This is the second installment of our quick hits Division I baseball feature at Prospects Live, where I’ll recap noteworthy or surprising series of last weekend. Showdown series of top-ranked programs, under-the-radar upsets, top prospect performances- I’ll hit on them all.
UCLA Continues to Roll
As the consensus #1 team in the country, UCLA should be favored to win essentially all their home series, especially when the visitor must endure a rare mid-April cross-country trip. With a loaded East Carolina team headed to LA, though, forecasting a Bruin sweep would have been a bit much. Yet that’s exactly what happened.
To the Pirates’ credit, all three games were competitive, but they had no answer in the late innings for Michael Toglia. The junior has had a bit of a disappointing season (by his standards- most players would love a .289/.366/.555 slash line), but things have started to click over the past few weekends. That came to a head against the Pirates, as Toglia blasted a game-tying shot on Friday off ECU relief ace Sam Lanier, following that up with a two-out, go-ahead double the next inning to put the Bruins up for good. He wasn’t done. Toglia clinched the series win in Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader by tagging closer Alec Burleson for a walk-off three-run home run in the ninth.
While ECU finally held Toglia down in Game 3, Bruins ace Ryan Garcia, as he has for two years, dominated, striking out 13 in seven scoreless innings. Despite a delayed start to the season thanks to arm discomfort, Garcia has picked up right where he left off last season and might pitch his way into Day 1 consideration. In his three starts against top ten opponents (Oregon State, Stanford and ECU), Garcia has worked to a combined 1.93 ERA with 32 strikeouts and four walks. For a UCLA team that entered the season with some uncertainty on its pitching staff, Garcia has cemented himself as a true ace, capable of beating any offense in the country. Couple that with the forthcoming return of Jeremy Ydens and Toglia seemingly finding his stride, and UCLA should, if anything, be even better come tournament time. John Savage has already taken three Bruin teams to Omaha; it would be quite the upset if the 2019 team doesn’t become his fourth.
Oregon State Stifles the Devils
Much of the attention focused on the Beavers this season has revolved around Adley Rutschman and Kevin Abel. Both those storylines are well-deserved; Rutschman has been everything anyone expected and then some, while Abel, sadly, went down with an ill-timed Tommy John Surgery that could conceivably cost him his final two seasons in Corvallis. (How much Abel’s heavy workload in the 2018 College World Series factored into his injury is impossible to know, but it was eyebrow-raising at the time and certainly looks ripe for criticism in retrospect). The attention on the Beavers’ two most famous players, though, misses another important story: week in and week out, they keep winning.
The only blemish on the Beavers’ record this season is a mid-March series loss at UCLA. Dropping two of three on the road to the nation’s best team is hardly cause for concern. This weekend, Oregon State traveled to Phoenix to take on Arizona State. Despite being held to 11 runs, the Beavers left victorious, preserving close leads at the end of each of the series’ latter two contests. Their bullpen, which might be the country’s best, was sharp yet again, giving up two runs over 9.1 innings despite pressure-packed plate appearances against Spencer Torkelson, Hunter Bishop and company.
It remains fair to question the Beavers’ depth. Their bullpen has been worked pretty hard all season, and their lineup around Rutschman still has questions (despite Alex McGarry’s and Ryan Ober’s best efforts). But the Beavers are #2 in RPI now and have proven capable of competing on the road, so they’re a real threat to repeat as national champs, massive losses in the 2018 draft notwithstanding. It’s been nothing short of masterful work in Corvallis to survive the immense flux the program has undergone over the last twelve months.
As for ASU, back-to-back losing weekends have thrown a wrench in their hosting plans. They sit 38th in RPI now, having gone only 3-3 against top-50 opponents. They’ll host UCLA and Stanford later in the season, so they certainly have a chance to get back on track, but their margin for error to host keeps getting thinner.
Tennessee Pitches Their Way to a Huge Win
Tennessee’s had a great season in 2019 on the backs of their pitching. What they had been lacking, though, was a marquee SEC series win. No more. The Volunteers took two of three from #2 Georgia last weekend, blanking the Bulldogs in consecutive games to start the series. Garrett Crochet was impressive in his first start of the season, while Garrett Stallings continued his breakout junior year with a complete game in game 2. The Vols’ lineup remains a bit thin beyond Andre Lipcius and JUCO transfer Alerick Soularie but a weekend rotation of Crochet, Stallings and Zach Linginfelter can keep them in any series.
‘Noles Sweep Clemson
I all but declared Florida State dead and buried last week. Then they come out and sweep one of the ACC’s best teams. It’s been a wild year for the conference in general, with no one grabbing the reigns at the top. It seems Louisville is now the team to beat after sweeping North Carolina State last weekend. That’s important for FSU, since a season-closing road series against the Cardinals might be the Seminoles last chance to make a statement to the committee. Winning their other conference series against Virginia, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh won’t move the needle much (of course, losing one or two of them would be devastating), so FSU really needed the performance they put together last weekend against Clemson. It remains a long road back, but they’re not quite done yet.
Louisiana Tech Shakes up C-USA
Maybe it’s cheating to call this an upset. I liked Louisiana Tech entering the year because of the combination of David Leal and Logan Bailey at the top of their rotation, but they’ve succeeded in an entirely different way. Bailey has been unimpressive, while Leal has battled injuries all year. Instead, they’re third in Conference-USA in scoring, with redshirt senior outfielder Mason Mallard arguably the conference’s top hitter thus far. Still, Florida Atlantic entered last weekend’s series rolling, 11-1 in conference play. The Bulldogs stole two of three on the road, though, vaulting themselves into a three-way race at the top of the conference with the Owls and Southern Mississippi. More importantly, La Tech improved to #33 in RPI, perhaps the best chance for an at-large bid in the conference.
Top Prospect Performances
In Friday’s series opener against a Texas Tech offense that ranks top fifteen nationally in most major categories, Manoah turned in arguably the pitching performance of the weekend. He spun a complete game shutout, punching out fifteen without a walk. Gabe Holt managed three singles against Manoah, who tossed 125 pitches on the night. The rest of the Red Raiders lineup combined to go 1-27 with 14 strikeouts. As Ralph Lifshitz noted, Manoah’s been on an absolute tear the past month-plus and has jumped into top half of the first round consideration. A Marques Inman walk-off walk in Game 2 clinched the series for the Mountaineers, who jumped into the top twenty in RPI. With six of their final twelve conference games against the bottom of the Big 12 (Kansas and Kansas State) on the schedule, West Virginia’s a legitimate contender in the still-jumbled league.
Stowers reached base twice in each of Stanford’s three games at Washington, finishing his impressive series with a leadoff home run in Game 3. The Cardinal swept the Huskies to hold off UCLA and Oregon State atop the Pac-12 standings. Stanford still doesn’t have a marquee conference series win, but they’ve been remarkably consistent in handling the lower rungs of the conference, adding Washington to Utah and Washington State as sweep victims over the past month. With three potential top eight seeds battling it out for the conference title, the Pac-12 might be the most exciting conference in the country. If the Cardinal are going to prevail, getting Stowers (who has a solid but unspectacular .267/.346/.456 line) going at the top of the lineup will be critical. Last weekend might mark something of a turning point for the potential Day 1 outfielder.
Wallner’s having another strong season in a mid-tier conference. Again, his vaunted power and plate discipline showed up against Florida International, albeit in a losing series effort for the Golden Eagles. He went 4-12 with a pair of walks and a pair of home runs, including an opposite-field shot off top 2020 pitching prospect Logan Allen. Wallner hasn’t quite performed at the otherworldly level of his first two seasons in Hattiesburg, but he’s continued to draw a ton of walks and has now homered in four of his last seven games.