This is the fourth 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 Continue to Roll
I led with Arkansas last week when the Razorbacks swept Mississippi State. That showing looks even more impressive now. Not only did Mississippi State sweep a really good Georgia team last weekend, Arkansas followed up by sweeping another top SEC foe. This time, it was Tennessee whom Arkansas kicked down in an entertaining series. Friday’s game was a back-and-forth 11-9 affair, with the Hogs erasing three separate deficits en route to the series-opening salvo. While Game 2 was a blowout, Arkansas again needed to come back to complete the sweep. After the bullpen blew a 2-0 lead spotted thanks to a stellar Connor Noland start in Game 3, Arkansas entered the ninth trailing by a run. Freshman outfielder Christian Franklin, who’s now hitting .299/.386/.460 out of the nine-hole, hit an opposite-field home run off Redmond Walsh to tie it. An inning later, catcher Casey Opitz sent the Vols back to Knoxville winless with a walk-off double.
Arkansas is getting production up and down the lineup, and their recent run has pushed them to third in RPI. They’re on track for a second consecutive national seed, which is remarkable considering the turnover they’ve had to endure. Arkansas lost five regulars and their top two starting pitchers from last year’s national runner-up team, but they’ve plugged in newcomers seamlessly. Franklin, Noland and starter Patrick Wicklander have been solid as freshmen, while JUCO transfers Trevor Ezell and Matt Goodheart have anchored the lineup. There’s no real weaknesses on this Arkansas team, a testament to the stellar work of Dave Van Horn and his coaching staff.
Red Raiders Emerge in Big 12
The Big 12 has been clustered all season, with no team really emerging at either extreme. Texas Tech has always looked like the most talented team in the conference, though, and they’ve started to show. The Red Raiders swept Oklahoma State last weekend and now have claimed five straight conference games. In each of the series’ first two games, Texas Tech’s powerful offense bludgeoned the Cowboy pitching staff, with Josh Jung homering in each.
Game 3 was more interesting, with Brett Standlee holding Texas Tech in check for six innings. That all changed in the seventh, when Dylan Neuse, in his fourth look at Standlee, took him deep to left-center to cap off a four-run inning in an eventual 5-2 win. The series projected to be a slugfest, but it was the Red Raiders who did all the slugging. They outscored the Cowboys 27-8, holding a potent OSU lineup to 21 hits over the weekend. It’s the kind of pitching performance TTU will need as they get to the postseason. We know they can rake, but the reliability of their pitching staff remains an open question. Bryce Bonnin dazzled Sunday, striking out eight in 4.2 innings, but the Arkansas transfer has had an up-and-down season overall. A rotation of Micah Dallas, Caleb Killian and Bonnin is a bit unstable, but those players seem to be rounding into form at the right time.
TTU has been stellar in Lubbock all season, moving to 21-4 after the sweep. That’s great news, because they’ve set themselves up to host a regional. They’re still a game and a half back of Baylor in the Big 12 race (the Bears had a resounding sweep of their own last week against TCU), but the Red Raiders are in second place in the nation’s second-best conference with a top 15 RPI to boot. That’s a quality resume.
UCR Steals Biggest Series of the Year
In the grand scheme of things, this series might be more notable for the loser than the winner. In a down year in the Big West, UC Santa Barbara has needed to be perfect to construct a hosting-caliber resume. For the season’s first three months, they were. Last week, they slipped up, losing two of three to UC Riverside. UCSB came in riding a 13-game winning streak, yet to lose a series all season, before the Highlanders blitzed them in Games 1 and 2 of their set.
Despite salvaging Game 3, UCSB fell behind Cal Poly in the Big West standings, and, more importantly, dropped six RPI spots to 13. That number won’t go up the rest of the season, given UCSB’s weak schedule, so this loss could prove fatal to their hosting hopes. According to Boyd’s World, there’s no plausible path for UCSB to retain a top 16 RPI by Selection Monday, so this might’ve been a fatal blow to their hosting hopes.
For UCR, this marks their season highlight. At 15-26, the Highlanders don’t stand a chance of making the NCAA tournament, but that’s not to take away from what they accomplished last week. They touched up UCSB ace Ben Brecht for seven runs in four innings in Game 1, with DH Connor Cannon launching a pair of homers off him. Those accounted for only half the Cannon dingers of the weekend, as he went deep in each game of the series, extending his conference lead to 16, four more than teammate Dean Miller and UC Irvine’s Brandon Lewis.
Washington Keeps At-Large Hopes Alive
Game 2 of Washington’s series against Arizona State was one of the wildest of the season. After winning Game 1 and up 6-3 in the eighth inning of Game 2, Washington was on the cusp of its biggest series win to date. Then, Stevie Emanuels coughed up the lead by allowing back-to-back home runs to Lyle Lin and Trevor Hauver. After Lin and Hauver got to Emanuels again in the tenth- this time for back-to-back doubles- things looked dire for the Huskies, who were quickly down to their final out after two strikeouts to lead off the bottom half. With a pair of pinch-hitters and glove-first shortstop Ramon Bramasco coming up, it seemed as though the Sun Devils were about to tie the series.
Then, reminiscent of the ninth inning of “Casey at the Bat,” Rollie Nichols and Michael Petrie, who have combined for 52 plate appearances all season, strung together a pair of two-out hits, setting up Bramasco for a game-tying double. Things got even weirder from there.
Lin, who didn’t even enter the game until the eighth, launched a solo home run to put the Sun Devils back on top in the twelfth, his third extra-base hit in four innings. That teed up the bottom of Washington’s order for another rally. Nichols led off with a single, advanced to second on a groundout, then Bramasco singled for his second extra-inning, game-tying hit of the evening. After a walk and a hit-by-pitch, Huskies catcher Nick Kahle clinched the series win with a walk-off sacrifice fly to plate Bramasco.
Despite failing to complete the sweep Sunday, Washington got a massive boost to their postseason hopes last weekend, with their RPI jumping from 66 to 52. While they still need to improve their lackluster 7-11 conference record, upcoming series against Washington State and Utah give them an opportunity to do that. This series was a must-win for the Huskies’ at-large hopes, and they came through. It just took a miraculous series of events Saturday night to do it.
Top Prospect Performers
Not only did Jung homer in each of the first two games against Oklahoma State, he was an on-base machine all series. Jung drew two walks in each game, while going 5-8 with three extra base hits when he did decide to swing. It was a dominant performance from the Red Raider shortstop, who’s up to .333/.472/.580 on the season.
Defensive questions might push Jung out of the top ten this June; he’s certainly not going to stick at shortstop as a pro, and there are scouts who don’t love him at third base, either. There’s no question he’ll hit, though. He’s got the raw power, bat control and plate discipline to be a first-division regular if teams can coax a little more game power than he’s shown in college through some mechanical tinkering.
Kirby dominated Northeastern as part of an Elon sweep. He tossed seven innings, allowing only two unearned runs, with eight strikeout and no walks. Kirby hasn’t quite gotten the national exposure of Alek Manoah or Nick Lodolo, and he’s probably a tick below them as a prospect, but he’s a first-round talent. He’s got 92-95 MPH velocity, an above-average to plus slider and has made strides with his changeup and command as a junior. He’s not a future ace, but he’s got as good a chance as anyone in the class to emerge as a solid mid-rotation starter in the majors.
The Kyle Brnovich-Kirby pairing at the front of Elon’s rotation made the Phoenix the preseason favorites in the Colonial, and that’s borne out. At 16-2, Elon’s doing laps around the rest of the league. A 4-14 record against top 100 RPI opponents means Elon almost certainly needs to win the CAA tournament to get to regionals, but they’re the favorite to come out of the Colonial at this point.