This is third 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.
Hogs Blitz Dogs
The SEC series of the week was one between Arkansas and Mississippi State. The jumbled SEC West standings have six of the seven teams within striking distance, and Arkansas and MSU might be the two most talented of the crop. Well, the Razorbacks did everything in their power this weekend to separate themselves from the pack. Arkansas swept Mississippi State to improve to 21-4 at home and jump to the top of the division standings. Ace Isaiah Campbell dazzled yet again, striking out 10 without a walk in 7.2 scoreless innings on Thursday. A redshirt junior, Campbell has truly emerged this year, cutting his ERA nearly two runs from last season. He has already exceeded last season’s strikeout total and issued 22 fewer free passes (walks and HBP) than he did in 2018.
With Campbell rolling and a top five offense in the conference, Arkansas has to be considered the frontrunners in the West. Leading the division with a top five RPI, the Hogs are in position to earn a top-eight seed. Given their dominance all season at Baum Stadium, they’d be a tough out in a regional or super regional if they can secure such a position. Despite losing a significant chunk of last year’s runner-up team, Arkansas is again in position to return to Omaha.
Iowa Wins Big Conference Series
This one might not be a ‘top-ranked series’ per se, but Nebraska-Iowa had significant implications in the Big Ten and postseason races. No one has yet emerged at the top of the conference, with Minnesota and Michigan suffering disappointing years. Instead, four teams remain within a game and a half of the pace following this weekend’s action.
That’s because Iowa, taking on a talented Nebraska team that entered the week 10-2 in conference play, protected Banks Field and moved into that four-team tie alongside the Cornhuskers, Indiana and Michigan at the top of the standings. It was something of a must-win series for the Hawkeyes, who, despite a solid 23-15 (9-6, Big Ten) record, have an RPI outside of NCAA tournament range at the moment. Their other metrics, though, are solid; they’ve gone a respectable 8-8 against top 50 RPI opponents and have a realistic chance at securing a conference title.
Iowa’s remaining Big Ten slate is favorable, with their final three series against Ohio State, Michigan State and Maryland, none of whom is going to be a regional team. Of course, that means Iowa needs to win those series if it wants to stay in the at-large hunt. They’ve had some bad losses early in the season and their resume can’t afford to take any more hits.
Still, that schedule gives Iowa a solid chance to win the Big Ten regular-season race, and the Hawkeyes still have UC Irvine on the docket for a rare May nonconference blockbuster. Taking the Big Ten and beating UCI would put the Hawkeyes in a position to overcome their RPI trouble. The margin for error is slim, but Iowa’s back on a plausible postseason path.
Nebraska, meanwhile, remains in decent shape themselves. They’re still second in the Big Ten with a top 50 RPI, so they’d probably be in the tournament if the season ended today. Unlike Iowa, Nebraska has a gauntlet upcoming, albeit mostly at home. The Cornhuskers will welcome Illinois, Arizona State and Michigan to Lincoln over the next month. It’s a chance for them to cement themselves as an NCAA tournament team, but it won’t be easy to navigate.
Duke Back on Track
Duke is rolling right now. It wasn’t the prettiest start to the season for the Blue Devils. Not only did they feature a talented, experienced lineup, the Graeme Stinson-Adam Laskey duo at the top of the rotation looked to be one of the best in the country. Then, both Stinson and Laskey suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness, and the pitching has been much more of a patchwork effort. After starting 3-9 in ACC play, the Blue Devils looked finished. Instead, they’ve reeled off 11 wins in their last 12 games, pushing back above .500 in ACC play and to #51 in RPI. No team did more for their postseason hopes last week, with Duke beating Texas Tech midweek showing before sweeping a top 25 opponent (Clemson) on the road.
It wasn’t any sort of beatdown - Duke’s three-game sweep of the Tigers was decided by a grand total of four runs - but wins are wins. The pitching remains a bit dicey, but Duke’s offense has come on of late. Last weekend, it was freshman shortstop Ethan Murray who carried the lineup, reaching base in nine of 14 plate appearances against the Tigers. Duke doesn’t have a middle-of-the-lineup presence like they did last season with Griffin Conine, but seven of their nine regulars are reaching base at a .350 clip or better. It’s a deep veteran lineup that can beat you top-to-bottom and they’re rolling right now. With Georgia Tech and Miami in the final two weeks of the season, things won’t be easy, but it’s a testament to Chris Pollard and his staff that Duke’s an even plausible contender after the disappointments they’ve had to endure.
Kansas State Rolling in Big 12
Kansas State, on the other hand, probably won’t end up with an NCAA tournament caliber resume. They’re below .500, both overall and in Big 12 play, and while some of that reflects a grueling schedule, it’s tough to see the Wildcats earning an at-large bid with so few wins. Nevertheless, the program is moving in the right direction.
After back-to-back series wins over Texas and TCU, KSU has now matched its conference win total from all of 2018. More excitingly, their top performers seem to be long-term assets. Freshman left-hander Jordan Wicks didn’t arrive in Manhattan with much fanfare, but he’s quietly fourth in the Big 12 in ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning. Sophomore outfielder Zach Kokoska has been the Wildcats’ best hitter by far, and he’s in his first extended action after being sparingly used as a freshman at Virginia Tech. Depth remains an issue, but first-year coach Pete Hughes has some interesting parts to work with moving forward, this season and beyond.
Top Prospect Performers
I led with Alek Manoah last week, when he struck out 15, didn’t walk anyone and allowed four hits in a complete game shutout. I guess that leaves me no choice but to lead with Manoah again, since he did the same thing against Kansas, this time allowing only three hits. That’s back-to-back shutouts for Manoah with 30 strikeouts and no walks. It’s tough to imagine a more dominant two weeks for a pitcher. At this point, it’s tough to say Manoah’s pitching himself up draft boards, since he’s already firmly in the top 10 discussion. The Mountaineers need every win they can get to cement their status as a potential regional host. Having Manoah on the mound will make them a nightmare opponent in the postseason if they do manage to host.
As a freshman in 2018, Jones hit .278/.412/.370 for UNC Wilmington. That’s fine, especially for a young shortstop, but it wasn’t the domination one might expect from a player with first-round tools in a small conference. The on-paper performance has arrived this year for the draft-eligible sophomore. He’s nearly halved his strikeout rate, increased his walk rate, hit for significantly more power: everything you’d want to see from a hitter, Jones has done this season. UNCW has regressed as a team- losing catcher Ryan Jeffers in the second round last season was a big blow- but it’s not any fault of Jones’. His .326/.476/.521 line is as good as any in the CAA, bolstered by his efforts against Hofstra last weekend.
While the Pride still managed to sweep the Seahawks, they had no answer for Jones all weekend. Despite sitting out Game 1 to start, Jones reached base twice off the bench. He returned to the starting lineup in Game 2, homered, then went 4-5 with a pair of extra-base hits in Game 3. He’s doing all he can to put to rest any questions about his production not matching his ability in Year One on campus.