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Weekend Preview: Vandy, Aggies Won't Look Ahead

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Boomer White (Photo by Cliff Welch) Boomer White is the SEC’s leading hitter (Photo by Cliff Welch)[/caption] Beginning Thursday night, No. 10 Vanderbilt is prepared to enter one of the toughest two week stretches for any team in the country this season. It starts with a series at No. 2 Texas A&M, continues Tuesday against No. 9 Louisville and finishes next weekend with a series at top-ranked Florida.
(1) Florida at Tennessee
(10) Vanderbilt at (2) Texas A&M
Missouri at (3) Mississippi State
(4) Miami at Georgia Tech
Bowling Green at (5) Florida State
(6) South Carolina at Kentucky
(7) Mississippi at Georgia
(8) Texas Tech at Kansas
(9) Louisville at North Carolina
(11) North Carolina State at Clemson
(12) Texas Christian at Penn State
Arkansas at (13) Louisiana State
(14) Rice at Florida International
(15) UC Santa Barbara at UC Davis
(17) Oregon State at Arizona
Prairie View A&M (18) Oklahoma State
Texas-San Antonio (19) Florida Atlantic
(20) Tulane at South Florida
Western Kentucky at (21) Southern Mississippi
Indiana at (22) Minnesota
(23) Washington at Southern California
Nebraska at (24) Michigan State
Georgetown at (25) Creighton
Coach Tim Corbin said it is important for the Commodores (35-10) to focus on one game at a time and not look at the upcoming schedule. “The big thing is we’re not playing all three this weekend, we’re just playing one,” Corbin said. “We don’t see Louisville, we don’t see Florida right now. We can’t look and think that way because when you do, it can be overwhelming. But that’s what makes this part of the season so good, is the fact you are playing these teams.” Texas A&M (35-9) is starting its own difficult stretch to close the regular season, as its final three weekend series are all against teams ranked in the top 10. After facing Vanderbilt, Texas A&M will travel to No. 6 South Carolina before finishing the regular season back home against No. 7 Mississippi. As strong as the Southeastern Conference is this year, Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said you can look at any three-week stretch of the schedule as a difficult one. Because of that, he said the Aggies have to remain focused only on the next game. “You’ve got to take them one game at a time, one series at time and keep blinders on and focus on what’s at hand,” Childress said. Vanderbilt enters this weekend on a five-game winning streak, during which it has outscored its opponents 49-15. Corbin is most pleased with how the Commodores’ younger players have developed so far this season. “All we really care about is if we can keep improving and keep growing,” Corbin said. “We’ve had to transition some new kids into the lineup and the team. Really all you want is for them to keep improving and if you do that, the team keeps improving.” Vanderbilt came into the year needing to replace three first-round picks and fill several holes from last year’s College World Series runner-up team. The Commodores had the talent on hand, particularly after bringing in the top-ranked recruiting class this fall. Many of the freshmen have filled in capably, including shortstop Ethan Paul (.315/.432/.491) and DH Alonzo Jones (.297/.384/.445). Vanderbilt has also received a midseason boost when infielder Julian Infante (.294/.385/.706) returned from a broken hand. He has gotten off to a hot start to his college career, hitting three home runs and driving in 13 runs in his first 11 games. Childress said the talent on Vanderbilt’s roster stands out to him. “They have a great collection of talent and they have for some time,” Childress said. “They have a great coaching staff that prepares them to play at a high level. It’s a tribute to Corbin and the rest of the staff. They’re not only great recruiters, they’re great developers.” Texas A&M, meanwhile, has built on last season, when it reached super regionals. The Aggies enter the weekend with a two-game lead in the SEC West and are positioned to be a national seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies returned many key pieces from last year’s team, including first baseman Hunter Melton (.368/.431/.626, 10 HR) and outfielder J.B. Moss (.345/.432/.542). To that mix, they added third baseman Boomer White (.437/.512/.569), a transfer from Texas Christian who is the SEC’s leading hitter. Corbin said Texas A&M’s success from last year has carried over to this season. “They’ve had good experiences and because they’ve had good experiences, they’ve been successful,” Corbin said. “They have a nice collection of talent. They can run, they can hit the ball with power and they have some good arms. Rob has them playing like you would hope.” With so much talent on the field and in the dugouts, fans should be treated to an entertaining series in College Station. “I expect some competitive games, that’s what I see,” Childress said. “Each game is going to be competitive and come down to one pitch or one play.”
In Need Of Wins, Hoosiers Tangle With Golden Gophers [caption id="attachment_168552" align="alignnone" width="640"]John Anderson (Photo by Bill Mitchell) John Anderson got his 1,200th win earlier this week (Photo by Bill Mitchell)[/caption] Indiana head coach Chris Lemonis remembers talking to Michigan counterpart Erik Bakich before last year’s Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis, when the Wolverines were in an all-or-nothing situation if they wanted to go to regionals. That Michigan team unquestionably had regional-caliber talent and finished third in the Big Ten standings, but a poor RPI confined its NCAA hopes to winning the conference tournament. Fast forward a year, and Lemonis finds himself in Bakich’s shoes. The Hoosiers hold second place in the Big Ten as they prepare to tangle with league leader Minnesota, but their No. 131 RPI on means their postseason hopes will come down to this year’s Big Ten tournament in Omaha. “You schedule some things and you think they’re going to be better RPI games for you,” Lemonis said, “and it just didn’t work out that way for us. But ultimately, if you win, it usually takes care of itself. It just hasn’t (for us), it’s been kind of a weird year. . . . I think it’s (a Michigan-style run) very possible. We have a tournament-type team. I just think you have to get there and be hot.” The Hoosiers check that box. They lost their first two series of the year to Middle Tennessee State and Cal State Fullerton, but they’ve won seven of eight series since then, including taking two of three games at Michigan State two weeks ago. They’ve gone 13-3 since losing a series to Rutgers the first weekend of April. Now 11-4 in the conference, that hot stretch has pulled them within a half game of the 11-3 Gophers for first place. While Indiana is trying to build for a big week in the conference tournament, every series is vital for Minnesota, which is in position, at No. 24 in the RPI, to potentially host a regional if it can finish off a regular-season title. Like IU, Minnesota stubbed its toe a couple times early, losing series to Seattle and Utah Valley, but has been a buzzsaw ever since. The Gophers have yet to lose a series in league play, including wins against Maryland and Michigan, and have won 19 of their last 23 games. “I think our strength is the balance in our team,” said Minnesota head coach John Anderson, who celebrated his 1,200th career win earlier this week. “I think at least the top end of our pitching staff has been solid. We’ve played outstanding defense for most of the year. Our offense, obviously, is probably the strongest part of our team, but I think we’ve been able to, most days anyway, put the three together and play consistently in all three phases.” Indeed, the Gophers’ offense has been scything through opponents. Through Tuesday, the Gophers were the highest-scoring team in the Big Ten (6.9 runs per game), and their .327 team average was the fourth best in the nation. All this coming just a year after the Gophers ranked 216th nationally in hitting (.261) and 225th in scoring (4.7 runs per game). That said, last year’s Gophers were plagued by injuries and forced to throw young players into fray, experience that’s paying off this time around. “We had a lot of injuries the last couple years—played a lot of young players,” Anderson said. “They’ve all gotten better. From freshmen to sophomores, sophomores to juniors, juniors to seniors. Everybody’s gotten a little bit better and I think every position on our team has improved since last year.” Players such as junior catcher Austin Athmann (.394/.470/.742, 11 HR), who’s had three surgeries in his time at Minnesota, and sophomore outfielder Alex Boxwell (.371/.432/.543), who took his lumps as a freshman, have taken off in 2016. Then there’s leading hitter Matt Fiedler (.406/.447/.565), who doubles as the team’s DH and Friday night starter, not to mention the importance of his energetic style that the rest of the group feeds off of. Minnesota has gotten this far principally, though not exclusively, on the strength of its offense. The Gophers have a respectable 3.91 team ERA, their starters using a pitch-to-contact style by and large. By contrast, Indiana, a program that rose to prominence on the strength of big bats like Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis, has evolved into a pitching and defense team in Lemonis’ second season after taking over for Tracy Smith. The Hoosiers have shown more punch since the return of outfielder Logan Sowers (.311/.443/.566, 7 HR) from injury, but they’re still 12th out of 13 Big Ten teams in hitting (.262) and 10th in scoring (5.4 runs per game). Where they’ve shined is on the mound, where they rank second in the conference and 12th nationally in ERA (2.91), led by an all-senior rotation and experienced arms in the bullpen. “We knew going in that our top five arms were all four-year college guys—Kyle Hart, Caleb Baragar, Evan Bell, and then our two bullpen guys Jake Kelzer and Thomas Belcher,” Lemonis said. “They’ve played a lot of college baseball in a lot big environments, and they throw strikes and compete. That’s the biggest thing with those guys. ... We’ve been a pretty resilient team. We play a lot of one-run games, so we’re used to it. The tight games don’t usually get to us too much.”
MVC Showdown

Preseason Top 25 Capsules: No. 18 Vanderbilt

Team capsule for the No. 18 team in the nation.

For eight of the final nine weeks last season, Dallas Baptist was the No. 1 team in the nation in RPI, getting there on the strength of a rigorous road-heavy schedule. The Patriots went on to host a regional and produced three draft picks in the first five rounds. It’s been more of an uphill climb this year, with the Patriots losing the core of their team to the draft and playing an early season schedule less conducive to RPI building. But Dallas Baptist (29-14) appears to be in prime position now, leading the Missouri Valley Conference standings and making incremental RPI jumps—up to No. 41 this week. That figure could keep rising. The Patriots (8-3 in the MVC) will host second-place Evansville (24-18, 7-5) this weekend in an important conference showdown and will follow up with a mid-week game at Oklahoma State before playing typical conference power Missouri State. “This is exactly where you want to be at the end of the season,” DBU coach Dan Heefner said. “I want to play good teams at the end of the year because that prepares you for the postseason. For me, this is perfect. We’ve had all season long to prepare for it, we’re in a good position in the conference, and from an RPI standpoint now it’s it up to us to play well and take care of business on our own end.” Heefner and his coaching staff have seemingly found the right pieces to fill the gaps left by the draft. DBU’s historically strong bullpen, which lost hard-throwing righthanders Brandon Koch, Chance Adams and Drew Smith, remains a strength this season thanks in large part to the emergence of sophomore righthander Seth Elledge as closer. Elledge, who runs his fastball up to 95 mph, has just two walks and 20 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings, tallying 10 saves and a 1.04 ERA. In the rotation, lefthander Colin Poche—a transfer from Arkansas—has gone 6-0, 1.72 as DBU’s Friday night starter and has shown excellent command and poise on the mound. Another transfer, Darick Hall from Cochise College in Arizona, has provided even greater value to the Patriots, hitting .301/.424/.641 with a team-leading 15 home runs and 50 RBIs while also going 5-3, 3.19 as the Saturday starter. “He’s been huge to be our No. 2 starter and almost every time out he gives us a quality start, and to be our cleanup hitter, he’s leading our team in RBIs,” Heefner said. “We lost almost everything off of last year’s team, so to have a guy come in and really fill two gaps for us has been huge.” The Patriots have a balanced offense with speed at the top in the form of leadoff hitter Daniel Sweet and steady veteran presence in junior outfielder David Martinelli, who leads the team in hitting (.359). The weekend could turn into an offensive shootout, as Evansville boasts a similarly deep and powerful lineup. Senior Jonathan Ramon and sophomore Korbin Wiliams lead the team with 10 and nine home runs, respectively, while coach Wes Carroll called second baseman Trey Hair (.361/.452/.604, six home runs) and second baseman-turned-catcher Boomer Synek (.341/.438/.506) the staples of the lineup. In his eight years at Evansville, Carroll hasn’t always had this many offensive weapons at his disposal. “When you have some guys with pop in your lineup, it’s kind of a different, uncharacteristic year for us where we’ve gotten away from the sac bunt and stolen base and we’re kind of building for the three- or four-run inning,” Carroll said. “And that’s what’s been nice to see.” The Purple Aces have had to figure out more on the pitching side after losing ace righthander Connor Strain (3-1, 0.68) to a flexor tendon strain in his elbow. Junior righthander Patrick Schnieders has filled the void on Fridays, going 4-3, 4.03, and Carroll also praised his bullpen and young pitchers such as freshman lefthander Alex Weigand for absorbing the blow and pitching quality innings in Strain’s absence. Carroll and the Purple Aces are well aware of what’s at stake this weekend as they look to close a 1 1/2-game gap in the MVC standings. Evansville took a big MVC series on the road against Missouri State a couple of weekends ago, and the Purple Aces are looking to repeat that success. “In 2014 when we won the Missouri Valley Conference championship, we went down (to Dallas) and took two out of three, so we know in order to dog pile at the MVC championship, we’re going to have to win on the road—at Dallas Baptist, at Missouri State, the perennial guys in our conference who are always at the top,” Carroll said. “We’re going to go down as an extremely confident bunch with kind of a nothing-to-lose mentality. Here we are, a game and a half out of first ... I think this is the weekend we see separation, and we want to be one of the teams that separate.”

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