season—at Arizona and home to Stanford and UCLA. Arguably, those were the three hardest series the Beavers had this season. They did go 5-0 against Oregon and 3-1 against Gonzaga, two very good teams, so it’s not like the Beavers’ 41 wins are a mirage and there’s something to be said for never losing a series against weaker competition. But Oregon State put itself in an uncomfortable spot with its last two series losses.

The Beavers have a chance to get back on track this week at the Pac-12 Tournament, starting Wednesday against Washington. A solid week in Scottsdale would go a long way to erasing the bad vibes of the last two weeks.

3. The Big 12 title race was perhaps the most compelling of the season. Every time it looked like we finally had a handle on it, there was an upset to shake it up. So, of course, there was one final twist on the last weekend of the regular season.

TCU came into the weekend in first place, but all it could do was scoreboard watch while it played a non-conference series against Santa Clara. Meanwhile, in Lubbock, Oklahoma and Texas Tech met for the series that would decide the title. A sweep for either team would deliver them the trophy, while anything less would send the title to Fort Worth.

Tech not only had homefield advantage, it also had momentum following a stunning sweep of Oklahoma State in Stillwater that knocked the Cowboys out of the title race. That momentum came to a screeching halt, however, as Oklahoma came back to win Thursday’s opener, 13-8. That loss meant Tech couldn’t win the title outright, but it still could share the title if it came back to win the series.

Oklahoma again had other ideas. The Sooners scored nine runs in the first five innings Friday and went on to win, 9-6. That gave Oklahoma a chance to win the title Saturday, but it was unable to complete the sweep, as Tech rolled to a 10-2 victory.

When all the dust settled, TCU (35-18, 16-9) stood alone atop the standings. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Tech all finished tied for second, a game back, with Tech earning the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 Tournament. Oklahoma is the No. 3 seed and Oklahoma State is No. 4.

Oklahoma has now won five straight Big 12 series since losing the Bedlam Series to in-state rival Oklahoma State in early April. It’s been an impressive second half to the season for the Sooners, who could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament thanks to their offense (which is averaging 11.7 runs in those five straight series wins) and their frontline pitching.

4. TCU was not the preseason favorite in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs were picked fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll, behind Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

But here the Horned Frogs are, in Kirk Saarloos’ first season as head coach, atop the conference standings. It wasn’t easy—TCU lost home series to West Virginia and Oklahoma—but any team that goes 5-1 against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech clearly has the ability to play with anyone in the conference.

Despite the conference title, TCU faces a lot of uncertainty as it looks to the postseason. Its RPI of 34 is not in a range typical of regional hosts. But its status as the outright champion of the Big 12, which ranks third in conference RPI, indicates it should host.

How will the selection committee square those facts? It’s anyone’s guess. The good news for the committee is that TCU isn’t done. It will get a chance at the Big 12 Tournament this week to improve its RPI or make a quick exit and push it further away from the hosting bubble.

If TCU does come up short, it can’t argue that it didn’t have the opportunity to prove itself. TCU lost a series at Kentucky, was swept in a rain-shortened two-game series at Florida State and lost a pair of mid-week games to Dallas Baptist. In all, TCU is just 5-9 in non-conference games against teams with winning records.

Should that outweigh all the good work the Horned Frogs did in Big 12 play? Probably not. After all, conference play is the bulk of a team’s schedule. But considering how mixed TCU’s results were against the regional-caliber teams it faced in the Big 12, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask it to have put more meat on the bone in non-conference play if it wants to get homefield advantage in the postseason.

5. Virginia Tech this weekend swept Duke and that result, combined with Miami losing a game to Notre Dame, edged the Hokies (40-11, 19-9) past the Hurricanes (39-16, 20-10) for the ACC title by .012 percentage points.

The Hokies did it in much the same way they’ve piled up wins all season long. They outscored the Blue Devils 28-14 on the weekend and hit 13 home runs in the series. Their high-flying offense is averaging 8.4 runs and 2.04 home runs per game.

That offensive juggernaut, as well as a strong core on the mound, has now carried Virginia Tech to its first ACC title and its first regular-season conference title since 2000, when it was a member of the Big East. The Hokies are probably the most improbable conference champion in college baseball this spring, as they were picked to finish sixth in the Coastal Division in the ACC preseason coaches’ poll, just one point ahead of last-place Pittsburgh. Now, in coach John Szefc’s fifth season in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech is a conference champion and ranked second in the Baseball America Top 25, its highest ranking in the 42-year history of the poll.

As good as this year has been for Virginia Tech, it has a chance to be an even bigger breakthrough. It will be a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament and will therefore be seen as a favorite to reach Omaha. That’s lofty stuff for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and has never won a regional, but the Hokies have it all there for the taking.

6. All seven ACC series this weekend had postseason implications and with so much on the line around the conference, chaos was all but guaranteed. That’s just what we got on the final weekend of conference play.

While Virginia Tech did pass Miami to win the ACC title, the biggest drama came not at the top of the conference, but among the teams fighting on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest all came into the weekend with 10-13 conference wins and needed a result this weekend to bolster their resumes.

Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest all got that result in a big way. Clemson (35-21, 13-16) swept Boston College. Georgia Tech (33-21, 15-15) swept Pittsburgh. North Carolina (34-19, 15-15) swept Florida State. Wake Forest (39-16-1, 15-14-1) swept North Carolina State. In one weekend, the ACC single-handedly changed the whole bubble.

Georgia Tech, UNC and Wake all rank in the top 20 of RPI and with 15 ACC wins, they all can breathe safely going into the ACC Tournament. In fact, all three have a chance to push onto the host line if they carry this momentum to Charlotte, where two wins might be enough to do it for any of them.

Clemson is in a more precarious position due to its losing conference record and strong, but not elite, RPI (30). There’s a lot to like about the Tigers’ resume, which also includes going 5-0 against Georgia and South Carolina, but a poor showing in Charlotte could still doom it.

Meanwhile, NC State (33-20, 14-15) has moved uncomfortably close to the bubble after losing back-to-back series to UNC and Wake. The Wolfpack have a bubbly RPI (42) and need to arrest this slide in Charlotte.

As it stands, the ACC has 11 teams with regional-caliber resumes. No conference has ever placed 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament, but the ACC was the first conference to get 10 bids. Perhaps it will again push the envelope.

7. Maryland’s phenomenal season continued this weekend as the Terrapins swept a weather-shortened two-game series at Purdue and clinched the Big Ten title. It is their first conference title since 1971, when they were a member of the ACC.

Maryland (44-10, 18-5) has been incredibly consistent all season long and has come on especially strong of late. The Terrapins have won seven straight games, six coming in Big Ten action, to pass Rutgers for the title. It’s been an incredible finish for Maryland and fifth-year coach Rob Vaughn.

This isn’t a premium version of the Big Ten, but Maryland has more than done its part to rise to the top of the standings. It didn’t lose a conference series this season and only once did it lose a series opener in conference play. It averages 9.3 runs per game and its 121 home runs are second most nationally, behind Tennessee. Its rotation matches up with nearly any in the country and it plays solid defense. Outfielder Chris Alleyne (.354/.444/.713, 22 HR, 23 SB) is probably the Big Ten player of the year favorite and lefthander Ryan Ramsey (10-0, 2.98) and righthander Jason Savacool (8-2, 2.71) both have a case as Big Ten pitcher of the year.

The Terrapins can beat teams any number of ways and have run their RPI up to No. 3 nationally. Not only are they likely to host a regional, they’re likely to be a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament. The hard part of winning in the postseason is still to come, but it’s been a special season already.

8. What a difference a week makes. A week ago, LSU was swept at home by Mississippi, a stunning result that knocked the Tigers off the host line in NCAA Tournament projections. LSU bounced right back with a sweep of its own, however, taking down Vanderbilt in Nashville and knocking the Commodores off the projected host line.

LSU (37-18, 17-13) outscored Vanderbilt 42-15 on the weekend and snagged the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. Crucially, that also comes with a bye that keeps the Tigers out of the Tuesday elimination games. LSU’s RPI is up to 23, good enough that it’s again in the mix to host. It probably still needs another win or two in Hoover to feel comfortable about hosting, but that’s a massive improvement from a week ago.

So, how did LSU go from scoring nine runs in three games against Ole Miss, a team that has struggled on the mound this season, to blasting Vanderbilt, which ranked fourth in the nation in team ERA (3.42) entering the weekend, for 42 runs? Maybe it was the gold uniforms LSU wore in Nashville, a sartorial choice that you’ll probably see a lot of the rest of this season.

The return of Jacob Berry certainly helped. A broken finger had sidelined the slugger for a week and getting him back in the lineup, even though he’s limited to DH and can only hit righthanded, is a boost. Maybe it was a mindset shift, with the Tigers knowing they had their backs up against the wall if they wanted the homefield advantage of hosting.

Whatever it was, it was a return to the kind of offense we know LSU has. Dylan Crews had a monster weekend, going 7-for-17 with four home runs and Tre’ Morgan went 6-for-12 with four doubles. Berry went 4-for-9 with two walks and was hit twice. It all helped LSU score more runs in a series than any team had against Vanderbilt during Tim Corbin’s two-decade tenure in Nashville.

Tracy Smith (Andrew Woolley Four Seam Images)

Michigan Hires Tracy Smith As Next Coach

Michigan tabbed Tracy Smith as its next baseball coach.

9. While LSU was riding the high of the weekend, Vanderbilt (35-19, 14-16) was feeling the lows. The Commodores a week ago won a series at Arkansas, a second consecutive road series win that pushed the door open to hosting a regional. This weekend’s sweep, however, slammed that door shut.

A run to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament—which would require three wins this week in Hoover—might be enough to bring the Commodores back into the hosting mix. Anything less, however, likely won’t be enough, despite their lofty RPI (5).

LSU added half a run to Vanderbilt’s team ERA over the course of three games, pushing it up to 3.97. One bad weekend shouldn’t define a team going into the postseason, but the pitching staff that had felt like the Commodores’ strength now feels much more uneasy.

Lefthander Carter Holton, a mainstay of the rotation this season, did not pitch against LSU as he was given the week off to rest. Not having one of its top arms didn’t help Vanderbilt this weekend, but he alone couldn’t have prevented the LSU onslaught. The young Commodore pitchers are going to have to have short memories and put this behind them if they’re going to be able to build some momentum ahead of regionals.

10. The first three NCAA Tournament bids were awarded this weekend. The first came Saturday in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament, when Coppin State scored eight runs in the top of the ninth to beat Delaware State, 18-12. The Eagles (24-28, 17-13) won the MEAC Tournament for the second time ever and the first time since 1995.

Later Saturday evening, UC Santa Barbara clinched the Big West championship with a 6-0 victory against UC Riverside. Because the Big West does not hold a conference tournament, its automatic bid goes to its regular season champion. That made Saturday’s win academic for the Gauchos (40-12, 24-3), who had all but clinched the title three weeks ago when they swept second-place Cal Poly on the road.

Still, UCSB’s runaway win in the Big West is impressive. The Gauchos have won the conference two of the last three seasons and have won at least 40 games in three straight seasons. They’ve established themselves as the new powerhouse of the Big West.

On Sunday, Columbia swept a doubleheader at Pennsylvania to come back from losing Saturday’s opener and win the best-of-three Ivy League championship series. The Lions never trailed Sunday, winning the first game, 4-2, and then rolling to a 9-1 victory in the finale. Columbia (29-16, 17-4) has won two of the last three Ivy League titles.

The next automatic bid to be decided will be in the Patriot League, where Army will host Bucknell in a best-of-three series beginning Tuesday.

Eight For Omaha

Louisville, Maryland, Oregon State, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech

I’m trying to embrace the chaotic nature of the 2022 college baseball season by getting some off-the-wall picks into my Omaha selections, but I don’t think I’m really succeeding. Previously, I’ve been hesitant about the Hokies because of their lack of postseason experience, but I just don’t know that it’ll matter if they’re playing at home with that lineup. I’m now bullish on Texas A&M because it looks like the Aggies will have homefield advantage and Jim Schlossnagle very rarely loses at home in the NCAA Tournament (last year was one of just two times he’s lost a home regional). Similarly, Louisville and Dan McDonnell have an incredible track record of winning at home in the NCAA Tournament and the Cardinals are tracking toward a top-eight seed.

My most off-the-wall picks here are Maryland—which is looking like a top-eight seed—and Texas. The Terrapins are simply a well-rounded team that I think can match up with anyone and will have homefield advantage. Texas is purely a gut-feel pick. It feels like Ivan Melendez can lead the Longhorns to Omaha in a way similar to what Kody Clemens did in 2018. I think someone from the Big 12 will make it. I’m just not sure who it will be. So, why not Texas?

Looking Ahead

The SEC Tournament again promises to be a spectacle. Tennessee (49-7, 25-5) blazed through the SEC this spring and now turns its attention to the SEC Tournament, which it has not won since 1995. The Volunteers enter the week as the favorites, but they’ll have plenty of competition, especially from the top teams in the SEC West Division. Keep an eye on Alabama (29-25, 12-17) and Kentucky (30-24, 12-18), which are trying to play their way into NCAA Tournament bids.

The inaugural Pac-12 Tournament should be entertaining. The Pac-12 this year will hold a tournament for the first time, bringing eight teams to Scottsdale, Ariz. The conference doesn’t have much on the line this weekend in terms of NCAA Tournament positioning—no team comes into the week on the at-large bubble, though Oregon (35-21, 18-12) is still in the hosting mix—but the newness of the event is enough to create intrigue. Few of the coaches involved have ever led a program in a conference tournament and it will be interesting to see how they all approach it.

The mid-major conference tournament to watch is Conference USA. Southern Mississippi (41-14, 23-7) won the regular season title and is set to host a regional for the first time since 2017. Beyond the Golden Eagles, however, C-USA’s regionals picture is a jumble. Louisiana Tech (38-18, 20-10), Middle Tennessee State (29-24, 17-13), Old Dominion (38-15, 19-11) and Texas-San Antonio (35-19, 19-11) are all bubbly entering the week and can still play their way into regionals this week in Hattiesburg, Miss.

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