Division I Recap: Iowa Cements Themselves as Tournament Contenders

This is the fifth 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.

Top-Ranked Series

Dogs Back with a Vengeance

Georgia was coming off a bad week. They had gone 0-4 against Georgia Tech and Mississippi State, getting handily swept by MSU to deal a blow to their national seed hopes. Without Emerson Hancock for the second consecutive week, they took on a talented Florida team desperate to improve its conference record. It would have been easy to see how things could spiral for Georgia.

Instead, the Bulldogs dominated the Gators en route to a resounding three-game sweep, punctuated by a Sunday doubleheader. Even without Hancock and C.J. Smith, its top two starters all season, Georgia’s deep pitching staff stifled the Gator offense. Typical Sunday starter Tony Locey struck out six over six solid innings Friday, while midweek starter Tim Elliott allowed just one run in five innings in Game 2. Most intriguingly for prospect fans, top 2020 arm Cole Wilcox threw a seven-inning complete game to finish off the sweep, with a Brady McConnell home run the only blemish on his line.

While Hancock and Wilcox get the headlines in Athens, the depth of Georgia’s pitching staff is jaw-dropping. Many teams around the country struggle to find a capable three-man weekend rotation. With Smith a potential first-rounder in 2020 and Locey and Elliott likely Day 2 picks this year, Georgia’s star-studded rotation could run five deep. That flexibility has allowed Scott Stricklin to deploy Wilcox as a fireman reliever much of the year, where his touted freshman can work in shorter stints and fire high 90s gas past helpless hitters. As Wilcox showed on Sunday, though, he’s more than capable of starting games if needed.

Back to eight games above .500 in SEC play with the #6 RPI, Georgia looks safely in national seed territory again. Should Hancock and Smith make it back in time for postseason — and right now, there’s little reason to think they won’t — Georgia’s volume of power arms will make them a postseason nightmare.

Florida might not be in position to worry about the postseason at all. Weird as it is to see the Gators scuffling after four consecutive College World Series trips, their young pitching staff hasn’t found any consistency this season. Florida’s #32 RPI is still decidedly in at-large territory, but their 9-15 conference record isn’t cutting it. Florida probably needs to take each of their final two conference series (against Tennessee, then at Missouri) and win a game or two in the SEC tournament to find their way back to regionals.

UCLA’s Series Winning Streak Lives On

UCLA won last weekend; what a shock. The nation’s best team blew a late three-run lead against Arizona State on Sunday to cost themselves a road sweep, but they still took two more road games over a top 25 opponent. Ace Ryan Garcia was great again Friday, holding the Sun Devils’ high-powered offense to two runs over seven innings in a one-run win. The Bruins followed up that pitching duel with an offensive explosion, blasting seven home runs (two by DH Jake Pries) in an 18-3 drubbing to clinch the series. Even in Phoenix’s hitter-friendly environment, home runs from 2/3 of your lineup plays.

There’s not much left to be said about UCLA. They’re a slam dunk national seed, almost certain to be the #1 overall seed barring some unexpected collapse the last few weeks of conference play. They’ve won every series they’ve played all year, one of only two teams who can still say that (shout out to the New Mexico State Aggies, who have beat up the WAC from start to finish). This has simply been one of the best regular-season team performances we’ve seen in recent years in college baseball.


Iowa Deals UCI a Blow

Two weeks ago, I noted that Iowa’s win over Nebraska made them a sneaky team to watch for at-large consideration down the stretch. Back then, it was a bit of a longshot.

That (soft) 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 non-conference 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.

That looks awfully realistic now, though. Iowa has since taken care of business against Ohio State, then took two of three from UCI last weekend, tagging Andre Pallante for four runs over six innings in Game 1. Sophomore Izaya Fullard took Pallante deep twice to stake the Hawkeyes to an insurmountable lead in the opener. That’s quite the achievement. Pallante has pitched in 52 games in his three years at Irvine, starting 30 of them. Fullard became the first opposing hitter to slug multiple homers off him in the same game.

Saturday, Iowa was shut down by Trenton Denholm, but a trio of pitchers stifled the Anteater offense, holding them without an extra-base hit en route to a 1-0 victory. While UCI exploded Sunday to avoid the sweep, the series win was a clear positive for Iowa.

Iowa’s #57 RPI doesn’t make them a lock for an at-large bid, but it’s at least within range. Couple that with their impressive performance in Big Ten play- which should only look better after series against conference cupcakes Michigan State and Maryland- and the Hawkeyes’ resume looks strong. It’s been an impressive end of season to put Iowa in position for their third tournament berth in six years under Rick Heller.

Horned Frogs Throw Wrench into Big 12

West Virginia-TCU wasn’t supposed to be a competitive series. Alek Manoah-Nick Lodolo on Friday night was must-watch TV, but West Virginia is a top 25 team, while the visiting Horned Frogs entered on a four-game conference losing streak. So, of course, TCU put up 12 baserunners in six innings off Manoah on Friday to bounce back from an early deficit, with Johnny Rizer taking Manoah deep twice on the night. Then Saturday, Josh Watson kicked things off with another leadoff homer and WVU never threatened Charles King, who struck out eight and twirled a complete game effort, allowing a lone, unearned run. Remarkably, King didn’t allow a ball to leave the infield between the third and ninth inning of his series-clinching gem.

It still seems too little, too late for TCU. Their RPI remains a subpar #71 and they’re below .500 in conference play. A season-ending road series in Lubbock gives the Horned Frogs a chance to remedy that, but that series may well be sweep or bust, since a home set against Kansas won’t do much for their resume. TCU’s a talented team, though, especially on the pitching staff, and they showed it last week.

Top Prospect Performers

Josh Jung

Jung was back at it again last week as Texas Tech swept Oklahoma. His worst game of the series was probably Saturday, when he went 1-4 with a home run and a walk. Jung combined for seven hits, including five doubles, in the other two games. The Red Raiders are rolling right now, and it’s no surprise that their superstar infielder is right in the middle of it.

JJ Bleday

South Carolina’s pitching has been systematically overmatched ever since they lost ace Carmen Mlodzinski to a foot fracture. That was never more on display than last week when they took on a Vanderbilt offense that might be the nation’s best. The Commodores put up 37 runs despite a seven-inning Sunday doubleheader in three games in Columbia. Bleday, who might end up a top five pick come June, was unsurprisingly at the center of that. A triple slash monster all year (.352/.465/.791), the junior reached base at least three times in all three games of the series and slugged two more home runs on the weekend, pushing him ahead of Tulane’s Kody Hoese for the national lead in round-trippers. Beating up an underwhelming South Carolina pitching staff won’t push Bleday any further up draft boards than he already is, but his production in the nation’s best conference has been remarkable.