Image credit: Braden Montgomery (Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Last weekend brought the start of conference play in both the ACC and Pac-12, and with it came some exciting series and intriguing results. No. 18 Boston College took down then-No. 11 Virginia Tech on the road, No. 9 Virginia continued its excellent start to 2022 by taking two of three from-then No. 19 North Carolina and unranked USC won its series against then-No. 3 Stanford. No. 17 Miami also won its series against a previously undefeated North Carolina State team, and No. 22 Oregon State lost at the hands of the scorching hot Cougars from Washington State.
In what seems to be the case each week, there were several upsets in this week’s midweek slate as well with No. 6 Mississippi, No. 13 TCU, No. 14 East Carolina, No. 22 Oregon State and No. 24 North Carolina State all dropping their Tuesday contests. With this weekend comes another milestone in the college baseball season: the start of SEC and Big 12 play. There are a host of heavyweight matchups across the country.
No. 6 Mississippi (14-3) at No. 8 Vanderbilt (13-5)
In what might be the biggest blockbuster series of the weekend, No. 6 Ole Miss makes the trip north to take on No. 8 Vanderbilt. This will be a series that pits each team’s biggest strength against each other. Vanderbilt’s pitching staff has the 22nd-best ERA in the country at 3.36, while Ole Miss has the ninth-best team batting average at .337. Vanderbilt’s starting rotation of Carter Holton (1-0, 2.21 ERA), Hunter Owen (1-0, 3.20 ERA) and Devin Futrell (3-1, 2.87 ERA) has been very impressive for the Commodores in the early going and makes up for the lack of firepower on offense. All three are holding opposing hitters to a batting average under .230 with Futrell’s .154 OBA being the most impressive of the three.
While other teams such as Tennessee and Florida have no problem getting into shootouts on offense, the Commodores are perfectly comfortable in settling for a low-scoring, chess match-type of game. Tim Corbin is also armed with two of the best relief pitchers in the country in Nick Maldonado (1-0, 0.00 ERA) and Bryce Cunningham (0-0, 0.00 ERA). The two have combined to throw 23 innings and have yet to allow an earned run. What makes both of them especially useful is that they can be stretched out to throw three or four innings at a time. In 9.2 innings pitched, Maldonado has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 15-to-2 and has allowed just two hits, while Cunningham boasts an 18-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 13.1 innings pitched. On offense, Vanderbilt is led by graduate transfer R.J. Schreck, who is hitting .318 with five doubles, two home runs and is second on the team in RBIs with 12. True freshman R.J. Austin is also off to a strong start to the tune of a .297 batting average and a team-leading 13 RBIs. Although he’s off to a rather quiet start, you can’t talk about Vanderbilt without mentioning star center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. He’s hitting just .232 in the early going, but he has more walks (15) than strikeouts (10) and has swiped 12 bags. His elite defense and game-breaking speed allow him to impact the game in a myriad of ways. Jonathan Vastine (.279, three home runs) and Chris Maldonado (11-for-33, six doubles) have been other key contributors for Corbin’s crew.
Ole Miss is led by a potential top-10 overall pick in shortstop Jacob Gonzalez. He’s hitting .365 with four doubles, two home runs and has drawn 17 walks compared to just nine strikeouts, which is good for an on-base percentage of .529. Tulane transfer outfielder Ethan Groff is tops on the team in batting average at .397, but he also has some thump in his bat; he is tied for the team lead in total extra-base hits with 11 (seven doubles, one triple, three home runs) and has driven in 25 runs. Kemp Alderman, who has posted some of the most impressive exit velocities in all of college baseball, with exit velocities upwards of 118 mph, is hitting .391 and leads the team in both home runs (8) and RBIs (28). Catcher Calvin Harris has also been outstanding, posting a .373 batting average with four doubles, two home runs and 19 RBIs. Veterans Peyton Chatagnier (.367 average, five home runs), Anthony Calarco (.345 average, 18 RBIs) and T.J. McCants (.340 average, six home runs, and 16 RBIs) have also been big contributors for Mike Bianco’s high-powered offense. While the Rebels pitching staff is less formidable without star lefthander Hunter Elliott, their rotation of Jack Dougherty (2-1, 5.00 ERA), Xavier Rivas (4-0, 5.40 ERA) and Grayson Saunier (1-0, 5.74 ERA) have all pitched well enough to have just one loss between the three of them and just one loss as a team across the first four weekends. Mason Nichols (1-0, 1.00 ERA) and Brayden Jones (0-0, 1.69 ERA) are the two best bullpen arms for Bianco and have been excellent thus far, with Nichols holding hitters to a minuscule .097 batting average in nine innings pitched. This is a blockbuster series to start SEC play and a series win for either team will go a long way for not only their SEC championship aspirations, but top-eight national seed hopes as well.
No. 9 Virginia (15-1) at No. 24 North Carolina State (14-3)
In what is the biggest series in the ACC this weekend, No. 9 Virginia travels to Raleigh to take on No. 24 North Carolina State in a key ranked series. Virginia comes into this series playing incredibly well on both sides of the baseball, ranking in the top 10 in the country in both team batting average (.356) and team ERA (2.74). The Cavaliers are coming off a big series win over then-No. 19 North Carolina and a 20-5 midweek drubbing of George Washington. While the Wolfpack’s 14-3 record might look impressive on paper, they’ve lost three of their last four games, including dropping their first ACC series last weekend at No.16 Miami.
Virginia is led by two potential day one draft picks in Kyle Teel, who leads the team with a .492 batting average, and Jake Gelof. Gelof is hitting .344 and is tied for the team lead in home runs with five and leads the team in RBIs with 24. Sophomore catcher Ethan Anderson is hitting .426 and leads the Cavaliers with eight doubles, true freshman shortstop Henry Godbout is looking like the next dynamic hitter to come out of Charlottesville, as he is hitting .422 with four doubles and two home runs in the early going, and Northwestern transfer Ethan O’Donnell is hitting .413 and is tied with Gelof for the team lead in home runs with five of his own. Two more sophomores in outfielder Casey Saucke (.349 with six doubles) and infielder Griff O’Ferrall (.333 with three doubles) round out a loaded Cavaliers lineup. Coming into the season, the biggest question mark for Brian O’Connor’s team was its pitching staff and how it would look after several departures. However, the staff has started the season on a promising note. The weekend rotation is made up of two transfers in Brian Edgington, who transferred from Elon, and Nick Parker, who transferred from Coastal Carolina. Edgington is off to a great start, pitching his way to a 2.57 ERA with 26 strikeouts to five walks in 21 innings pitched, while Parker is off to a solid start of his own with a 4.58 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 19.2 innings pitched. True freshman Jack O’Connor has also been in the weekend rotation since day one, a tall task for any freshman. However, the physical O’Connor hasn’t missed a beat, notching a 2.61 ERA and holding opponents to just a .186 batting average through his first four starts. Army transfer Connelly Early has been stellar as the Cavaliers’ midweek starter with a 1.84 ERA and a great strikeout-to-walk ratio of 24-to-4 in 19.2 innings pitched. The bullpen is anchored by 6-foot-10 lefthander Jake Berry, who is yet to allow an earned run in 13.2 innings pitched, and righthander Jay Woolfolk, who is an electric arm talent and has struck out 11 in 8.2 innings pitched.
In what has become a common trend for the Wolfpack, they are a very offensive club, hitting their way to a team batting average of .327 in the early going. Texas A&M transfer Kalae Harrison, who is also smooth with the glove, is hitting .396 with five doubles, while Davidson transfer Trevor Candelaria is hitting .391 with eight doubles and four home runs. They have a dynamic duo behind the plate in freshman Cannon Peebles (.421 with four home runs) and sophomore Jacob Cozart (.341 with three home runs). They have split time behind the plate thus far and whoever is not starting on the dirt is usually used as the team’s designated hitter. Sophomore shortstop Payton Green (.338) has been the Wolfpack’s best hitter, and he leads the team in both home runs (7) and RBIs (27). Green is also a smooth defender at short and he has really come into his own in 2023. Freshman outfielder Eli Serrano is also off to a nice start with a batting average of .410 and has hit two home runs. For as impressive as the Wolfpack have been up to this point, their offensive output could become even more gaudy as LuJames Groover (.278) and Carter Trice (.238 with five home runs) begin to hit their stride. Their Achilles heel as of late has been their pitching, but true freshman Dominic Fritton has been superb as the Wolfpack’s Sunday starter, pitching his way to a 0.90 ERA with 20 strikeouts in as many innings pitched. Righthander Matt Willadsen has also had a strong season with a 2.31 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 23.1 innings pitched. Sam Highfill has had success in making the transition from a starter into a bullpen arm, compiling a 2.08 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched. Highfill has advanced control and has not walked a hitter up to this point. Closer Justin Lawson has a minuscule ERA of 0.71 and has 17 strikeouts to one walk in 12.2 innings pitched. The Wolfpack will have their hands full all weekend, but this will be an exciting series at The Doak with the winner building serious momentum heading into the rest of conference play.
No. 17 Oklahoma State (15-3) at No. 20 Texas Tech (16-3)
The first weekend of Big 12 play pits arguably the two best teams in the conference against each other as the Cowboys take on the Red Raiders down in Lubbock. After getting off to a slow 3-3 start, Oklahoma State is playing as well as any team in the country right now, and after Tuesday’s 20-4 win over Dallas Baptist, it is now winners of 12 in a row. Texas Tech was at a bit of a crossroads of its own after losing a 16-inning marathon against Texas A&M in the last game of the Shriners Children’s College Classic, but has won five of six, including an impressive series win over Iowa this past weekend. The Red Raiders’ offense is their calling card, and they are led by Gavin Kash, who leads the team in batting average (.487), home runs (7) and RBIs (33). After seeing limited playing time at Texas last spring, the sophomore first baseman has blossomed into a superstar in Lubbock. Juniors Dillon Carter and Austin Green are also off to loud starts, hitting .400 and .393, respectively, while true freshman outfielder Gage Harrelson has hit the ground running with a .364 batting average and a team-leading nine doubles. Friday starter Mason Molina leads the charge for Tim Tadlock’s rotation and has been strong through four starts with a 2.21 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 20.1 innings pitched. Brandon Beckel has been Texas Tech’s best bullpen arm with a 0.77 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 11.2 innings pitched, while junior Andrew Devine is not far behind with a 1.80 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 10 innings pitched.
As for the Cowboys, they are led on offense by true freshman first baseman/outfielder Nolan Schubart. Schubart had big-time draft interest out of high school, but instead opted to make his way to Stillwater. The 6-foot-6 Schubart leads Oklahoma State in batting average (.424), home runs (6) and RBIs (24), and has been able to show off his well above-average raw power in games. Sophomore Aidan Meola has really come into his own and has compiled an impressive .365 batting average with five doubles and two home runs. Roc Riggio established himself as a household name as a true freshman last spring and has picked up right where he left off; he’s hitting .344 with seven doubles and four home runs and plays with an infectious swagger that rubs off on everyone with whom he shares a dugout. Veteran backstop Chase Adkison has had an interesting career path, starting off at Boise State before transferring to junior college powerhouse San Jacinto (Texas), and has now spent the last two seasons at Oklahoma State. He’s hitting .383 so far with two home runs and his production has been a huge key to the Cowboys’ success. True freshman Carson Benge is hitting .300 with two home runs at the plate and has also allowed just one earned run in five innings on the mound. He has a violent swing that is tailored to generate big-time loft as well as a plus arm that translates well on the mound. While shortstop Marcus Brown is hitting a modest .291, his offense has really come on as of late and his offensive output should continue to increase.
Like Benge, Nolan McLean has also had success on both sides of the baseball: he’s hitting .309 with four home runs, showing off his massive raw power in the process. On the mound, he has been lights out as the Cowboys’ closer, notching six saves in seven appearances with an ERA of 1.29. The rotation is led by righthander Juaron Watts-Brown who has been fantastic, pitching his way to a 1.99 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 22.2 innings pitched. Watts-Brown has run his fastball into the mid 90s and his slider is a 60-grade offspeed offering that generates plenty of swing and miss. Josh Holliday and company have leaned on Cowley (Kan.) CC transfer Isaac Stebens out of the bullpen, and in seven appearances he has an ERA of 1.21 with 25 strikeouts to just four walks in 22.1 innings pitched. In what is a blockbuster series to open Big 12 play, the winner will be viewed as the team to beat in the conference.
No. 1 Louisiana State (16-1) at No. 11 Texas A&M (13-4)
No team had more buzz coming into the 2023 season than LSU. Armed with the best transfer portal class and recruiting class in the country, as well as a returning core of established superstars, the Tigers were projected by many to win the national championship. With such lofty expectations, it is common for teams to sometimes lay an egg or come out flat. That could not be further from the case for Jay Johnson’s club, however. The Tigers are off to a blistering 16-1 start with seven of those wins, including six of their last eight, coming by way of the run rule. Potential No. 1 overall pick Dylan Crews leads the offense with a ridiculous .519 batting average with seven doubles, five home runs and 23 RBIs. Third baseman Tommy White is off to a fast start of his own, hitting .396 and is tied for the team lead in home runs (6) and leads the team in RBIs (27). Senior Gavin Dugas is off to the best start of his LSU career with a batting average of .405 with five home runs. Two freshmen have also stood out for the Tigers with Jared Jones (.340, six home runs) and Paxton Kling (.425, three home runs) each off to very strong starts of their own. LSU’s pitching staff has also been incredible, with a 2.27 team ERA; a mark that is good for second in the country. Paul Skenes has been virtually unhittable through his first four starts, having posted a 0.75 ERA with 48 strikeouts to just four walks in 24 innings. His fastball has been up to 101 mph at times, and he supplements it with a slider and a changeup, each of which are comfortable plus pitches. Other standouts on the pitching staff include Thatcher Hurd (2-0, 2.04 ERA), Ty Floyd (3-0, 1.08 ERA), Christian Little (2-0, 0.71 ERA) and Nate Ackenhausen (2-0, 0.90 ERA). The Tigers’ schedule has been light up to this point with their only loss coming against the best opponent they have seen so far this season: the Iowa Hawkeyes. This weekend’s series against Texas A&M is intriguing as it is the Tigers’ first real test of the 2023 season.
Texas A&M comes into this series winners of its last eight games and playing great baseball, with its last loss coming against No. 3 Louisville on March 3. Arizona State transfer Hunter Haas is hitting .371 with three home runs, Austin Bost is hitting .323 with three home runs and leads the team with 24 RBIs and Jack Moss is hitting .308 while showing an incredible advanced approach and above-average bat-to-ball skills; the junior first baseman has drawn 17 walks while striking out just eight times. On the mound, Texas A&M has a strong 1-2 punch of Nathan Dettmer and Troy Wansing. Dettmer, who has been up to 99 mph with a wipeout slider, has pitched his way to a 2.37 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 19 innings pitched. Lefthander Troy Wansing, a Purdue transfer, has been outstanding as he has compiled a 2.75 ERA and an outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratio of 33-to-6 in 19.2 innings pitched. True freshman Justin Lamkin has been excellent in a hybrid role, pitching his way to a 1.13 ERA with 20 strikeouts across 16 innings pitched.
No. 22 Oregon State (12-5, 1-2) at No. 10 Stanford (10-5, 1-2)
Both the Beavers and the Cardinal started conference play on a poor note, each losing to unranked teams in Washington State and Southern California, respectively. Washington State is now 13-3 and off to the best start in program history, while USC is 7-7, a record that is deceiving given that it has been in every game up to this point. If those series were the only blemishes on each team’s schedule, there really would not be any cause for concern. However, Stanford has also lost to unranked Cal State Fullerton, unranked California and unranked Santa Clara. To make matters worse, the Cardinal will be without superstar second baseman Tommy Troy (.417 with two home runs) for an extended period of time after getting hit on his foot, and third baseman Drew Bowser (.271 with three home runs) is also a bit banged up.
Some of the bright spots for David Esquer’s club include two-way sensation Braden Montgomery, who has a 70-grade arm in right field and leads the team in batting average (.415) and home runs (5), blue chip freshman catcher Malcolm Moore (.333 with five home runs) and junior Alberto Rios (.364 with a team-leading 23 RBIs). The Cardinal have also struggled on the mound, posting a team ERA of 5.08 through 15 games, but Quinn Mathews (3-1, 2.88 ERA), Ty Uber (0-0, 1.13 ERA) and Matt Scott (2-0, 2.53 ERA) are all off to strong starts.
Just like Stanford, each of Oregon State’s five losses have come at the hands of unranked opponents. Before Wednesday’s 12-run outburst against Nevada, the Beavers had scored just five runs in their previous three games. True freshman Gavin Turley leads the team in both home runs (5) and RBIs (15) but has been in a bit of a slump lately and his production is sorely missed. Second baseman Travis Bazzana is off to a fantastic start, hitting .345 with seven doubles, one home run and more walks than strikeouts, while Garret Forrester is hitting .339 with two home runs and 11 RBIs. Junior outfielder Micah McDowell has been a fantastic table setter atop the OSU lineup, hitting .397 with more walks than strikeouts, while leading the team in stolen bases with five. Even though there have been a fair number of standouts, there has been very little impact so far as the Beavers have hit just 20 home runs as a team.
Pitching is what has kept Oregon State in all its games this season. There have been four arms who have stood out: Trent Sellers (2-1, 1.56 ERA, 35 strikeouts in 17.1 IP), Ian Lawson (1-0, 0.69 ERA, 18 strikeouts in 13 IP), A.J. Lattery (2-0, 0.82 ERA, 15 strikeouts in 11 innings pitched) and A.J. Hutcheson (1-0, 0.84 ERA, 11 strikeouts in 10.2 innings pitched). As a staff Oregon State has a 2.68 ERA, which has made up for the lack of offensive production at times. No matter what happens this weekend it is far too early to write off either of these high-quality teams, but the winner of this series will have taken a sizable step in the right direction.