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


Image credit: Chase Burns (Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images)

The college baseball season is roaring down the stretch and the races for conference titles and host spots in the NCAA Tournament are as hot as ever.

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

1. Coming into the weekend, the most intriguing series on the slate appeared to be Wake Forest hosting Clemson. The Tigers were tied with North Carolina atop the ACC standings, fighting for a conference title, while the Demon Deacons were riding a six-game winning streak and hoping to push their way back into the hosting race.

Wake swept the series. It won a 4-2 pitcher’s duel on Friday, scored four runs in the eighth on Saturday for an 8-5 victory and then rolled to a 13-3 win in eight innings in Sunday’s finale. There might have been more compelling action once the games started, but the outcome was every bit as impactful as the pre-series buildup promised.

The Demon Deacons (36-16, 15-12) have won nine straight games and pushed their RPI into the top 10. A series win this week at NC State would earn them a home regional. Their case isn’t straightforward if they go 1-2 and while I’ll leave the exact analysis of that scenario for next week, it’s safe to say they’d still be in the mix.

Wake got a great start Friday night from Chase Burns, who set the program’s single-season strikeout record in the process. That the righthander would come through in a big spot is not a new development, but it’s a huge key to any hope of a postseason run for the Deacs.

Perhaps more importantly was lefthander Josh Hartle (6 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 9 K) delivering a quality start in the finale. The 2023 All-American started the year poorly but has rounded into form over the last month – matching the team’s overall trendline – and over his last five starts is 2-1, 3.81 and has at least pitched into the sixth inning four times. With righthander Michael Massey currently battling a bulging disk in his back – he hasn’t pitched since April 28 – getting Hartle back to being a reliable, solid starter is crucial.

Wake is a dangerous team, particularly at home, as its series wins in the last month against Florida State and Clemson have shown. But its pitching depth is not strong, especially with Massey sidelined. If it’s going to make another run in June, it needs its top pitchers – Burns, Hartle and closer Cole Roland – firing on all cylinders.

2. It was a difficult weekend for Clemson (37-13, 17-10). Ethan Darden (7 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 4 K) battled Burns on Friday, but came up a little short. The Tigers couldn’t hold a lead late on Saturday and then on Sunday were unable to slow the Deacs’ powerful offense.

Weekends like that happen. But it was a particularly bad time for it to happen to Clemson. The Tigers effectively cost themselves a shot at the ACC title (it’s not over yet, but North Carolina’s magic number is one) and their RPI fell to 7. That RPI slip doesn’t matter a ton, but it does mean Clemson needs to win its series this weekend against Boston College (22-27, 8-19) to maintain its top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.

More broadly speaking, it’s also the kind of weekend that invites bigger questions about a team. Clemson is 9-10 since it swept Notre Dame on the road in early April. That includes series losses to NC State and at Wake and series wins against Pittsburgh, at Louisville and Georgia Tech.

The Tigers are a good team but they’ve yet to find the next gear. They’ll probably need it to win a regional, something they haven’t done since 2010. Erik Bakich is one of college baseball’s best tournament coaches and if anyone can pull it out of them in June it’s him, but they’ve not played like one of the best teams in the country over the last month.

3. While Clemson faltered, North Carolina put the pedal to the metal on its ACC title quest. The Tar Heels (39-11, 20-7) swept Louisville at Boshamer Stadium, outscoring the Cardinals, 36-15. They homered 12 times in the series, including three from Vance Honeycutt, who became the program’s all-time record holder as he hit his 58th career home run Saturday to break a record set by Devy Bell in 1987.

UNC has been a bit overlooked this year. Some of that comes down to it faltering in a couple key series – against East Carolina in February and at NC State last month – but it’s more than taken care of business all season long. It’s now on the cusp of its first ACC title since 2018, a 40-win season and a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament. Depending on how the next two weeks play out, the No. 1 overall seed may not be out of its reach.

But first things first, UNC this weekend makes the short trip down US-15/501 to Coombs Stadium to take on Duke. Just one win in the rivalry series will clinch the program’s first ACC title under coach Scott Forbes.

4. Kentucky got a hard-fought series win at Florida, twice beating the Gators in extra innings. The Wildcats won a wild, back-and-forth game Friday, 12-11, in 10 innings despite some very sloppy play. After getting routed Saturday, they bounced back Sunday for a 7-5 victory in 10 innings.

Just about nothing went right Saturday for the Wildcats, but they found a way in each of the other two games. Their 18 overall road wins and 11 SEC road wins are both program records. While Kentucky is certainly built to win at Kentucky Proud Park, it’s plenty capable of taking the show on the road.

Kentucky now enters the final week of the season with a one-game lead on Arkansas and Tennessee in the SEC standings. It has won just one SEC title in program history (2006). The Wildcats own the tiebreaker on the Razorbacks, but not on the Volunteers. This is probably going to go down to the final day of the season, but Kentucky is in the driver’s seat and it can’t ask for anything more than that.

5. For the second week in a row, Texas A&M went on the road to an SEC West foe fighting for its postseason life and lost a series. After last week losing at LSU, this weekend the Aggies fell at Mississippi. And, again, A&M lost the first two games of the series before rebounding in the finale, in this case with a 6-0 victory.

For A&M (42-10, 17-10) the fallout is that it’s now out of the SEC title race (it’s not technically been eliminated, but it would need to sweep Arkansas and then get help from South Carolina and Vanderbilt) and it’s slipped from the top spot in RPI. So, the Aggies have effectively lost a shot at the SEC title and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Have the last two weeks exposed them further? Can they still make an Omaha run – or more?

The good news for A&M is that I think it still has a pretty firm grasp on a top-eight national seed. Even if it were to fall behind Georgia or Mississippi State in the SEC standings, it still beat them head-to-head and that, combined with its still elite RPI (3), should keep it ahead in the pecking order among SEC hosts. If I’m right about that, then the Aggies would be playing at home in June and they’re 30-2 this season at Blue Bell Park.

The bad news is that A&M is suddenly scuffling offensively. It scored 36 runs total against LSU and Ole Miss. That’s a decent enough 6.0 runs per game, but 20 of those runs came in the two series finales (including 14 last week at LSU) and it was averaging 8.57 runs per game in SEC play through the first seven conference series. The Aggies have a strong pitching staff and lefthander Shane Sdao (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) starred Sunday in his first start since Opening Weekend (he’s been a key part of the bullpen since). But they need their offense to get back on track.

While losing these two series is a blow, A&M doesn’t need to hit the panic button. LSU lost back-to-back series at the same exact spot on the calendar a year ago and that turned out to be nothing more than a footnote on the Tigers’ championship season. But A&M needs a response at home this weekend against Arkansas to build some momentum ahead of the postseason.

6. The series win for Ole Miss (27-24, 11-16) was critical. The Rebels have a top-25 RPI, which historically means that they need to reach 13 SEC wins to get into the NCAA Tournament. They’ll have their shot this weekend at LSU (33-20, 10-17) in what amounts to almost a play-in series.

The Rebels actually have a pretty strong tournament case if the selection committee were willing to overlook their subpar conference record. They have a good RPI, played an elite schedule (No. 2 strength of schedule nationally) and have 12 quadrant 1 wins, a total bested only by Kentucky (18) and Tennessee (13). Unfortunately, the precedent for needing 13 SEC wins is quite strong, meaning a series win at LSU is likely a requirement.

Ole Miss got some impressive pitching to put itself in this position. Riley Maddox (6 IP, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K) and Liam Doyle (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 7 K) turned in quality starts in each of the first two games and Mason Nichols (5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 5 K) nearly made it three-for-three. The Aggies’ have a tough offense to hold down, but the Rebels did a good job of it.

7. Arizona (32-18, 19-8) won a tough series at Utah to take control of the Pac-12 title race. The Wildcats now go into this weekend’s showdown against Oregon State (39-12, 17-9) with a 1.5 game lead and need to win just one game to win the Pac-12 title. It would be their first since 2021 and just their third of the 21st century (2012 was the other).

The Wildcats bounced back after on Friday getting stymied by Bryson Van Sickle, who threw a complete game and held them to one run on three hits. Their offense got back on track over the next two days, as they won 8-4 on Saturday and 10-4 on Sunday. Andrew Cain homered in both wins and Mason White homered twice Saturday.

Arizona is 6-1 in May and is in a strong position going into the final weekend. Its RPI (29) is keeping it out of the hosting race for now, but if the Wildcats can win the series against the Beavers and then a couple games in the Pac-12 Tournament, they might still be able to play their way into the picture. For a team that was picked ninth in the preseason Pac-12 coaches poll and started the season 10-13, that’s pretty good. Coach Chip Hale and the Wildcats deserve a lot of credit for their second-half surge.

8. Oklahoma rolled to a sweep of Baylor, blitzing the Bears, 47-15, in a little more than 28 hours as the series was condensed to two days by bad weather. With the sweep, the Sooners (32-17, 21-6) clinched the Big 12 title. It was their first conference title since 1995, when the league was known as the Big Eight. Ironically, the program’s first Big 12 regular season title comes in its final season in the conference before it moves to the SEC.

Oklahoma took a bit of a strange route to the conference title. It has won six Big 12 series and swept them all. It’s lost its other three series and, perhaps not coincidently, those were to Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia, the three teams immediately behind it in the standings. Broadly speaking, the Sooners beat the teams they should have and lost to the rest of the top teams in the Big 12.

Where does that leave Oklahoma on the cusp of the postseason? The Sooners are in a position to host regionals (their RPI is 16), so they should have a pretty good chance at advancing. But given how hot and cold they’ve run this season; I don’t feel quite as confident about their chances at putting together back-to-back winning weekends against quality teams to advance to the College World Series.

9. NC State (29-19, 15-11) won another big series, taking down Virginia in Charlottesville. After splitting the first two games, the Wolfpack defeated the Cavaliers, 13-5, in Sunday’s finale. Garrett Pennington went 3-for-4 with a home run and four runs in the finale to put a bow on a weekend that saw him go 9-for-13 with home runs in all three games and score nine runs.

The Wolfpack now own series wins against Virginia, North Carolina, Clemson and Duke, as well as a split against Florida State (the third game was cancelled due to field conditions). Those teams are five of the six ACC teams (in addition to NC State) that rank in the top 25 of RPI. NC State plays the sixth – Wake Forest – at home this weekend.

Because NC State’s two ACC series sweeps (Boston College, Notre Dame) are cancelled out by the two times it was swept (Georgia Tech, Louisville), it’s not in the ACC title race, though it is just 1.5 games behind Clemson in the Atlantic Division. Its 3-6 record in midweek games has it on the hosting bubble. But the Wolfpack have more than proven they belong among the ACC’s elite teams.

10. Arkansas (42-10, 19-8) got an important series win against Mississippi State (33-18, 15-12). The teams split the first two games and the Bulldogs jumped out to an early lead Sunday, scoring six runs in the first three innings. But the Razorbacks scored nine unanswered to go on to win, 9-6. That gives them a two-game lead on Texas A&M in the SEC West standings, meaning they need to just win one game this weekend in College Station to clinch the division title and a top-two seed in the SEC Tournament.

While Arkansas got the result it needed, it’s not without concern about the state of the rotation. Hagen Smith continued his All-American campaign with 11 strikeouts in five innings on Friday night. But Brady Tygart and Mason Molina both failed to make it out of the second inning the next two days, a week after neither went more than three innings at Kentucky. It’s probably just a blip – both have been excellent this season – but getting solid starts out of the pair at A&M would help assuage any developing concerns.

11. Georgia and South Carolina came into their series in Columbia tied in the SEC standings at 13-11 and both ranked in the top 15 of RPI. It appeared that the series winner would be in the driver’s seat to host regionals.

The Bulldogs (38-12, 16-11) more than seized their opportunity. They swept the Gamecocks, scoring 39 runs on the weekend. Georgia has won eight straight games, raised its RPI to No. 2 and assured itself of home baseball in June. The question now is whether the Bulldogs will be able to smash their way into the top eight seeds in the NCAA Tournament, though that is an uphill climb. The SEC is unlikely to get more than four top-eight seeds and it’s hard to see how Georgia could climb the conference pecking order into that top four (regardless of the official standings), given its series losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M, the two teams it would be competing against.

On the diamond, Georgia unsurprisingly bashed its way through the series. The Bulldogs hit 11 home runs in the series, including four from freshman Tre Phelps, who homered in all three games. Charlie Condon hit just one homer in the series, a reminder that Georgia ranks third in the nation in home runs not just because of one player.

Condon homered in the series opener to break the 21st century single-season record with his 34th home run of the season. He was held homerless the next two games but is still averaging .68 home runs per game. At that rate, he needs to play nine more games to reach 40 home runs on the season. Georgia probably would need to advance to super regionals to play that many games this season.

The Bulldogs are surging at the right time. They’re 14-4 since losing the series at Mississippi State in early April. They finish the regular season with a rivalry series against Florida and are closing in on their first 40-win season since 2019 (also the last time they hosted regionals).

12. South Carolina (33-18, 13-14), meanwhile, missed a great opportunity. The Gamecocks had a chance at home to take a big step toward securing a home regional for the third time in four seasons (including 2021, when it hosted as a No. 2 seed). Instead, they got swept.

South Carolina fell behind early in Thursday’s opener, as Georgia scored four runs in the top of the first inning. It also fell behind early Friday, when Georgia scored 10 runs over the third and fourth innings. While the Gamecocks led most of Saturday’s finale, too often this weekend they were playing from behind. The pitching staff, which has been solid for much of the season, faltered against the high-powered Bulldogs’ lineup.

South Carolina now needs a series win at No. 1 Tennessee to maintain any hopes of hosting a regional. It’s looking increasingly likely that the Gamecocks will be hitting the road for the postseason and will probably land in a regional hosted by an ACC foe – possibly even archrival Clemson.

13. Tulane (29-23, 13-11) delivered perhaps the most surprising result of the weekend, as it swept East Carolina (37-13, 16-8). The Green Wave walked off with wins on both Friday (6-5) and Sunday (10-9, 10 innings), sandwiched around a 7-3 victory Saturday, a game in which they never trailed. Connor Rasmussen, who redshirted as a freshman at ECU before last summer transferring to Tulane, had a big weekend to lead the lineup, going 6-for-12 with a double and a home run.

Tulane is now tied with Wichita State for third in the American Athletic Conference, though its RPI is well outside the range needed for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. That means the Green Wave will need to win the conference tournament for the second straight year to return to regionals. But regardless of how the next two weeks unfold, Tulane is now assured of a winning season and has made a significant step forward from last season, when it went 19-42 and finished seventh in the standings before its Cinderella AAC Tournament run took it to regionals. Tulane can feel good about that progress.

14. ECU had a no good, very bad week, going 0-4 with a loss to Duke before the sweep at Tulane. The Pirates have lost five straight games and seen their RPI drop out of the top 10. That’s probably going to cost them a top-eight seed in the NCAA Tournament unless they win the AAC Tournament.

This isn’t the time of year to hit a five-game skid, but it doesn’t sound alarm bells for me. Three of the losses were by one run and ECU has lost just two series all season – both on the road. It’s a long season and bad weekends are bound to happen.

The bigger issue for ECU is that it too often plays close games. Its pitching staff has been excellent (it was third in the nation with a 3.56 ERA coming into the weekend), but it just hasn’t been good at creating separation. The Pirates are 10-11 in games decided by one or two runs this season and are 5-9 when they score fewer than six runs. If ECU is going to make a postseason run this June, it’s going to need to find a way to overcome those trends.

15. The Southern Conference’s first-place showdown between UNC Greensboro and Samford ended in dramatic fashion on Sunday when Jake Ogden hit a walk-off, three-run home run to give the Spartans a 6-4 victory in the rubber game. The Bulldogs took a 4-3 lead into the ninth inning but singles from Mitchell Smith and Aidan Brewer set up Ogden for the heroics.

With the victory, UNCG (31-18, 15-6) holds a half-game lead over Samford (33-18, 13-5) in the standings. But because the Spartans are now in the clubhouse, the Bulldogs will have to sweep Wofford (33-16, 10-7) in the regular-season finale to knock them out of first place. UNCG will be left to scoreboard watch while it plays a non-conference series against S.C.-Upstate.

No matter how next weekend plays out, the fact UNCG is in this position is impressive. The Spartans were picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches poll after Billy Godwin in December stepped down as head coach to return to the Yankees as a scout. Cody Ellis, who had been with the program for 14 months and had just turned 33, was promoted to interim head coach.

UNCG now is just one Wofford win away from its first SoCon title since 2018 and its third ever.

Eight For Omaha

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

One change this week, as Kentucky joins and Clemson falls out. At this point, I just don’t know what else I need to see from the Wildcats. They’re going to be a top-eight seed, they play really well at home, and they’ve consistently shown they can win in a variety of ways against good competition. Clemson, meanwhile, has backed up over the last month. I still believe in the Tigers’ ability, but they’re not playing their best baseball at the most important time of year.

Looking Ahead

No. 2 Kentucky eyeing SEC title as it hosts Vanderbilt. The Wildcats (37-11, 20-7) go into the final week of the regular season with a one-game lead on Arkansas (42-10, 19-8) and Tennessee (42-10, 19-8) in the SEC standings. Kentucky has won just one SEC title in program history (2006) and its magic number to at least a share of this year’s title is two. Vanderbilt (34-18, 12-15), meanwhile, needs a win to feel ok about its NCAA Tournament chances. There’s a lot at stake this weekend at Kentucky Proud Park.

No. 7 Wake Forest travels to No. 9 NC State with hosting on the line. Both the Demon Deacons (36-16, 15-12) and Wolfpack (29-19, 15-11) are firmly in the race to host regionals. NC State probably needs to win the series, while a single win might be enough for Wake. The series winner should feel good about getting to start the NCAA Tournament at home, however.

No. 8 Oregon State travels to No. 21 Arizona for a Pac-12 title decider. The Wildcats (32-18, 19-8) hold a 1.5 game lead over the Beavers (39-12, 17-9) and have homefield advantage this weekend. Anything less than an Oregon State sweep will mean Arizona wins just its third Pac-12 title in the 21st century.

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