This is the first installment of a new 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 Bests Stanford on the Road
In a matchup of two of the top teams in the country, the Bruins and Cardinal squared off in a potential Omaha preview. After Stanford walked off in Game 1 on a Will Matthiessen single, UCLA came back to take the final two and vaulted themselves to the top of the RPI and most polls. On Sunday, Ryan Garcia, who was quietly among college baseball’s best arms in 2018 despite fringe stuff, struck out 11 in seven innings, while likely first-rounder Erik Miller struggled for Stanford. UCLA sophomore outfielder Garrett Mitchell, one of the top high schoolers not to sign in 2017, had a fantastic series at the top of the order and is well on his way to putting a disappointing freshman season behind him.
Georgia Continues Its Under-the-Radar Season
In an SEC loaded with top prospects and historic programs, it’s possible for the Bulldogs to plug away unnoticed. National publications- where Georgia’s a consensus top five team- have taken notice, but casual prospect watchers may not have. Baseball America has no Bulldogs in its most recent top 100 2019 prospects, with much of the attention in Athens focused on their 2020 arms. Emerson Hancock is as good a bet as any to go 1-1 in 2020 (absurd as it is to project drafts 14 months out), while 2020 right-hander Cole Wilcox is pushing triple digits out of the bullpen. All that attention overlooks the performance of Georgia’s less-heralded arms, though. 2020 left-hander C.J. Smith has settled in on Saturdays, while 2019 right-hander Tony Locey has emerged as one of the best Sunday starters in the country. After holding a loaded Vanderbilt lineup to one hit over seven innings in Sunday’s rubber-match win, Locey’s sitting on a 2.18 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 45.1 innings. He’s got prototypical size and arm speed, and while he’ll likely end up a reliever in pro ball, he’s having quite the breakout for the SEC favorites.
Arizona State Drops Two in LA
There’s no reason to panic in Phoenix, but the Sun Devils’ scorching start finally hit its first roadblock. Entering the week 25-1, Arizona State dropped three of four, losing a series against a disappointing USC team. Ace Alec Marsh got beat up on Friday for his first bad outing of the season, with the Trojans plating 21 runs over the weekend. Strength of schedule has been the question for ASU all season, and their #23 RPI doesn’t make them a lock to host despite the gaudy record. With Oregon State- sans ace Kevin Abel- coming to town this weekend, though, the Sun Devils have a chance for a true statement series win to make the USC series a blip.
Wild Season for UCONN Continues
It’s been a really tough year for the American. East Carolina’s elite, and their cross-country trip to UCLA this weekend might be a barometer for the Pirates’ Omaha chances. Who’s the second-best team in the conference, though? Entering the week, the answer was no doubt UCONN, who opened AAC play with road series wins over Houston and Central Florida and whose season-opening series win over Louisville continues to stand out. Then the Huskies come home and lose two of three to Cincinnati, arguably the worst team in the conference. UCONN’s probably still the biggest threat to the Pirates, but more so than ever, it’s clear that ECU’s doing laps around the rest of the league. It’s a far cry from the jam-packed conference standings we’ve seen in recent years.
Northern Kentucky Jumps on a Mid-Major Powerhouse
Wright State has emerged as a dominant force in the Horizon League over the past half-decade. They’re clearly the favorite in the Horizon yet again, holding their own in non-conference play against the likes of Ole Miss, Oklahoma State and ECU. They aren’t off and running in conference play the way we’d expect, though. After dropping two of three last weekend to Northern Kentucky, the Raiders are just 7-5 in league play. The Norse, meanwhile, are third in the conference standings despite an 8-22 record overall and will host conference leader Illinois-Chicago this weekend. As with all one-bid leagues, the conference tournament is what really matters, but NKU has stuck around in the running for home-field advantage in the tournament longer than anticipated.
Top Prospect Performances
Utah’s pitching is bad, so this weekend doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know about the presumptive number one pick. After hitting a home run in all three games of the series, though, Rutschman’s slashing .423/.580/.825 with 11 home runs. We’ve taken for granted that Rutschman’s the number one player in his class for so long, it’s possible we’re not fully appreciating what he’s doing on a weekly basis.
Davidson homered twice, one off Louisville ace Reid Detmers, as Clemson took two of three from a good Cardinals team. As I noted a couple weeks ago, concerns about Davidson’s ability to hit pro pitching stem from his struggles on the Cape. Tagging a potential 2020 first-rounder in Detmers isn’t going to change anyone’s evaluation on its own, but it’s still nice to see Davidson performing against high-level arms. (Detmers, despite a bad day in the run prevention department, still managed to strike out 10 against two walks over six innings).
McKendry entered 2019 as one of the top returning statistical performers in the country. He was off the prospect radar, though, thanks to fringe fastball velocity. His 3.91 ERA this year is good, not great, but that belies the quality year he’s having. With a 61/13 K/BB thanks to a plus changeup, McKendry’s pitched himself into Day 1 contention. Friday was one of his best starts of the year, as he shut down Florida State for seven innings with nine punchouts. Miami took two of three from the ‘Noles and are squarely in contention for a return to the NCAA tournament. For Florida State, it’s yet another series loss. FSU’s 19-12, 7-8 in ACC play, with a weak non-conference schedule pushing them to 96th in RPI. We’re at the point where it’s more likely than not that Mike Martin’s young team is on the outside looking in to the NCAA tournament in his final season at the helm.