Weekend Preview: Big 12 Battle For Texas, TCU

SEE ALSO: Top 25 Coverage

Teddy Cahill and Michael Lananna each break down three of the biggest storylines going into this weekend’s action.

Texas, TCU ready for Big 12 battle:
Coming off a tough series loss at Texas Tech, No. 7 Texas Christian (32-11, 12-6) returns home this weekend to face No. 25 Texas (31-16, 9-8). The Horned Frogs still hold a one-game lead on the Red Raiders in the Big 12 Conference standings, while the Longhorns are still in the hunt, 2 1/2 games back with nine to play.

Despite the series loss, the Horned Frogs got positive developments in Lubbock, as lefthander Nick Lodolo threw eight strong innings and closer Durbin Feltman got back on track in a victory in the series opener. TCU’s pitching staff didn’t finish the weekend as strong, however, giving up 26 runs in 12 innings of two games Sunday. They will be eager to get back on track back at Lupton Field.

Texas can’t match Texas Tech’s offensive prowess (the Longhorns are hitting .246/.360/.385 as a team), but bring the Big 12’s top pitching staff to Fort Worth. Texas leads the league in ERA (2.84), opponent batting average (.221) and shutouts (7). The Longhorns will need their rotation of Morgan Cooper (6-2, 1.45), Nolan Kingham (7-3, 2.05) and Kyle Johnston (2-1, 3.29) to deliver this weekend.

— Teddy Cahill

CUSA leaders clash: No. 20 Southern Mississippi has been perched at the top of Conference USA for weeks now, but the Golden Eagles’ lead remains slim and it will be tested this weekend when Florida Atlantic visits. The Owls are one game back of Southern Miss and beyond the obvious CUSA implications, a series win would likely do wonders for Florida Atlantic’s No. 61 RPI, which places the team firmly on the bubble. For the Owls to get into the tournament, they’ll need to take care of business over the next couple of weekends.

Southern Miss, meanwhile, is in the hosting discussion with its conference lead and RPI of No. 22, but its resume could use another jolt. This weekend presents an opportunity for just that. The Golden Eagles won’t play another series against a Top 100 team the rest of the way. The player to watch for Southern Miss is two-way freshman Matt Wallner, who’s batting .345/.466/.691 with 14 homers this year. For Florida Atlantic, keep an eye on sophomore shortstop Tyler Frank, the team’s leading hitter and sparkplug, batting .341/.464/.542 with eight homers.

— Michael Lananna

Cal Poly visits Long Beach chasing first: No. 8 Long Beach State (28-14-1, 13-2) has raced out to a strong start in Big West Conference play and has opened a 3 1/2-game lead on Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton. While Fullerton (26-15, 8-4) is still in good shape for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, Cal Poly (20-23, 8-4) will need to win the conference to reach the postseason.

The Mustangs have 12 conference games left and, if they’re going to make a run at the championship, will need to start their finishing kick this weekend against the Dirtbags. Cal Poly is led offensively by sophomore outfielder Alex McKenna (.372/.443/.522, 5 HR, 12 SB) and it has gotten strong performances on the mound from starters Erich Uelmen (2-7, 3.16) and Spencer Howard (4-1, 2.24), and closer Michael Clark (4-0, 1.60, 8 SV).

For Beach, this weekend is a chance to further cement itself in first place and as a NCAA regional host. After this weekend, the Dirtbags will have just six more conference games – though three are at Fullerton. They can’t clinch the conference title yet, a series win this weekend would likely make it a two-team race down the stretch.

— Teddy Cahill

AAC pileup: The American Athletic Conference standings are Rubik’s cube-level complicated at the moment, with a five-way—yes, five-way—tie for first place. No. 24 South Florida, Central Florida, Houston, Connecticut and Tulane are all 9-6. And last-place East Carolina is just five games behind them. The conference is as tight as it can be and will likely remain tight until the very end. However, this weekend could provide at least some separation, or at least break up the tie somewhat.

The Pirates, who are coming on strong of late but still have much work to do, will travel to South Florida and look to gain ground. Tulane, which is No. 81 in the RPI and could use a few key series wins, will host UCF. And Houston, which just reinstated ace Seth Romero from suspension, will face visiting UConn in what should be an electric pitching showdown.

— Michael Lananna

Player to Watch: J.J. Matijevic, 2b, Arizona. No. 19 Arizona has been swept in back-to-back Pac-12 Conference series and needs to halt the slide this weekend at home against Washington. The Wildcats have been one of the best offensive teams in the country this season, but have sputtered at the plate the last two weekends, averaging just 2.67 runs per game. Matijevic (.395/.439/.638, 7 HR) leads the league in hitting, and the Wildcats will need him to put together a big weekend at the plate against the Huskies.

— Teddy Cahill

Player to Watch: Sean Hjelle, rhp, Kentucky. Hjelle, Kentucky’s 6-foot-11 sophomore Friday starter, has helped spark the Wildcats to their 14-7 SEC record. At 7-2, 3.67 on the year, the righthander has been even better in conference play, going 5-1, 2.11 with 43 strikeouts to 13 walks in 47 innings. He’s thrown three scoreless starts in that span, including six scoreless at South Carolina this past weekend, and also has a complete-game shutout to his name. He could be in store for more of the same as the Wildcats host last-place Georgia.

— Michael Lananna

Off the Wall

The Southeastern Conference race continues to be hotly contested with three weekends remaining in the regular season. This weekend’s schedule features No. 9 Mississippi State (30-16, 14-7) traveling to No. 16 Texas A&M (33-13, 13-8) and Mississippi (29-17, 11-10) visiting No. 11 Florida (32-13, 13-8). The Rebels are coming off a series win at Arkansas, which pushed them above .500 in the conference and into the top 40 in the RPI, helping to better position themselves for the NCAA Tournament.

Sophomore catcher Nick Fortes is leading Ole Miss in hitting this season with a .320/.389/.536 line. He homered three times in a pair of midweek victories against Louisiana-Monroe this week. Baseball America caught up with Fortes to talk about this weekend’s SEC showdown.

You play Florida this weekend in another big SEC series. What’s the key for you guys to be successful?

“It’s a big series for us. Obviously, going to Gainesville and playing a team like Florida, they’re a very storied program and always good every year. We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to go down there with the same mindset that we’ve had the past couple weeks. We’re going to play hard and play like we know we’re capable of playing and I think everything’s going to fall into place for us.”

You’ve been having a strong season offensively, especially lately. How are you feeling at the plate?

“I feel pretty good. I feel like I’m seeing the ball well, getting good swings off, getting my pitch to hit, getting a good swing on it and not missing it. That’s pretty much all it is and just having confidence in knowing I can do my job.”

Ole Miss brought in the No. 1 ranked recruiting class this year and a lot of those player have quickly stepped into key roles. How has the team come together this spring?

“The young guys have been great. The freshmen have been awesome. They’re great kids and they fit really well on this team, so it wasn’t really hard getting them gelled into this team, they kind of did it on their own because everyone loves them. I think that’s been a big part of our success as of late because we’ve been able to stay together as a team pretty well. We get along great, we pick each other up when other guys are down. They’ve been a big help for us and it’s been really great them transitioning as well as they did.”

What is your walkup song and how did you pick it?

“My walkup song is ‘No Problem’ by Chance the Rapper. I’m not really sure how I picked it. I really like the song. I heard it over the summer in summer ball and I just really liked it. I thought it would fit well with me walking up to the plate. I really like Chance the Rapper. I thought it was a good fit for me.”

What’s your go-to Chipotle order?

“Headed to Chipotle, walk in the door, ask them, ‘Can I get a bowl, please?’ They say, ‘White or brown rice?’ I say, ‘Brown rice.’ They say, ‘Black or pinto beans?’ Always go for the pinto beans, not really a big fan of black beans. Go for double chicken, sour cream, some corn on top, little bit of hot sauce, cheese and, if I’m feeling it, some guacamole. Probably with a Coke.”

— Teddy Cahill

Top 25 Series (Where to Watch)
California at (1) Oregon State (Pac-12 Networks)
(2) Louisville at Notre Dame (ESNP3)
Alabama at (4) Auburn (Friday and Saturday on ESPN3, Sunday on SEC Network)
(5) Texas Tech at West Virginia (Saturday on Fox College Sports)
Georgia at (6) Kentucky (ESPN3)
(25) Texas at (7) Texas Christian (Friday and Sunday on ESPNU, Saturday on ESPN2)
Cal Poly at (8) Long Beach State
(9) Mississippi State at (16) Texas A&M (Thursday and Saturday on ESPNU, Friday on ESPN3)
Nevada at (10) Clemson (ESPN3)
Mississippi at (11) Florida (Friday and Saturday on ESPN3, Sunday on SEC Network)
(13) Stanford at Arizona State (Streamed on thesundevils.com)
(14) Cal State Fullerton at Hawaii (Friday and Saturday on OC Sports)
South Carolina at (15) Louisiana State (Friday on ESPN3, Saturday on SEC Network, Sunday on ESPN)
Boston College at (17) Wake Forest (ESPN3)
(18) Arkansas at Tennessee (Thursday and Saturday on SEC Network, Friday on ESPN3)
Washington at (19) Arizona (Pac-12 Networks)
Florida Atlantic at (20) Southern Mississippi (Streamed on southernmiss.com)
Ohio State at (21) Michigan (Friday and Saturday on Big Ten Plus, Sunday on Big Ten Network)
(22) St. John’s at Georgetown (Streamed on guhoyas.com)
(23) Maryland at Illinois (Friday and Sunday streamed on fightingillini.com, Saturday on Big Ten Network)
East Carolina at (24) South Florida (Streamed Friday on gousfbulls.com)

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