May 12, 2008
Wait 'Til Next Year
Get Right To It
No elaborate opening today, as I'll let the subplots tell the stories here in the final weeks of the college baseball season. Tournament implications abound in weekend series, and here's what I found to be the six biggest stories:
SEC, or Days of Our Lives? I love the month of May in college baseball, because it amazes me that one weekend can change the landscape so dramatically. Before the weekend, South Carolina was the top-ranked SEC team in terms of RPI, and Arkansas was on the bubble. The RPI liked the Razorbacks, but a sub-.500 conference record is atypical for a tournament team. With their season on the line, Dave Van Horn's team pulled off a home sweep of South Carolina, nearly assuring themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament. Give credit to Arkansas third baseman Logan Forsythe first and foremost; the third baseman went 4-for-4 with two home runs on Friday, 2-for-4 on Saturday and scored another run in Sunday's 4-2 win. The Razorbacks also pitched well after Friday, especially sophomore Dallas Keuchel, who struck out 10 in eight innings to close out the weekend in style. Regardless of RPI rankings, the Gamecocks certainly don't deserve a regional. The team has been swept three times on the road against SEC opponents, and they also lost a series to Vanderbilt in mid-March. In a year like this, when the SEC is enjoying as much parity as ever before, the Gamecocks should not be rewarded for the ability to play well at home. South Carolina's loss becomes LSU's gain--bet on it.
But, finally: a guaranteed SEC regional host. There was no question in looking at the schedules last week that, on the road to hosting a regional, no one had it tougher than Vanderbilt. After a dynamic 13-7 victory on Friday night, the Commodores were looking strong, but Georgia bounced back to win a pair of two-run games to finish the series in style and guarantee themselves a regional. Tim Corbin attacked Gordon Beckham the whole weekend, as the shortstop drew just one walk. However, perhaps Vanderbilt underestimated the hitters around Beckham, as Ryan Peisel and Rich Poythress had big weekends, and Sunday's 12-10 win saw four Bulldogs collect three hits. If anything was troubling for Georgia, it was the performance of their usually-perfect bullpen: 9 ER in 8 innings on the weekend. Vanderbilt's regional hopes were salvaged by lesser performances by their SEC brethren--South Carolina's weekend as well as Florida's series loss at Alabama. However, you have to wonder if the SEC will have just two regional hosts this year, Georgia and LSU, especially given the strength of the ACC.
The road to Omaha goes through Lincoln. The battle between Nebraska and Texas A&M seemed straight-forward enough--the winner becomes a national seed. Neither team was in danger of losing their sure bet to host a regional, but the top eight teams in the country certainly enter the tournament with an advantage. Nebraska salvaged that this weekend, bouncing back after an emotional Friday loss to win the weekend in front of the Lincoln hopeful. Friday's game was, if you can believe it, a 16-inning affair in which only eight total pitchers were used. All credit belongs to Texas A&M reliever Travis Starling, who threw eight shutout innings from the bullpen while his team waited until the 16th to score three off Nebraska's Dan Jennings. After an off-day Saturday, Jennings and the Huskers came ready to play. Jennings threw 3.1 scoreless innings from the bullpen, and the Nebraska offense scored five in the ninth off Texas A&M closer Kyle Thebeau to win the front half. The second game featured another Nebraska comeback, as the Huskers would put three runs in each of their last three offensive innings to topple the Aggies 13-10. Designated hitter David Stewart--who didn't even make it into the 16-inning game on Friday--was the day's hero with four hits and 7 RBI.
Devils and Cardinal and Bears: As I look back over Cal's resume right now, I really don't see why this team isn't ranked higher. After all, this was the Cal team that dominated the USD and Minnesota tournaments in early March, the team that swept Long Beach State and won their first four weekend series. You can say April was a bad month, because of road series losses--one to USC and a sweep at the hands of Arizona State. While this isn't the greatest road team in the world, they have had two bad weekends, and this one wasn't one of them. If the book was that Cal couldn't win on the road, no one forgot to tell the Bears in a rival series in Palo Alto against the Stanford Cardinal. Tyson Ross let his own gem down with a bad ninth inning, but closer Matt Gorgen came in and closed things down while California put together some tenth-inning magic on Friday. Saturday, Craig Bennigson put together another good start and the Bears bullpen was again fantastic. With a potential sweep on the line Sunday, the Stanford offense came up big, so while Cal didn't disprove the theory that they don't have pitching depth, they certainly did their job. Expect Arizona State, Stanford and Cal to all deservedly host regionals from the Pac-10.
Continued Legitimacy: If the RPI is guilty of a fault, from my perspective, it has a tendency to too often award teams for losing to the best and beating the teams in the middle. These teams are always really hard to gauge, because come tournament time, easy games will be a thing of the past. To be honest, two weeks ago, I thought Georgia Tech was this team. They had been battered by Miami, Florida State and North Carolina, suffered a weekend loss to Maryland, and won just about everything else, and their RPI was seemingly too good. However, after beating Coastal Carolina last week, the Yellow Jackets took care of business by beating Georgia in Athens on Wednesday and beating Clemson at home on the weekend. Tech did it in atypical fashion, as well, utilizing their pitching staff on Friday and Saturday, holding Clemson to just one run in each game. On Friday, David Duncan was brilliant, scattering a run over eight innings, and going it efficiently--100 pitches total on the game. On Saturday, Eddie Burns did the same feat, and the offense was even better, pounding out seven runs and 10 hits to give Burns breathing room. Sunday's game was a brutal 16-6 loss, but the damage had been done, especially to Clemson's postseason hopes, which now seem pretty futile. Tech, on the other hand, firmly becomes the fifth-best team in the ACC.
Clearing up, or further muddling, the Pac-10: Entering this weekend, we knew a few things about the Pac-10. USC, after being swept by Washington last week, was firmly out of the tournament. Arizona State, Stanford, California and Arizona were definitely in. This left Washington, Oregon State, UCLA and Washington State in a very tight bubble mix, with a weekend slate promising to clean things out: Washington-Washington State and OSU-UCLA. Entering Sunday, both series had split the first two games in the Northwest. UCLA had rebounded from a 10-1 loss to beat Oregon State 11-4 on Saturday; the Huskies had also dropped their Saturday game at home after a dynamic Friday win. On Sunday, the home teams prevailed, as Washington won 5-1 with a brilliant start by junior Nick Haughian (9 IP, 1 ER, 11 K) and Oregon State used an eight-inning grand slam to edge out the Bruins 8-7. UCLA drops to 8-10 in conference with the loss while the Cougars drop to 6-12. The teams face off next weekend, with the winner's tournament hopes resting on the following weekend. The winning teams are both probably in, but the Huskies RPI is still very high, so winning two games in their final two series against Arizona State and Stanford would be a requisite starter.
The BP College 12