Weekend Preview: Louisville, Virginia Meet In Top-10 Clash

Weekend Preview highlights some of the most important story lines from around the game of college baseball.

Louisville gets another chance for marquee series win

Through five weekends, Louisville has already played two series against two Top 25 opponents—both times on the road. It lost both series, first to then-No. 21 Mississippi in the second weekend of the season and then to then-No. 6 Miami last weekend. Miami and Mississippi are ranked Nos. 4 and 7 in this week’s rankings.

Top 25 Series
(1) Florida at Kentucky
(13) Louisiana State at (2) Texas A&M
(3) Oregon State at (15) California
(17) Clemson at (4) Miami
Texas at (5) Texas Christian
Georgia Tech at (6) North Carolina
(18) South Carolina at (7) Mississippi
(9) Virginia at (8) Louisville
Georgia at (10) Mississippi State
(11) Vanderbilt at Missouri
(21) North Carolina State at (12) Florida State
(14) UCLA at Arizona
George Washington at (16) Houston
(19) Oklahoma State at Kansas State
(20) Long Beach State at Cal State Fullerton
Tennessee at (22) Alabama
Illinois-Chicago at (23) Michigan
Southern California at (24) UC Santa Barbara
Auburn at (25) Arkansas

No. 8 Louisville will get another crack at a top-10 opponent this weekend, but this time it will get to stay at home for the series. No. 9 Virginia, the defending national champions, comes to Jim Patterson Stadium this weekend for another big Atlantic Coast Conference series.

Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said he is glad for the opportunity both to finally play a marquee series at home and for the challenge of facing Virginia in their annual ACC interdivision crossover series.

“How much fun is it to get to play Virginia every year?” McDonnell said. “They’re the epitome of consistency in college baseball. You could argue they’re one of the top three to five most consistent programs in the last 10 years. They always have star power on the mound, they always play defense, they always are balanced offensively with power, speed, all-purpose guys.”

The Cardinals swept the series in Charlottesville, Va., last year. They never trailed on the weekend and outscored the Cavaliers 23-5 over the three games. Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said his team was beaten in “every phase of the game.”

O’Connor said he never uses a previous year’s result as motivation for his teams. But he said the sweep was a key moment in the Cavaliers’ eventual run to the national championship.

“That weekend was a real eye-opening weekend for us,” he said. “It had a lot to do with our team’s success last year because it forced our team to identify what we wanted to stand for as a team. Sometimes weekends like that, when you get your butt kicked, it took that for us to realize what we wanted to stand for.”

This year’s series will start off with a premium pitching matchup, as Preseason All-American righthanders Kyle Funkhouser and Connor Jones will take the mound Friday for Louisville and Virginia.

Jones is off to an outstanding start to his junior year for the Cavaliers, going 4-0, 1.56 in his first five starts. He has already won showdowns with Kent State lefthander Eric Lauer, a Preseason All-American, and Duke righthander Bailey Clark, a member of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer.

“We have a lot of confidence in Connor Jones,” O’Connor said. “It should be great matchup on Friday in our league. This is why you come to schools like this.”

While Jones is off to a fast start and climbing draft boards as a result, Funkhouser has scuffled in the first month of his senior season. After returning to school despite being picked 35th overall by the Dodgers last June, Funkhouser is 2-1, 4.40 with 27 strikeouts and 19 walks in 28 2/3 innings.

McDonnell said when his players struggle, he challenges them to embrace it. While that is often easier said than done, he believes going through some tough times in college better prepares them for pro ball. And he is confident Funkhouser will be able to work through his early-season problems.

“I feel great that Kyle’s going to keep fighting, keep plugging, keep working to get better, knowing coach (Roger) Williams will help steer the ship and help get him right,” McDonnell said. “He’s fighting to find it, that perfect balance of pitching with conviction, pitching off his fastball, throwing more strikes, keeping the pitch count down. He’s not the first pitcher to go through it and he won’t be the last.”

Both pitchers will have their hands full with the opposing lineups. Virginia has four regulars hitting at least .345, led by center fielder Adam Haseley (.407/.505/.663). First baseman Pavin Smith (.346/.430/.538) and catcher Matt Thaiss (.345/.442/.540) form a disciplined heart of the order for the Cavaliers.

Louisville outfielder Corey Ray, who has a chance to be the top college hitter drafted in June, has cooled off some from his scintillating start but is still hitting .330/.392/.636 with six home runs and 23 stolen bases. Second baseman Nick Solak is one of the leading hitters in the country, coming into the weekend batting .461/.570/.632.

O’Connor is looking forward to seeing how his team matches up against one of the best teams in the ACC.

“This is a good weekend for us, we know how talented and skilled Louisville is,” O’Connor said. “Certainly, I think it’ll be an intense weekend and a weekend that’ll be a lot of fun.”

Oregon State faces tough road test at California

Before the season began, Oregon State coach Pat Casey took a look around the Pacific-12 Conference, sizing up the competition. He came away with the conclusion that California, between its returning players and the success it had a year ago, would be a team to watch.

“I picked them to win the conference,” Casey said. “I just think they’re really good.”

Now, in the second week of Pac-12 play, No. 3 Oregon State must go on the road to face No. 15 Cal in a three-game series beginning Thursday.

Conference coaches favored Oregon State in their preseason poll, but the Beavers and Golden Bears were the top two Pac-12 teams in the Preseason Top 25 (Oregon State at No. 5, Cal at No. 8). Oregon State (16-2) has gotten off to a strong start and swept Arizona State last weekend to start conference play. Cal, meanwhile, is coming off a series loss at Southern California—its second road series loss of the season.

But the Golden Bears remain tough, and Casey knows they present a strong early-season test for the Beavers.

“They’re as good as anybody,” he said. “At times we have four freshmen and three sophomores on the field and that part of it is going to be challenge.

The challenge will be especially difficult Thursday night against Cal righthander Daulton Jefferies. The Preseason All-American has been dominant to start the season, going 5-0, 1.09 with 43 strikeouts and six walks in 33 innings.

Jefferies has bumped his fastball velocity up this season, sitting comfortably in the low 90s, while maintaining his ability to throw strikes with his whole arsenal. The junior earns praise for his competitiveness and has thrived pitching at the front of the Golden Bears rotation.

“It’s a pretty lethal mix when you’re talking about a guy who looks like he’ll be a first rounder,” Casey said. “He’s a good one, man, put it that way.”

A potential Thursday night matchup between Jefferies and Oregon State righthander Drew Rasmussen, his teammate on last summer’s USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, is uncertain, however. Rasmussen is dealing with a sore back, and he will be a game-time decision.

Rasmussen has also pitched like an ace this season, going 4-0, 2.94 with 37 strikeouts and eight walks in 33 2/3 innings. Friday against Arizona State, he struck out eight batters and gave up two runs in 8 1/3 innings.

While Rasmussen pitched well as a freshman, he has taken a step forward this year. Casey said the biggest reason for his improvement was that he now commands his secondary stuff better.

“I felt last year at times he commanded it, at times he had to rely on his fastball,” Casey said. “This year, he’s commanded three pitches.”

Even if Rasmussen’s back keeps him out of Thursday’s game, the weekend series promises to be an entertaining one with two of the best teams in the West matching up. Casey knows the stakes are higher as his team hits the road for the first time this season in conference play.

“When you get into conference play, whether it’s the SEC or the Pac-12, the challenges get greater,” he said. “You’re not going to get the opportunity to make many mistakes in our conference and win the game.”

Texas A&M looks for pitching to bounce back against LSU

The start of Southeastern Conference play last weekend provided an unexpected slugfest when Texas A&M traveled to Auburn. The two teams combined for 58 runs, and the Tigers’ 27 runs were the most they had scored in a conference series since 2012.

Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said a confluence of factors led to the offensive explosion.

“It was the perfect storm,” Childress said. “That’s a veteran offense in Auburn. They have a lot of SEC, a lot of college at bats in the lineup. We have to have a short memory because certainly we want to get quality starts out of our starters.”

The Aggies pitching staff saw its ERA jump from 1.83 to 2.90 in one weekend. But things won’t get any easier for No. 2 Texas A&M (19-2) this weekend as it returns home to face No. 13 Louisiana State (15-5).

Despite losing eight starters from its lineup last year, LSU is again rolling offensively. The Tigers are hitting .306 as a team and averaging 7.65 runs per game. Outfielders Antoine Duplantis (.377/.448/.506) and Jake fraley (.370/.463/.531, 13 SB) lead the team in hitting, but the lineup has good depth.

Childress said LSU has a different offensive style than last year, but remains dangerous at the plate.

“Last year it was more slugging, this year they take their walks, hit batters and create pressure on the bases,” Childress said. “We’ve got to force LSU to earn everything that they get.”

Rain in the southeast last week forced both LSU and Texas A&M to postpone their games Friday and play doubleheaders Saturday. With this week’s series starting on Thursday, both LSU lefthander Jared Poche’ and Texas A&M righthander Jace Vines will be pitching on short rest. Both threw 76 pitches Saturday. Childress said one positive from the shaky performance of his starting pitching last week was that they didn’t go deep into games, leaving them better prepared for the short week.

After starting SEC play on the road, Texas A&M will get to play this weekend at home, where it is 15-0 in Blue Bell Park. Childress said the veteran players on the team were a big reason why the Aggies have been so tough to beat at home.

“The leadership on our team so far has been outstanding,” Childress said. “They show up every day and regard it like the most important game of the season.”

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