March 24, 2008
Wait 'Til Next Year
NCAA Weekend Review
Generally, the outcomes from this weekend were pretty standard fare for college baseball. For the most part it seemed that the best teams won the weekend series, and usually the series were split two games to one. While that doesn't always make for the most interesting copy, it does help in terms of validating that we are beginning to identify the programs correctly. While we are still two months from the NCAA Tournament, we are certainly closer than we were a month ago at being able to look at which teams might host, which teams might find themselves on the bubble, and which teams were far too overhyped. We'll try to hit on that theme in today's edition of the six most interesting facts from last weekend.
This Just In, the Trojans Can Pitch: This weekend's series at Dedeaux Field in Los Angeles matched up a pair of teams riding losing streaks. The home team, USC, had dropped their previous four to good California teams in UC Irvine (midweek) and Long Beach State. Arizona came in with a season-high two-game losing streak after dropping last Sunday's series finale to Cal State Fullerton and then a pivotal midweek game against the rival Arizona State Sun Devils. For both teams, the weekend was very important for them to get headed back in the right direction. The outcome? Chalk one up to Chad Kreuter's crew, as the Trojans book-ended a Friday night loss with a pair of 5-0 shutouts. After a fantastic summer in the Cape Cod League for four Trojans pitchers-Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Brad Boxberger and Kevin Couture-it looked like USC might be at the beginning of a turnaround. If the program is indeed about to re-enter an upswing, this weekend might be the defining moment. Friday afternoon's shutout was a product of a two hits in seven innings by Milone, with star catcher Robert Stock finishing the game. On Saturday, the Trojans won the series thanks to Cook's complete-game shutout, in which he faced just five batters over the minimum. While USC is light in terms of depth, they proved this weekend that they are one team you won't want to travel to your regional in late May.
I Knew They Were Underrated, But Really? Even after talking to head coach Kevin O'Sullivan last week and profiling the Gators in my Weekend Preview, I didn't think they would travel to Oxford and beat Ole Miss. Sure, it doesn't seem like March has been the Rebels' month, but still, Oxford isn't an easy place to play ball. But you know what? Save for a ninth-inning implosion by Billy Bullock-after O'Sullivan was a bit slow and indulgent with him-and reliever Clint Franklin, the Gators would have swept the series. The Rebels played bad defense all weekend long, giving the Gators a total of seven unearned runs on the series. Florida also jumped all over Cody Satterwhite and Nathan Baker, Ole Miss' Saturday and Sunday starters, early in their games, and the weekend seemed to be just one long string of deep holes that Ole Miss couldn't climb out of. Again, the Florida starting staff deserves credit, particularly freshman Tommy Toledo, who allowed one run in seven innings to earn his fourth win. The other star Florida freshman, second baseman Josh Adams, homered in Sunday's win. All the credit goes to O'Sullivan's Gators for continuing this fabulous run, and for Ole Miss, the question becomes how to generate positive play from people other than Lance Lynn and Scott Bittle.
The Tigers Hit Their Stride: We knew before the season that Missouri was going to be good, but outside of a weekend at the University of San Diego Tournament where they were 3-1, Missouri's non-conference schedule told us little about the Tigers. This weekend, they entered a series hosting Baylor on a 10-game win streak, but it merely consisted of wins over Indiana State, Toledo, and South Dakota State. In fact, Missouri's single losses to Central Florida and San Diego were more damning than any single win was a positive-until this weekend. In three games against Baylor, Missouri didn't allow a single earned run. On Friday, Aaron Crow moved to 5-0 with a complete-game shutout, striking out 10 to beat Baylor ace Kendal Volz. Saturday was Ian Berger's turn, and he allowed one hit in seven innings before prized freshman Nick Tepesch saved his masterpiece over the last two innings. On Sunday, it was Kyle Gibson's turn, and the star sophomore struck out nine in seven frames in which a Kyle Mach error was the only thing that stopped another shutout. As a result of their sweep, Missouri will rise up the rankings, and helped their case that much more by scoring 22 runs against a Baylor team I held much respect for. The Bears face a much easier April than their March, and they'll need it to help put together a lot of wins before an early-May battle against Texas, to ensure that they host a regional.
The Class of California: In case there was any question who the best team in California was entering the weekend, there no longer should be. The Cal Bears were in contention, and won their weekend series against Washington State, but they did lose a game to the Cougars, and another to Sacramento State. UC Irvine is in the running, but for me Mike Gillespie's squad still needs to prove that they can hit elite pitching. And if you wondered if UCLA belonged in the discussion, ask Long Beach State, which earned the title this weekend by handily sweeping the Bruins. Even after starting the season by beating Rice and sweeping Wichita State, we wondered about the Long Beach offense, but in their seven-game win streak (which includes a sweep of the aforementioned Trojans) since being shut out by previously winless Western Illinois on March 11, the Dirtbags have scored 59 runs. Mike Weathers is still tinkering with his lineup, using three different leadoff hitters in the UCLA sweep, for example; Danny Espinosa, the team's star, hit first, second, and sixth on the weekend. If anything, it proves that when a team is hot, it doesn't matter how you arrange them, and the Dirtbags should enter next weekend's pivotal series in Berkeley on a tear.
Put In Place: It says something about Auburn that, following twice being swept, first by Florida State and then by Florida, I proclaimed the victor as a team to watch. Florida State jumped into the top 12 as a result, and Florida ostensibly put themselves into the picture. In each case, beating Auburn was an admirable feat, but it will be even more so after the Tigers gave Kentucky a rough handling. Kentucky rode into Auburn undefeated and untested, and save a bad start by Luke Greinke on Sunday and a worse outing by the Tigers' defense, they would have left the victims of a sweep. Auburn captured an important series two games to one, important as well in terms of getting into the NCAA Tournament and in a decent location. The series win also marked the beginning of the Auburn's pitching staff making sense. On Friday, the combination of Grant Dayton to Evan Crawford to Bryan Woodall proved shutout-capable, and should do so a few more times this season. As perhaps the best setup/closer combination in college baseball, Crawford and Woodall essentially make games seven innings for Auburn. The introduction to SEC baseball for Kentucky-particularly stars Scott Green (4 ER, 5 BB in 4 2/3 IP) and Colin Cowgill (3-for-14, 0 XBH) proves that the Wildcats are more of a two-seed than a true Regional host-caliber club.
One Man Can Make a Difference: At this point, there shouldn't be a ton of question who the best hitter in the nation is. Texas' Kyle Russell might be the most feared, Arkansas' Aaron Murphree might have the most oddball numbers, but Gordon Beckham is the best. Obviously, sample-size issues still plague making too much of out college numbers, but we're now 20 games into Georgia's season, and Beckham is hitting .517/.576/1.080. He's also playing a pretty good shortstop, a combination which probably lands him in the first round. This weekend, a two games to one series victory over a resurgent Tennessee club, was the perfect example of his importance to the Bulldogs. On Friday, Georgia won, with little question why: Beckham hit two home runs, walked twice, and scored three runs. On Saturday, the Volunteers kept Beckham from delivering any extra-base hits, and as a result, the Bulldogs only scored three runs. Of course, Beckham had three hits and two RBI, so we can give him credit for a lot of what went into those three runs, and thanks to the work from Stephen Dodson and Josh Fields on the mound, that was enough for a Georgia win. Fast forward to Sunday, as Beckham doubles in the first inning and Georgia scores a run, but is held hitless thereafter, and the Bulldogs lose 4-3 in 10 innings. As goes Beckham, so go the Bulldogs, which is good for them, as Beckham has truly matured into a legit Golden Spikes contender.
The BP College 12