What To Watch For This Weekend In College Baseball (5/12)
With just two weekends left in the regular season, each team across the country is looking to strengthen its resume. Whether that means a team is looking to secure a top-eight national seed or even fighting to get onto the right side of the bubble, each of these last two series are very important. On the slate this weekend are two top-10 clashes in the SEC, a pair of important series in the Big 12 and what could be one of the best mid-major series of the 2023 season.
No. 3 Vanderbilt (35-13, 17-7) at No. 7 Florida (37-12, 15-9)
In a series that will most likely determine who ends up atop the SEC East standings at season’s end, Vanderbilt travels south to take on Florida. The Commodores come into this weekend fresh off a hard-fought series loss at Alabama, although they did notch a nice midweek win on Tuesday at Louisville. The Gators are coming off a series loss of their own, as they dropped last weekend’s series on the road at Texas A&M. With a two-game lead for first place in the SEC East and an RPI of 6, Vanderbilt is in a great position to not only host but earn a coveted top-eight national seed. A series win this weekend in Gainesville would all but secure the latter, but it will not be easy. Florida is 27-6 at Condron Family Ballpark and has one of the most dangerous lineups in college baseball. Wyatt Langford (.399/.538/.784) has been playing like a top-five overall pick all season, while sophomore superstar Jac Caglianone (.354/.406/.843) has established himself as the best two-way player in the country, and his 27 home runs rank first nationally. Junior shortstop Josh Rivera is having a career year and is hitting .367 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs, and is walking (32) more than he is striking out (19).
With a .303 team average and 209 extra-base hits in 49 games, Florida has had little trouble scoring runs. Its Achilles’ heel is on the mound, where its team ERA is north of 5.00. Its weekend rotation of Brandon Sproat (6-2, 4.84 ERA), Hurston Waldrep (6-3, 5.07 ERA) and Caglianone (4-2, 4.91 ERA) is incredibly talented on paper, but it has struggled to be consistent. Pitch selection and lack of command are two notable bugaboos, but when each arm has their best stuff the Gators are dominant.
While it is yet to be seen if Carter Holton (4-1, 4.11 ERA) will pitch this weekend, Vanderbilt will lean on its excellent pitching staff as it looks to secure a key road series win. Hunter Owen (4-0, 3.16 ERA) and Devin Futrell (6-2, 2.42 ERA) are a formidable one-two punch, and both have shown the ability to pitch deep into games and perform well against strong lineups. The Commodores’ bullpen has no shortage of depth with Nick Maldonado (1-1, 1.73 ERA) and Ryan Ginther (2-0, 3.16 ERA) leading the way. Offensively, R.J. Schreck leads the team in virtually every offensive category and is hitting .349 with 14 doubles, 13 home runs and 54 RBIs. Star center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. is hitting .301 and has utilized his advanced approach to draw more walks (42) than strikeouts (31), while his game-breaking speed has led to 31 stolen bases. Bradfield Jr. is also a Gold Glove defender in the outfield, and routinely makes outstanding plays. This series projects to be extremely well played with a plethora of pro prospects in either dugout.
No. 6 South Carolina (36-12, 14-9) at No. 4 Arkansas (36-12, 17-7)
Two weeks ago, South Carolina swept Florida to improve to 34-6 overall and 13-4 in the SEC. It was on the verge of the No. 1 ranking and was playing as well as anyone in the country. Since then, the Gamecocks have dropped each of their last two SEC series and limp into Baum Walker Stadium following a sweep at the hands of No. 19 Kentucky and a disastrous home midweek loss to North Florida. While it has been a difficult stretch, South Carolina is dealing with a number of injuries on both sides of the baseball, and it is realistic to think that the last couple of weeks would have played out a lot differently if it was fully healthy. Although shortstop Braylen Wimmer is likely to miss another series, the Gamecocks lineup gets a huge boost thanks to the projected return of both Talmadge LeCroy (.310/.461/.452) and Will McGillis (.297/.480/.770). LeCroy and McGillis are each impact bats who hit for both power and average and will be key pieces for Mark Kingston down the stretch. National freshman of the year favorite Ethan Petry has continued his monster year and is hitting .395 with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs, while sophomore backstop Cole Messina is hitting .315 with 16 doubles, 15 home runs and 51 RBIs.
Even though getting two big-time bats back into the lineup is crucial for South Carolina, it will be without two-thirds of its rotation as Will Sanders (4-3, 5.75 ERA) and Noah Hall (5-1, 3.29 ERA) are both on the shelf this weekend. Not only will the Gamecocks be without two of their better arms, freshman Eli Jerzembeck (0-1, 2.84 ERA) is also looking like he will be out for an extended period with an arm injury. For as thin as the Gamecocks will be on the mound, they will rely heavily on the services of Jack Mahoney (4-2, 4.42 ERA), Eli Jones (4-2, 3.38 ERA) and Chris Veach (2-0, 1.86 ERA) to keep them in each game.
Arkansas is no stranger to injuries itself, as it has lost multiple pitchers for the year while a handful of others have missed meaningful time. However, Dave Van Horn and his Razorbacks have found ways to win all year, but especially at Baum Walker Stadium, where they are 28-3. Junior outfielder Jace Bohrofen (.373/.493/.702) has been magnificent at the plate this year, hitting for both average and power, while sophomore Kendall Diggs has exploded to the tune of a .329 average and a team-leading 52 RBIs. Kansas transfer Tavian Josenberger is having a productive season of his own, hitting .322 with nine doubles and seven home runs. Although the Razorbacks have been banged up on the mound, southpaws Hunter Hollan (6-2, 4.15 ERA) and Hagen Smith (7-1, 2.56 ERA) have been fantastic. Physical freshman Gage Wood has a fearless presence on the mound and has emerged as the most effective bullpen arm for the Hogs with a 2.62 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched. Sophomore Brady Tygart is easing his way back from an injury and figures to make at least one appearance on the mound this weekend.
No. 16 Dallas Baptist (37-12, 20-4) at No. 23 Texas-San Antonio (36-12, 19-4)
The Lone Star State this weekend will be home to perhaps the biggest mid-major series of the 2023 season as Dallas Baptist makes the four-hour drive south to take on Texas San-Antonio. In their first season as a member of Conference USA, the Patriots sit atop the standings with a 20-4 record. The Roadrunners, who will join the Sun Belt Conference after this season, are just half a game back with their 19-4 record. Not only does this weekend have big implications when it comes to the C-USA pecking order, but it is also a crucial series for each team’s tournament resume. Dallas Baptist’s RPI sits at 22 and while the Patriots will comfortably make a regional, a ranked series win on the road would be a nice addition to their resume. Although its record is impressive and it currently is ranked, UTSA is closer to the bubble than some would think. The Roadrunners’ RPI is a modest 54 and they have just two wins over RPI top-50 teams. A series win over DBU would all but seal both a regular season Conference-USA title and an at-large berth to a regional.
The Patriots’ offense is led by freshman Grant Jay, who is hitting .340 with 14 doubles, 16 home runs and 51 RBIs across 45 games played. Sophomore outfielder Nathan Humphreys has been seeing the ball exceptionally well as of late and is boasting a .333 average to go along with eight doubles and 10 home runs. Veteran infielder Kodie Kolden is hitting .331 with 12 extra-base hits and redshirt junior Ethan Mann is hitting .305 with 14 home runs and a team-leading 57 RBIs. The biggest strength of this year’s DBU team is its pitching, as it has multiple weapons in both its rotation and its bullpen. Sophomore righthander Ryan Johnson is a true ace on Friday nights and has pitched his way to a 2.98 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 92-to-16 in 66.1 innings pitched. Saturday starter Braxton Bragg has been solid as well with a 4.08 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 64 innings pitched. The trio of Kyle Amendt (0-1, 1.35 ERA), Zane Russell (2-1, 1.53 ERA) and Brady Rose (6-1, 2.70 ERA) anchor the bullpen and have shut down opposing lineups all year.
UTSA is hitting .312 as a team and has gotten production up and down its lineup, but seniors Antonio Valdez (.389/.476/.695) and Shane Sirdashney (.361/.439/.456) lead the way. Valdez is the biggest power threat on the team with 11 doubles and 11 home runs, but another senior in Leyton Barry is hitting .338 with 13 doubles, eight home runs and 46 RBIs. Caleb Hill (.352/.423/.594), Sammy Diaz (.321/.436/.500), and Taylor Smith (.312/.462/.578) round out the core of a Roadrunner offense that will be a tall task for the pitching staff of DBU to navigate. It might not have the depth on the mound that DBU does, but UTSA has one of the best relievers in the country in junior righthander Simon Miller. Miller’s 1.36 ERA ranks first nationally among those who qualify, and he has compiled a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 67-to-14 across 53 innings. Friday starter Luke Malone (6-3, 3.72 ERA) is the best rotation arm and Ryan Beaird (4-1, 2.73 ERA) is another viable option out of the bullpen. This weekend has all the makings for an exciting series, but given its depth on the mound the advantage goes to Dallas Baptist.
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No. 15 Texas Tech (34-16, 9-9) at No. 11 West Virginia (37-12, 13-5)
The Big 12 this year has been one of the trickiest conferences to figure out. For the better part of 2023, nobody wanted to separate themselves from the pack and there was a constant shuffling of teams in the conference standings. However, in the last month, West Virginia has emerged as the class of the conference and is playing some of the best baseball of anyone in the country. Since dropping a home series to Kansas in early April, the Mountaineers have gone 14-3 in their last 17 games and have won each of their last four Big 12 series. The Mountaineers have a strong tournament resume and are in a good spot when it comes to hosting a regional. Texas Tech has been a difficult team to read this season as on some weekends it looks like a potential College World Series team, while on others one is left questioning its ceiling.
There is no doubt the Red Raiders can hit; they have a .317 team average and have slugged 207 extra-base hits in 50 games. Redshirt freshman Kevin Bazzell is hitting .383 with 22 doubles and five home runs, while Gavin Kash is hitting .367 with 11 doubles and leads the team in both home runs (22) and RBIs (76). Senior outfielder Nolen Hester is hitting .357, while freshman Gage Harrelson has also emerged as a key contributor with a .319 average and 14 doubles. Sophomore lefthander Mason Molina has been the steadiest rotation arm for Tim Tadlock with a 4.22 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 59.2 innings pitched. Out of the bullpen, expect a heavy dose of Brandon Beckel. The junior righthander has been dominant in his late-inning role and has a 1.57 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 34.1 innings pitched. On paper there is a lot to like about the Red Raiders, but their unimpressive 5-8 record in true road games is a cause for concern.
West Virginia has a legitimate superstar on its hands in sophomore second baseman, J.J. Wetherholt. Wetherholt’s .470 average currently leads the country, but he also has hit 20 doubles and 14 home runs. He has an excellent approach at the plate which has led to a sky-high on-base percentage of .532 to this point, and he is also a plus runner who has stolen 34 bases. If it weren't for Dylan Crews, Wetherholt would likely be considered for the Golden Spikes Award. Tevin Tucker and Landon Wallace are hitting .338 and .323, respectively, while Grant Hussey has some of the most impressive raw power in the conference and has hit 11 home runs. Redshirt senior Caleb McNeely has been productive as well and is hitting .299 with 11 home runs and 45 RBIs. Starters Blaine Traxel (6-4, 3.32 ERA) and Ben Hampton (5-1, 3.95 ERA) each give opposing hitters a unique look and make for a difficult at-bat. Junior Carlson Reed has been lights out in the bullpen. The lanky Carlson will run his fastball up to 98 mph, a pitch he pairs with a wipeout slider. He has a 1.20 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 30 innings pitched. The Mountaineers have the upper hand in what should be an entertaining weekend at Magnolia County Ballpark.
Kansas State (31-18, 11-7) at No. 20 Oklahoma State (33-14, 11-7)
The Wildcats and Cowboys enter this weekend tied for second place in the conference standings and two games behind first-place West Virginia. Kansas State has won each of its last two Big 12 series, most notably taking a series from No. 15 Texas Tech. The Wildcats are trending in the right direction when it comes to earning an at-large bid, but with an RPI of 57 and a 1-3 record against RPI top 25 teams their resume leaves something to be desired. A ranked series win on the road would propel them squarely to the right side of the bubble and all but lock up a spot in the tournament. As for Oklahoma State, it is 10-1 in its last 11 games but has lost two of its last three Big 12 series. It is safely in the tournament but has some work to do if it would like to host a regional in Stillwater. For the Cowboys to host, they would need to win each of their last two series as well as make a bit of a run in the Big 12 tournament.
Runs will certainly not be at a premium this weekend, as the ball absolutely flies at O’Brate Stadium. All three games project to be slugfests, a style of game in which Oklahoma State is plenty comfortable. Roc Riggio (.357/.491/.754) and Nolan Schubart (.333/.463/.654) are tied for the team lead in RBIs with 51 and have hit 16 and 12 home runs, respectively. Senior first baseman David Mendham has hit 13 home runs of his own and has driven in 49 runs, while Carson Benge is enjoying a fantastic season in which he is hitting .351 with 13 doubles and seven home runs. Oklahoma State last weekend welcomed back junior two-way player Nolan McLean, who figures to make an impact on both sides of the baseball. On the mound, projected day one draft pick Juaron Watts-Brown (5-2, 3.98 ERA) is the ace of the staff and sidewinder Isaac Stebens (4-1, 2.66 ERA) is the most reliable arm out of the bullpen.
Kansas State might not have the type of offensive firepower that Oklahoma State does, but Nick Goodwin (.286/.403/.524) is one of the premier draft prospects in the conference and will hit for both average and power on top of playing great defense at shortstop. Sophomore Kaelen Culpepper is hitting .304 with eight home runs, and the physical third baseman routinely posts triple-digit exit velocities. Redshirt sophomore Brady Day is a great table setter at the top of the lineup and is hitting .348 with 45 walks to 17 strikeouts. His on-base percentage is an even .500 and he will be a tough out all weekend. Starter Owen Boerema (6-1, 3.91 ERA) has shown the ability to pitch deep into games, throwing six or more innings in eight of his 12 starts. The Wildcats have one of the best closers in college baseball in fireballer Tyson Neighbors (4-1, 1.01 ERA), and getting him the ball with a lead this weekend will be crucial. Keeping up with the Oklahoma State offense at O’Brate Stadium is a lot to ask of any offense, but Kansas State has the personnel on the mound to keep the ball down and in the yard.
Other Series of Note
—No. 19 Kentucky (34-13, 14-10) at Tennessee (33-16, 12-12)
—Washington (29-14, 13-10) at No. 24 Oregon (31-16, 14-10)
—No. 18 Clemson (32-17, 14-10) at Virginia Tech (29-16, 11-12)
—Alabama (33-16, 11-13) at Texas A&M (29-20, 11-13)
—Mercer (28-20, 10-5) at Wofford (34-14, 9-6)