May 5, 2008
Wait 'Til Next Year
May sees desperation creep into college baseball; the first few weeks of the month represent the last chance for teams to build their résumés before the conference tournaments turn seasons into do-or-die weekends. This past weekend was chock full of desperation, which played out in the form of a lot of late-inning comebacks. Many teams play the role of spoiler, and, in a few instances below, you'll see schools with no chances at the NCAA tournament nevertheless achieve sweeps that deeply impact the race. For me, those aren't the more fun stories to tell--I much prefer reporting on the teams that solidified spots in the tournament. For the next few weeks, Mondays will be our chance to handicap, and unfortunately, declare many teams dead. Here are the six most interesting stories, with particular attention paid to how the results impact the NCAA Tournament.
Plan Your Regional Trips Now: Given the amount of depth in the Pac-10 and Big West this season, there had to be some doubt before the weekend that if Pepperdine handily beat San Diego, neither team would host a regional. It might be a stretch to say San Diego entered this weekend in a must-win situation, but by rallying to win the last two games of the series in Malibu, San Diego assured themselves a regional. For their troubles, they can thank the depth within this group of starting pitchers--when Brian Matusz struggles (6 IP, 5 ER), Josh Romanski (9 IP, 1 ER), and Kyle Blair (7 2/3 IP, 0 ER) flourish. Another California team with a regional solidifying weekend was Cal State Fullerton, who took two of three on the road at UC Santa Barbara to grab hold of the Big West. Credit head coach Dave Serrano's club with rebounding from its early-season series losses to Stanford and Arizona to cap an impressive season.
Big West Solidifies Number Four: While Fullerton solidified their claim on a regional in Santa Barbara, UC Davis solidified a spot in the tournament at home. On Wednesday, the Aggies beat Stanford 10-8, achieving a midweek season sweep of the regional-host Cardinal. Then, over the weekend, Davis ended a two-weekend slide by winning their final two games from Long Beach State. I forecasted a low-scoring trio of games, and the teams would score just 20 runs combined on the weekend. Friday belonged to Andrew Liebel and Long Beach State, as the Dirtbags took the upper hand with a 6-0 win, but a pair of one-run victories on Saturday and Sunday--and made possible by some fabulous relief pitching--won the series for UC Davis. The bullpen proved to be LBSU's Achilles' heel on Sunday, as closer Bryan Shaw allowed all the Aggies' three runs in his one inning of work. Should UC Davis continue their winning ways at home against UC Irvine next week, they'll likely jump over Long Beach in the national rankings.
LSU Locks it Up: I was pretty sure when I wrote about LSU last week that a sweep of South Carolina would prove to be enough to get them into the tournament. Now I'm really sure, as a sweep of Kentucky in Lexington might be even more impressive than that over the Gamecocks. When you talk about LSU you talk about hitting, and they broke out in full force, scoring 21 runs in the last two games. It's important to also give some props to their pitching in the first game, as starter Ryan Verdugo and reliever Jared Bradford combined to pitch a three-hitter over 10 innings while they waited for the offense to wake up. What amazes me about the LSU offense is that it always seems to be a different dog who has his day in any one game, whether it be Michael Hollander and Derek Helenihi's late-inning heroics in the first game, home runs from Sean Ochinko and Jared Mitchell in the second, or a huge game from Matt Clark in the third.
Take One Off the Bubble: The cream of the conference is at its top, as the ACC will earn three regional hosts and a good two-seed in NC State. They are sure to boast the nation's top seed in the tournament, and have legitimate hopes to send multiple teams to Omaha. However, what the ACC lacks a bit in depth. Georgia Tech was a ghastly 1-8 in three series against the ACC's top three teams, and they lost a weekend set to Maryland as well, so while the Yellow Jackets' RPI was favorable, they certainly never seemed like a true top-25 team until this weekend. That's because scoring 30 runs on any weekend is good, but scoring 30 to win a series from Coastal Carolina is even better. The weekend MVP was freshman shortstop Derek Dietrich, who was 6-for-12 with a double, triple, and home run.
Take One Off the Other Way: Tax Day was big for the USC Trojans, as a 14-4 win over Cal State Fullerton gave them the series sweep. They had spent the prior weekend beating highly-regarded Cal at home, were winners of eight of their previous ten, and had beat Arizona in March. However, in almost three weeks since then, the Trojans have played themselves out of the NCAA tournament, following the Fullerton win with six straight losses: a series sweep at the hands of UC Santa Barbara, a loss to San Diego State, and a pair of brutal losses (combined score: 30-5) to Stanford. Even then, a good May would have been enough to get USC in, but the Trojans were swept this weekend at home by the Washington Huskies. The pitching staff allowed 25 runs in three games, and the offense scored just 11. The rest of the season, the team only has weekends against Cal State Northridge, Oregon State, and Washington State; no one on the schedule remains whom a victory over could convince the committee that this team belongs in the tournament. They've been proven worse than UCSB, worse than Loyola Marymount, and now worse than Washington. That's not a tournament team, but since USC's two most talented players are sophomores, Trojans fans can get away with saying Wait 'Til Next Year.
Wiggle Room Empties in SoCon: The top conferences in college baseball have shown a lot of parity this season, as we've debated all season long about which team is best in the SEC or Pac-10--and the argument has sometimes gone five teams deep. Mass conference parity is a bad thing for the smaller conferences, as most of their teams can't earn fantastic RPI marks with non-conference schedules that pale in comparison to those in the Pac-10. So it's always good to see when a conference like the SoCon boasts two teams that are just so good that the committee will have no choice but to deny an ACC team a spot in favor of the mid-major. Entering the weekend, Elon and College of Charleston were neck-and-neck in the conference, and at 29 and 43 respectively in the RPI, both looked like safe tournament bets. However, College of Charleston slipped this weekend, swept at the hands of UNC Greensboro. In doing so, they left themselves just one option to make the postseason: win the conference tournament. A lot of bubble teams just became fans of the Elon Phoenix this weekend, as an Elon victory at the SoCon tournament in two weeks will leave the conference with just one representative, and leave the bubble teams with one more spot.
The BP College 12