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April 7, 2008

Wait 'Til Next Year

Sorting It Out

by Bryan Smith

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We return to format this week, though last week was a useful way to provide a wider view of the national picture. It also highlighted numerous matchups this weekend that will prove paramount to the decision-makers in May. For example, USC traveled to UCLA-a long bus ride, I'm sure-and came away with two wins to open the series. However, because last week was highlighted by so many battles, that clash isn't even one of the six I'm highlighting today. In fact, you'll notice some cramming in a few places, because halfway through the season, no other weekend had as many notable developments as this weekend's action did.

The Return of the Rebels... and Pedro: Given the vastly different directions the Mississippi and Vanderbilt programs were heading in the preceding weeks-the Rebels entered the weekend having won just four of their previous ten-as well as the return of the nation's best player Pedro Alvarez, it looked like Vanderbilt's walk into Oxford would be easier than we would have guessed six weeks ago. Throw in two Alvarez home runs in the series, one on Friday and another on Sunday, and could it be any more shocking to say that it was Ole Miss that swept the series? I've tried to make fun of myself for predicting an Ole Miss College World Series championship, so this was a bit refreshing. Offensively, Ole Miss had plenty of stars after scoring 26 runs in three games, but perhaps nobody was more important than first baseman Matt Smith, who hit two home runs in a 5-for-10 weekend. On the pitching side, Scott Bittle deserves credit for holding Vanderbilt to just one hit in the final five innings in relief of Lance Lynn on Friday to secure the first victory. Drew Pomeranz was fantastic on Saturday, securing the series win with seven shutout innings.

No Stopping the Stanford Spoilers: Since it's a nightmare for editors everywhere that the Stanford nickname be the Cardinal-not the plural-I suggest a name change, to the Spoilers. Nebraska, Cal State Fullerton, and Texas have all fallen to Stanford this season, but perhaps no two victories were more impressive than their dominating the top-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils 12-2 on Saturday and 10-2 on Sunday. Like it has been all season, the middle of the Stanford order fueled the way to the weekend win, which came without the benefit of ace Jeremy Bleich. On Friday, Stanford lost when ASU ace Mike Leake and three relievers held the middle of the Cardinal order-catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Randy Molina, center fielder Sean Ratliff, and left fielder Joey August-to a 3-for-16 night. However, as I've noted before, after Leake the Sun Devils' pitching gets decidedly weaker. On Saturday, while getting a complete game from Erik Davis, Stanford banged out 17 hits, including home runs from Castro, Molina, and Ratliff. Sunday was August's day, as he banged out three hits of his own, also scoring a pair of runs. If Stanford can survive their own regional-because at this point, they'd have to fall on their faces between now and then to avoid being awarded one-they will be the most dangerous super regional opponent out there, guaranteed.

More West Coast Upsets: The parity in California means that on any given weekend pretty much any team can duplicate Stanford's spoiler role. This week it was two teams who did so, most notably Cal State Fullerton in Dave Serrano's return to Irvine, which yielded a pair of victories. On Friday, Serrano's crew ran up Scott Gorgen's pitch count, meaning that the All-American could only last six innings before coach Mike Gillespie was forced to take him out. This exposed the Anteaters' largest weakness-pitching depth-which the Titans exploited for eight runs in the final three innings. Saturday yielded a fantastic pitching matchup, as Bryce Stowell threw seven scoreless frames for Cal State, but he didn't get the win, and UC Irvine got some 12th-inning drama from center fielder Ollie Linton to even the series. On Sunday, three hits from star freshman shortstop Christian Colon highlighted Fullerton's big day at the plate, as they won the series with a 6-4 victory. Meanwhile, over in Riverside the Highlanders were putting the finishing touches on a 7-1 win to topple a slumping Long Beach State club. Riverside got a complete game from Sunday starter Paul Gargas to win the series, while Jake Thompson was roughed up for LBSU, failing to get out of the third. Since beating Harvard 15-0 on March 24, the Dirtbags are just 1-8. They have a problem-their bad run exposes their need to play at home, and it's also harming their chances at hosting their own regional. All in all, just another exciting weekend's worth of California college baseball action.

The Nation's Most Impressive Seven-Game Win Streak: ...belongs to the Georgia Bulldogs. For the first month of the season, Georgia was on the proverbial bubble between good and mediocre, even with impressive wins over Arizona, Oregon State and Florida State because of a 3-5 record against those teams overall. Since then, however, Gordon Beckham's team has really caught stride, winning 14 of 18 games. The last seven have been the cherry on top, to be sure: two wins against a tough Mississippi State Bulldogs team on the road to pull out a series win, a midweek home-and-home sweep of Clemson, and finally a sweep of South Carolina in Athens. While there's no question that Beckham deserves to have this called his team, the key to this recent win streak is simple: pitching. In seven games, Georgia has allowed only 16 runs. On Friday, they beat South Carolina 1-0 thanks to seven shutout frames from Trevor Holder, plus a tough ninth inning from Josh Fields. In fact, Georgia's bullpen was perfect all weekend, pitching nine shutout innings, including 3 1/3 from Justin Earls. The book on Georgia had been that if you stop Beckham, you beat the Bulldogs, but South Carolina stopped Beckham (2-for-9), and Georgia's pitching made sure the SEC now knows that this team is no one-man band.

Deja Vu, and Another Upset: As Beckham has slowed a bit from his torrid start to the season, he's lost a bit of ground in the Golden Spikes race. But it's not all his doing, because on Friday Aaron Crow continued to pitch brilliantly, this time delivering a complete-game shutout of Oklahoma State for Missouri. This latest masterpiece lifted Crow's scoreless inning streak to 42 2/3 innings. If he can make it through five innings against Texas at home next week-no easy feat-he'll become the Orel Hershiser of the college game. However, instead of merely repeating Crow's latest bit of brilliance, we should point out that Oklahoma State did rebound and take the series from one of the nation's best teams on the road. On Saturday, credit goes to Tyler Lyons for a complete game, as he allowed just two earned runs; the Missouri defense lost the game with three errors. Sunday the offense kept up with Oklahoma State, as Kyle Gibson had his first bad outing of the season, but Cowboys catcher Luis Flores was too much for them to handle, as he delivered four hits, a home run, and five RBI. Missouri needs to keep runs off the board to win games, and while it hasn't been a problem for them most of the season, Flores and Jordy Mercer proved that Missouri's staff isn't made up of all Aaron Crow.

Sometimes the Favorites Do Win: On Thursday, I stressed the importance of the St. John's vs. Louisville series, both in terms of the Cardinals season and the Big East's hope to land two teams in the conference tournament. While St. John's bullpen blew an early lead in the middle innings to lose Sunday, the Red Storm won the first two games decisively, leaving little question as to which team is the class of the conference. Most important was the dominance of the two St. John's aces, Scott Barnes on Friday (6 1/3 IP, 3 ER, 9 K) and George Brown (7 1/3 IP, 2 ER, 6 K) on Saturday. But the offense also scored 19 runs in the two wins despite clubbing just one home run. However, the offense was equally well-prepared to face the Louisville's two aces, Zack Pitts and Justin Marks, neither of whom made it deep into their games. While Gabriel Shaw and Gavin Logsdon-who I stressed on Thursday needed to have big weekends-pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Marks, it was besides the point, as Louisville couldn't dig out of a six-run hole. One program continues their ascent, another continues to disappoint, and six weeks from the conference tournament, it looks like the biggest loser might be the conference.

The BP College 12
1. Arizona State
2. Miami
3. North Carolina
4. Florida State
5. California
6. Missouri
7. UC Irvine
8. Nebraska
9. Wichita State
10. Stanford
11. Vanderbilt
12. South Carolina

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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