What To Watch For This Weekend In College Baseball (4/14)

Image credit: Rhett Lowder (Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

After unsettled weather last weekend caused postponements, cancellations and scheduling conflicts across the country, there looks to be clearer skies and brighter days ahead this weekend. With just a little over a month left in the regular season, each series is magnified as every team looks to strengthen its tournament resume. This weekend includes two different matchups between top-10 teams, Tennessee making its next stop in its SEC gauntlet, one of the best mid-major series to date and yet another important series in determining the hierarchy within the Pac-12. 

No. 5 South Carolina (29-4, 9-2) at No. 4 Vanderbilt (27-6, 11-1)

In a matchup between two of the top teams in the SEC, No. 5 South Carolina travels to Hawkins Field to take on No. 4 Vanderbilt in what figures to be an outstanding series. South Carolina last weekend split its series with No. 1 Louisiana State after Mother Nature robbed all of us of an important game three. In front of an unbelievable home crowd at Founders Park, the Gamecocks came out swinging. Freshman superstar Ethan Petry belted an elevated 99 mph Paul Skenes fastball way over the left field wall in what was Skenes’ first home run allowed all year, and South Carolina never looked back from there. It won 13-5 in commanding fashion and looked to be on its way to another win over the Tigers on Friday, but a late-inning comeback from LSU’s loaded lineup propelled Jay Johnson’s bunch to a much-needed win. The Gamecocks come into this weekend as winners in three of their first four SEC series, two of which have come by way of sweep. They are playing outstanding baseball top to bottom and are doing so with a chip on their shoulder. A road series win over a top-five team in Vanderbilt would further cement South Carolina’s resume as one of the best teams in the country and would go a long way toward earning a top-eight national seed in the NCAA tournament. 

The Gamecocks come into this weekend’s series leading the country in home runs with 78 and with a team batting average of .293. The offense starts with Petry, who is the favorite for the National Freshman of the Year Award and has a .449/.507/.898 slash line as well as 16 home runs and 52 RBIs. His 52 RBIs place him second nationally behind only Jake Gelof (56) and Tommy White (54). While Petry possesses 70-grade raw power, he also has advanced feel for the bat for someone his size. His long levers allow him to get the barrel on virtually any pitch he wants, making him nearly impossible to pitch to. Along with Petry, senior shortstop Braylen Wimmer’s production has been important. He’s hitting .313 with nine home runs, 30 RBIs and 13 stolen bases. Most notably, Wimmer is also 10-for-22 lifetime against Vanderbilt with three home runs and two doubles. Sophomore Cole Messina is hitting .307 with 10 home runs of his own, while Gavin Casas has wallopped 15 home runs. Mark Kingston has gotten production up and down his lineup, and it should again be up for the challenge this weekend.  

Although Noah Hall (5-1, 3.29 ERA) is unavailable this weekend, Will Sanders (2-1, 4.72 ERA) and Jack Mahoney (3-0, 3.12 ERA) make for a formidable one-two punch. Sanders last weekend got through three innings without allowing an earned run before a rain delay cut his outing short. Sanders has been inconsistent this spring, but his pure stuff is undeniable. He possesses premium velocity while his slider and changeup each profile as plus pitches with miss rates north of 50%. Mahoney is a low-mileage arm who in 40.1 innings pitched has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 45-to-11. While it is yet to be determined who takes Hall’s place in the rotation, Matthew Becker (3-0, 3.10 ERA), Eli Jones (4-1, 2.63 ERA) and James Hicks (6-0, 2.20 ERA) are all viable candidates on a pitching staff that has the fourth lowest total ERA in the country at 3.10. 

Vanderbilt comes into this weekend with arguably the best resume of any team in the country with a 27-6 record, including an 11-1 SEC record. It has won each of its first four conference series, which includes sweeps of Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Georgia. The Commodores last weekend took two of three against a solid Missouri club, punctuated by a Sunday shutout. The strength of this year’s Vanderbilt team is its pitching staff, but it will be down at least one starter as Hunter Owen (3-0, 3.33 ERA) will not pitch this weekend due to fatigue. It is yet to be seen if Carter Holton (4-0, 2.58 ERA) will be available as he has been described as “day-to-day” since being scratched from his last start. While Vanderbilt, or any team for that matter, will need as much help as it can get against a lineup as loaded as South Carolina’s, it is well-equipped on the mound. Sophomore righthander Bryce Cunningham (1-0, 3.20 ERA) will get the nod on Friday night and Devin Futrell (6-1, 2.21 ERA), who has thrown 15.1 straight scoreless innings, will also be in the rotation. Cunningham was solid in his start last weekend against Missouri, allowing two earned runs across 4.2 innings pitched. If Holton is unable to throw, look for either Greysen Carter (2-0, 2.75 ERA) or Patrick Reilly (1-1, 5.74) to get the start. Like South Carolina, Vanderbilt has an exceptional amount of depth on its staff, and has the fifth lowest team ERA in the country at 3.18.  

While the Commodores’ offense was a concern in the early going, it has flipped a switch since the start of conference play. Freshman Chris Maldonado leads the way with a .367 average, and he has hit his way into a starting role. Duke graduate transfer R.J. Schreck (.347 average) has provided the most power, as his 11 doubles, eight home runs and 38 RBIs all lead the team. While Enrique Bradfield Jr. has game-breaking speed, he is also hitting over .300 with six doubles and four home runs. Bradfield Jr. is tied for third nationally with 25 stolen bases and is walking (35) almost twice as much as he is striking out (18). Veteran Parker Noland (.280 with 28 RBIs), freshman R.J. Austin (.295 with 29 RBIs) and sophomore Davis Diaz (.274, five home runs, 31 RBIs) have also been very productive in their respective roles.  

No. 3 Wake Forest (29-4, 12-2) at No. 10 Louisville (25-7, 7-5) 

Both Wake Forest and Louisville come into this series playing great baseball. Wake Forest is coming off a doubleheader sweep of North Carolina State, while Louisville is fresh off a sweep of then-No. 9 Boston College. It is hard to find a more well-rounded team in the country than Wake Forest, and there is an argument to be made that it has the best rotation in college baseball. The trio of Sean Sullivan (5-1, 1.56 ERA), Rhett Lowder (6-0, 1.84 ERA) and Josh Hartle (6-1, 1.94 ERA) all landed on the Golden Spikes Award midseason watch list and has been dominant this year.  

Sullivan pitches from a funky, low three-quarter slot and his low-90s fastball explodes out of his hand thanks to his low release height. It gets on hitters quickly with plenty of ride, and it is an offering that has an eye-popping 39% miss rate. Sullivan’s changeup is a bat-missing pitch itself with an impressive 45% miss rate and late fade. He supplements the two offerings with a sweeping slider that is especially effective against lefthanded hitters as the ball essentially starts behind the batter. Lowder continues to pitch like a projected first-round pick thanks to his upper-90s fastball and plus-plus changeup. Lowder’s slider has also established itself as a plus pitch with heavy horizontal action and a miss rate of 45%. Hartle has the most pitchability of the trio, but the development of his cutter has led to an uptick in the swings and misses he’s generating. He has a diverse, five-pitch arsenal and he has at least average command of each offering. Tom Walter also has several weapons in his bullpen, but Seth Keener (0.60 ERA, 41 strikeouts in 30 innings), Cole Roland (1.69 ERA, .093 OBA) and Camden Minacci (3.21 ERA, eight saves) are his three biggest arms.  

Offensively, Tommy Hawke and slugger Brock Wilken will lead the way with Adam Cecere (.356 with nine home runs) and Nick Kurtz (.345 with 10 home runs) still on the shelf. Hawke leads the club with a .377 average and is walking (28) nearly as much as he is striking out (30). He has an advanced feel for the barrel and a keen eye. Wilken has thunderous, 70-grade raw power, which has led to 15 home runs and 45 RBIs, but he is also striking out less and has an on-base percentage of .500. He is one of the top collegiate bats in this year’s draft class and will likely hear his name called in the first 35-40 picks this July. Pierce Bennett is someone who Walter mentioned this fall as a player who could emerge as a key piece in the loaded lineup, and he has done just that with a .345 average, 12 doubles, four home runs and 34 RBIs. Bennett was a huge reason as to why Wake Forest last weekend was able to sweep North Carolina State, as he accounted for four of the Demon Deacons’ seven RBIs. 

It’s a simple way to put it, but Louisville just finds ways to win at Jim Patterson Stadium. It has not lost a series at home since 2021 and has a home record of 19-3 this spring. The offense is spearheaded by Jack Payton, who leads the Cardinals in average (.390), doubles (8), home runs (8) and RBIs (26). He is complemented nicely by slash-and-dash specialist Christian Knapczyk (.325), who is one of the toughest at-bats around for opposing pitchers. Eddie King (.304) had a nice weekend against Boston College and followed it up with a 2-for-3 performance in the Cardinals’ midweek contest. JT Benson (.321), Patrick Forbes (.313) and Logan Beard (.297, six home runs) round out a deep Louisville lineup.  

Dan McDonnell on the mound is led by Carson Liggett (7-0, 1.47 ERA) and Ryan Hawks (5-1, 3.06 ERA). Hawks set the tone for what ended up being an excellent weekend against Boston College with eight innings pitched and just one earned run allowed, while Liggett sealed the sweep with seven shutout innings and six strikeouts. Herkimer (N.Y.) College transfer Greg Farone (1-2, 5.34 ERA) has been inconsistent at times as a starter, but he has amassed 43 strikeouts across 32 innings pitched and is holding opponents to a .212 average. Out of the bullpen, Tucker Biven (0-1, 3.12 ERA), Riley Phillips (4-0, 3.63 ERA) and Tate Kuehner (1-0, 3.77 ERA) have all proven to be reliable options. While Wake Forest may have the advantage on paper, the series being at Jim Patterson Stadium plays heavily in Louisville’s favor.  

No. 18 Coastal Carolina (21-10, 9-3) at Old Dominion (23-9, 8-4)

This is the biggest Sun Belt series to date as Coastal sits tied atop the standings with Louisiana, while Old Dominion is just one game behind. Each of the two teams are potent offensive clubs and runs will certainly not be hard to come by at Bud Metheny Stadium this weekend. The Chanticleers last weekend picked up a nice series victory over Georgia Southern before splitting a midweek series against No. 11 Campbell on Monday and Tuesday. Its split with Campbell may seem insignificant, but it won the season series with Tuesday’s victory, which is a big-time resume booster. Like Coastal teams in years past, the strength of this year’s club is its offense. Boasting the ninth-best team average in the country at .319, there is no easy out in the Chanticleers’ lineup. Sophomore Derek Bender has been the biggest producer to this point with a .370 average, 10 home runs and 47 RBIs. Senior Payton Eeles has been an excellent table setter in the leadoff spot, and he leads the offense with a .385 average, a .520 on-base percentage and 18 stolen bases. Another senior in Graham Brown is hitting .342 with a team-leading 14 doubles and his 34 RBIs are good for second on the team. Caden Bodine has missed the last five games, but the freshman backstop has been outstanding in his first college season to the tune of a .355 average, nine extra-base hits and an even strikeout-to-walk ratio. The best 2023 draft prospect on offense is Nick Lucky and even though his numbers might not jump off the page, he makes his presence felt each game. 

The Coastal Carolina pitching staff has struggled thus far, with a team ERA of 6.57. Sophomore Matthew Potok has been the team’s most consistent starter, with a 4.30 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 29.1 innings pitched. His fastball has been up to 97 mph at times, and he projects as one of the best pitching prospects in the Sun Belt for the 2024 draft. Sophomore Darin Horn’s ERA of 4.98 is deceiving, as he has been a solid option out of the bullpen with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 54-to-14 in 34.1 innings pitched. The headliner, however, is junior closer Teddy Sharkey. Sharkey has run his fastball up to 98 mph with run and ride, and it is an offering he supplements with a power slider that has a miss rate over 50% and a sharp downer curveball. Each pitch has flashed plus in the past, making Sharkey’s arsenal one of the nastiest in the conference.  

Old Dominion so far has mashed 63 home runs as a team (tied for seventh nationally) and is hitting .311. It seems to have a star in the making on its hands in freshman shortstop Alex Bouche. The 6-foot-2 shortstop is hitting .360 with five doubles, seven home runs and an on-base percentage of .493. He has a simple, upright setup at the plate with loose hands that allow him to throttle the barrel through the zone. Bouche has natural strength in his physical frame and has posted exit velocities of 115 mph already. Speaking of physical frames, 6-foot-5 first baseman Hunter Fitz-Gerald has burst onto the scene after transferring from Florida Southwestern. Not only is he hitting .343, but his 13 home runs and 43 RBIs are best on the team. Thomas Wheeler (.342, six triples), Kenny Levari (.328) and Luke Waters (.320) make for a strong supporting cast, while towering 6-foot-7 first baseman Jake Ticer has blasted 12 home runs of his own.  

The ODU pitching staff has a modest 4.15 ERA and is led by junior righthander Sam Armstrong. Armstrong has been the best arm in the Monarchs’ rotation this spring and has pitched his way to a 2.98 ERA with 45 strikeouts to 14 walks in 42.1 innings pitched. He has gotten into the mid 90s with his fastball and does a nice job avoiding hard contact with two quality secondary offerings in his changeup and curveball. Freshman lefthander Bailey Matela has been terrific across 13.1 innings pitched with an ERA of 0.68 and 17 strikeouts.  

No. 22 Arizona State (24-9, 10-2) at Washington (19-10, 6-6)

While not many people might watch its games because of the late start times, at least on the East Coast, the Pac-12 has quietly emerged as one of the best all-around conferences in college baseball this spring. And within the conference, Arizona State is one of the biggest surprises in college baseball this season. While it was expected Coach Willie Bloomquist and his staff would bring Arizona State back to national relevance, I’m not sure anyone expected it would be done this quickly. This season’s success doesn’t look like it is just a flash in the pan either, as the team’s biggest producers on offense are underclassmen. The Sun Devils have won 12 of their last 13 games, including a wild midweek victory over crosstown rival Grand Canyon this past Tuesday, and are tied with Stanford atop the conference standings.  

Arizona State is hitting .316 as a team and is led by Ryan Campos (.417/.523/.661) and a pair of freshmen in Luke Hill (.350/.423/.504) and Nu’u Contrades (.349/.382/.563). Campos has exceptional bat-to-ball skills and an advanced approach that has led to him drawing 26 walks and striking out just 12 times. Campos isn’t just a contact hitter, however, as his seven home runs are also tied for most on the team. Hill is one of the more hitterish true freshmen in the country and has a simple setup at the plate, while his line drive-oriented swing allows him to spray the ball all over the yard. Contrades is the most physical of the bunch, and he has above-average raw power that has translated in games. Sophomore first baseman Jacob Tobias also has a .347 average, and one cannot talk about the Sun Devils’ offense without mentioning projected day one draft selection Luke Keaschall. The San Francisco transfer is hitting .346 and leads the team in doubles with 13, is tied for the team lead in home runs with seven and has also stolen 13 bases. Keaschall does an excellent job catching the ball out in front and his explosive back hip and hand speed translate to quality contact. As if the offense wasn’t loaded enough, ASU this week got back UCLA transfer Nick McLain, who missed the first half of the season with an injury. McLain went 3-for-6 in his season debut with a home run, and he has great hand action. 

On the mound, Bloomquist’s bunch does not have the same gaudy numbers as its offense, but there are still some key arms on the pitching staff. Friday starter Ross Dunn has been excellent to this point, pitching his way to a 3.09 ERA with 49 strikeouts in 35 innings pitched. Even though the back of his baseball card might not raise eyebrows, 6-foot-5 righthander Khristian Curtis has some of the best pure stuff on the staff and could be selected in the first 10 rounds of this year’s draft. Owen Stevenson (5.70 ERA, 31 strikeouts in 30 innings pitched), Josh Hansell (3.57 ERA) and Nolan Lebamoff (1.93 ERA) have been solid in relief.

Under first-year head coach Jason Kelly, the Huskies have enjoyed a very solid first half of the season. Although it has lost its last two series to Oregon State and Arizona respectively, Washington is right on the tournament bubble with a 19-10 overall record and a 6-6 record in the Pac-12. Its most notable series win to this point was on the road at UCLA, and another ranked series win this weekend would be both a huge resume and momentum booster. Sophomore outfielder A.J. Guerrero has had an impressive first half of the season to the tune of a .349 average, five doubles and five triples. Draft-eligible sophomore shortstop Cam Clayton has played himself into a likely day two pick in the draft, thanks to his .339 average and high-level impact that has led to 11 doubles and seven home runs. Veteran Will Simpson is hitting .303, and he leads the Huskies with 13 home runs and 34 RBIs. Coby Morales (.308 with four home runs) and Sam DeCarlo (.304 with five doubles) give the lineup plenty of depth.  

The pitching staff is the strength of this Huskies team, thanks to starters Stu Flesland and Kiefer Lord. Although they have each scuffled the last two weekends they have pitched well for the most part. A 6-foot-5 lefthander, Flesland has a 3.86 ERA with 43 strikeouts to 13 walks in 42 innings pitched. He might not have premium velocity, but Flesland has a bat-missing changeup with a 41% miss rate that is an above-average pitch. On the other hand, Lord’s fastball has been clocked as high as 99 mph, but the lack of a true secondary pitch has come back to hurt the righthander, although he does mix in a shorter slider that is effective at times. Out of the bullpen, Case Matter has fantastic swing-and-miss stuff, although he is lacking in the command department, which has led to 14 walks in 14.1 innings pitched. Even with his below-average command, Matter has struck out 19 and allowed only one earned run (0.63 ERA) this season. Redshirt sophomore Josh Emanuels has been a viable late-inning option for Kelly with a 2.53 ERA and a 30-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24.2 innings pitched. Washington has the home-field advantage and the personnel on its pitching staff to potentially avoid getting into any shootouts with Arizona State. A series win for the Huskies likely lands them back on the right side of the bubble with a little over a month left in the regular season, while another series win for the Sun Devils could put them firmly in the hosting picture.  

No. 16 Tennessee (23-10, 5-7) at No. 6 Arkansas (26-7, 8-4)

After consecutive series against No. 1 Louisiana State and No. 2 Florida, No. 16 Tennessee continues its gauntlet with a trip to Baum Walker Stadium to take on the Razorbacks. Due in large part to its difficult schedule, the Volunteers’ 5-7 record in the SEC is somewhat deceiving. Four of the seven losses on its record have come at the hands of the top two teams in the country, but a sweep against Missouri is Tennessee’s only real head-scratcher of the conference slate to this point. Tennessee lost its first two games to Florida in rather convincing fashion before salvaging the series with a 14-2 win in Saturday’s finale. Blake Burke (.333, 12 home runs) and Christian Moore (.320, six doubles and six home runs) continue to lead the offense, while true freshman Dylan Dreiling looks to be the next great hitter to come out of Tennessee. Dreiling is hitting .311 (19-for-61) with three doubles and three home runs and has muscled his way into an everyday role. 

The major shakeup for the Volunteers comes in their rotation. Rather than the Chase DollanderChase BurnsDrew Beam rotation college baseball fans have become accustomed to over the last 1.5 years, it is listed as Andrew Lindsey-TBA-TBA. It is yet to be seen what this means, as Lindsey could simply open the game for one or two innings before giving way to Burns since Dollander is likely to get the ball on Saturday, or it could mean the Volunteers treat the first game of the series as a bullpen day given the reliability of arms like Zander Sechrist (1.74 ERA), Camden Sewell (1.59 ERA), Aaron Combs (1.50 ERA) and others. Regardless, it looks like Burns will be used out of the bullpen this weekend. While his stuff is still exceptional, Burns has gotten hit around a bit in his last three outings. Moving him to a more abbreviated role could help him gain some confidence before slotting him back into the rotation. Beam has been Tennessee’s most reliable arm with a 2.52 ERA and 41 strikeouts to nine walks in 39.1 innings pitched. Against Florida last weekend, he struck out 10 across seven innings pitched.  

No matter how bad their record is, winning a series at Swayze Field is never easy. Arkansas last weekend did just that, taking two-of-three games from the struggling Rebels. The Razorbacks had an odd midweek series with Arkansas Little Rock, winning the first game, 21-5, before dropping Wednesday’s contest, 11-4. That result is zero cause for alarm bells, but still a notable one nonetheless. Arkansas has won three of its first four SEC series, with its only loss coming at Alex Box Stadium against No. 1 LSU. No matter how many injuries it may deal with, a common theme for Dave Van Horn’s teams over the years is that they simply find a way to win. He consistently gets the most out of his roster and it is a testament to both his philosophy and the “buy-in” he gets year after year. 

This spring, Jace Bohrofen (.422/.551/.745) has been outstanding with nine doubles and eight home runs, while graduate transfer Jared Wegner, who is hitting .351 with a team-leading 12 home runs and 44 RBIs, Kendall Diggs (.343/.484/.687) and Tavian Josenberger (.341/.447/.537) are all having terrific seasons as well. On the mound, two southpaws in Hunter Hollan (5-1, 3.00 ERA) and Hagen Smith (5-1, 3.03) have been the most impressive arms for the Razorbacks. Hollan pitches with zero fear and is constantly around the strike zone. He throws from a three-quarter slot with an above-average slider and a bigger curveball that he throws mainly to righthanded hitters. Smith has a naturally deceptive delivery with a short, quick arm action and throws from a mid, three-quarter slot. His slider is an established plus pitch with sharp two-plane break and boasts a miss rate of 43%. Smith’s fastball explodes out of his hand, and he pitches comfortably in the 93-96 mph range. The bullpen has been a bit of a bugaboo for Arkansas due in large part to injuries to key relievers Koty Frank (3.09 ERA pre-injury) and Brady Tygart (5.68 ERA pre-injury), but freshman Gage Wood has really stepped up in the last couple of weeks. Last Saturday, he threw three quality innings with four strikeouts to close the game—and seal the series—for Arkansas and has pitched his way to a 3.46 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched. The true freshman has outstanding mound presence and pitches with zero fear, two traits that bode well for his future in the SEC. Between Arkansas’ 21-3 home record and Tennessee still trying to figure things out, it’s hard not to give the edge this weekend to the Razorbacks.

Other Series of Note

—Auburn (19-13-1, 4-8) at Alabama (24-10, 4-8)

—No. 21 Southern California (21-10-1, 9-3) at Oregon State (21-11, 7-8)

—West Virginia (23-10, 3-3) at no. 14 Oklahoma State (23-11, 7-5)

—No. 7 Stanford (22-8, 10-2) at Oregon (22-9, 7-5)

—Grand Canyon (18-14, 9-6) at Abilene Christian (23-9, 8-4)

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