Under The Radar Conference Title Contenders
Conference tittle races are heating up all around the country as college baseball approaches its stretch run. Ahead of another big weekend, Teddy Cahill and Michael Lananna identify some teams at or near the top of the standings that have managed to stay under the radar but are making a run at a conference title and regional appearance.
Oklahoma State (20-14-1, 9-3 Big 12)
This weekend: vs. Kansas.
A year after a veteran-laden Cowboys team made a deep run into Omaha, the young, banged-up 2017 Cowboys had no choice but to win the Big 12 tournament last year to punch their ticket to regionals. This year, Josh Holliday’s club is in much better shape to vie for an at-large bid. The Cowboys sit No. 39 in the RPI and are in the thick of a tightly bunched group at the top of the Big 12 standings. They’ve gone about it in an unusual way, however. Traditionally a pitching-rich program under pitching coach Rob Walton, the Cowboys have pitched to a 5.28 team ERA this year and have mixed and matched quite a bit to find the right formula on the mound. Thankfully for Oklahoma State, its offense has picked up the slack, slashing .287/.386/.491 in conference play. Veterans like Jon Littell and Colin Simpson have spearheaded that surge, with Littell leading the team at .388/.483/.612 in conference play and Simpson slugging five homers and driving in 15 runs in 12 conference games. Juco transfer Carson McCusker—a 6-foot-8 outfielder—has provided a lift, as well, leading the team in overall hitting, albeit with half the at-bats. He’s started eight of the team’s 12 conference games so far and has seen his usage steadily rise.
Path to regionals: While the Cowboys’ current metrics have them in the projected Field of 64, the next few weeks could make or break their chances. Series remain against No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas Tech, as well as a difficult non-conference trip to Iowa (a sleeper team in its own right). Those series should provide huge opportunities for OSU to firm up its RPI standing, but the opposite is also true. The Cowboys will need to find more consistency on the mound for their current pace to be sustainable, as they’ve allowed more runs (206) than they’ve scored (202) this season.
Michigan (21-11, 8-0 Big Ten Conference)
This weekend: vs. Penn State.
The Wolverines last season lost 11 players to the draft, the most in the nation. They brought in the first top-10 recruiting class in Big Ten history to help offset the departures and knew it would take some time for such a young team to find its footing. The Wolverines did struggle out of the gate on the road against a tough schedule, but it wasn’t until their home opener that they bottomed out. Lawrence Tech (Mich.), an NAIA school, on March 14 upset Michigan, dropping the Wolverines to 4-11. At the time, the school’s men’s basketball and hockey teams were embarking on postseason runs that would result in Final Four appearances. Coach Erik Bakich said the baseball team felt like it wasn’t doing its part to add to Michigan’s overall athletic success. The loss to Lawrence Tech gave it the opportunity to hit the reset button on the season and the Wolverines got back to the core philosophies and fundamentals that drive their program. The change has taken hold and Michigan hasn’t lost since, running off a 17-game winning streak, the second-longest this season in the nation. Outfielder Jonathan Engelmann is having a breakout junior season, hitting .344/.423/.528 with four home runs to lead the team. Blue-chip freshman Jesse Franklin was slowed out of the gate as he recovered from a labrum injury but has found his stride and is hitting .312/.357/.623 with a team-high six home runs. Michigan has found an unexpected combination in its rotation with sophomores Tommy Henry (6-0, 2.72) and Karl Kauffman (4-2, 3.00) and freshman Ben Dragani (4-0, 1.38) stepping up. Lefthander William Tribucher (2-2, 1.52, 4 SV) and righthander Jeff Criswell (3-1, 2.11) have anchored the bullpen. And Michigan’s staff should soon receive a boost, as senior lefthander Alec Rennard, its Opening Day starter, is close to returning from a muscle strain in his forearm that has sidelined him for a month.
Path to regionals: Michigan’s winning streak has pushed it to the top of the Big Ten and onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. It also faces an advantageous conference slate, as it misses No. 12 Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State—all teams that are in the thick of the title hunt. But Michigan will be tested in the season’s final month. After this weekend against Penn State, which has won just five games since Opening Weekend, Michigan has just one more home weekend—against No. 25 Illinois—and faces trips to Iowa, Rutgers and Purdue. If the Wolverines can keep their magic going away from Ann Arbor, they should reach regionals for the third time in four years.
South Florida (24-13, 7-5 American Athletic Conference)
This weekend: vs. Central Florida
The AAC remains one of the country’s most perplexing, intriguing and at times frustrating conferences to predict. As it stands now, there’s a three-way tie for first place between the Bulls, Houston and Cincinnati, and eight of the conference’s nine teams are within 1.5 games of first. Like the first few years of the conference’s existence, this race likely won’t be decided until the very end of the regular season. East Carolina is the only team ranked in the Top 25 at present, but Connecticut and Wichita State project as at-large teams and South Florida seems poised to join them. Under first-year head coach Billy Mohl—who was promoted to replace Mark Kingston, now at South Carolina—the Bulls are coming off a huge series win on the road against a Top-10 ECU team. Impressively, they did so despite a rough outing from ace and projected first-rounder Shane McClanahan, who struggled to command his explosive mid-90s stuff against the powerful Pirates in the opener. When McClanahan is on, he’s been untouchable, striking out 84 batters in just 50.1 innings. Overall, the Bulls show good balance, with a staff ERA of 3.24 and an offense that is slashing .300/.378/.470, collectively. Juniors David Villar (.385/.483/.659, 7 HR) and Joe Genord (.330/.408/.670) have supplied the muscle in a deep, athletic lineup.
Path to regionals: One of three teams tied for the AAC lead, the Bulls boast a No. 26 RPI and key series wins against UConn and ECU. The Bulls can’t simply tread water going forward, however, as several tough matchups remain, including this weekend against a UCF team that has made multiple appearances in the Top 25 and is fighting for a bid. A series win against the Knights and/or on the road at Wichita State a couple of weekends from now could go a long way toward securing the Bulls’ tournament hopes.
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Arkansas-Little Rock (20-15, 9-5 Sun Belt Conference)
This weekend: at Louisiana-Lafayette
Little Rock stands in first place in the Sun Belt West Division, holding a half-game edge on Texas-Arlington, last year’s division champion, and a 1.5-game lead on Louisiana, one of the conference’s perennial powerhouses. The Trojans rise to the top of the division has been the result of a big turnaround after last season going 21-34 and finishing in fifth place in the division. A large part of the turnaround has been the success of a large 2017 recruiting class that was heavy on junior college transfers. The team’s top three hitters—Chase Coker (.313/.388/.478), Troy Alexander (.305/.366/.504) and Matt Merino (.290/.329/.435)—are all junior college transfers and freshmen Hayden Arnold (1-2, 3.45) and Aaron Funk (1-0, 3.86) have boosted the pitching staff. Offensively, Little Rock can beat teams in a variety of ways thanks to some impressive raw athleticism. The Trojans have also been solid defensively, posting a .975 fielding percentage due to the steadiness of Merino at shortstop and sophomore catcher Kale Emshoff (.272/.368/.416). On the mound, sophomore lefthander Chandler Fidel (5-2, 3.70) has given the Trojans a steady presence on Friday nights and has made five straight quality starts to open conference play. Senior closer Justin Garcia (2-2, 3.08, 9 SV) has anchored the bullpen and, along with setup man Donavin Buck (4-0, 2.72)—another junior college transfer who began his college career as a linebacker at San Diego State, has helped shorten the game for Little Rock.
Path to regionals: Little Rock has never made the NCAA Tournament and has now played its way onto the tournament bubble in mid-April. For a program that hasn’t finished a season with a winning record since 2010, it is heady territory. Little Rock faces a tough closing stretch with series against Louisiana, South Alabama and Coastal Carolina still to come, though it also faces Appalachian State and Arkansas State, which have combined for five conference wins. To move off the bubble, Little Rock will have to make hay against the cellar-dwelling teams left on its schedule, while also playing better than .500 against ULL, South Alabama and Coastal. It won’t be easy, but for a team that has already exceeded expectations, it is within reach.