Gators need a big weekend in Lexington
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Slumps are as much a part of baseball as curveballs and home runs.
Right now the Florida baseball team is mired in one, and it's coming at a crucial time: with the SEC regular-season championship on the line.
The fifth-ranked Gators (33-12, 12-9 SEC) have struggled offensively in their past six SEC games, hitting just .220 and scoring only 17 runs -- including two runs in their past 21 innings. It's as poor a stretch as UF has had this season, and it's not what coach Kevin O'Sullivan envisioned as the Gators head to sixth-ranked Kentucky (35-9, 14-7) for a three-game series Thursday (ESPNU, 7:30 p.m. ET) through Saturday.
"It's just been very hard for us to score runs," O'Sullivan said after the Gators lost at McKethan Stadium to Arkansas 3-1 in 10 innings last Sunday, their fourth home loss in their last nine conference games. "Teams go through this, and we're not immune to it. It's a difficult time right now but we will get through it, and we'll hopefully be better because of it."
Florida has scored more than three runs just once in its past six SEC games, and the Gators went 13 consecutive scoreless innings against the Razorbacks. UF scored its only run in a 5-1 loss Saturday in the third inning and didn't score again until the bottom of the eighth inning in Sunday's 3-1 loss.
"We just haven't been able to put it together," O'Sullivan said.
The Gators better start if they hope to repeat as SEC regular-season champions. Kentucky is tied with No. 3 South Carolina (33-11, 14-7) and No. 4 LSU (35-10, 14-7) for first place in the overall league standings, and Florida trails those three teams by two games. If the Gators don't take at least 2-of-3 from the Wildcats, they'll have a hard time keeping pace or catching any of the three teams.
UF, which has gone 10-10 since a 25-3 start, has 11 regular-season games remaining, including nine SEC games (Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn).
Mooneyham follows his dad on the mound
Special to ESPN.com
When his son is pitching for Stanford, ex-major leaguer Bill Mooneyham sits behind home plate for a couple innings, then down the third-base line and, finally, down the first-base line.
He takes his video camera and films Brett Mooneyham from every angle, just in case his son needs to study the tape but also to give himself something to do other than watch from the sidelines.
"I was never nervous when I used to pitch," said Bill, who played one season with the Oakland Athletics. "But I want so badly for Brett to do well. I love to watch him pitch, but I'm not relaxed."
Some of Brett's recent starts have been more stressful than usual as his record has slipped to 5-4, including a 7-4 loss to No. 14 UCLA on Saturday.
But overall, there is ample evidence to suggest that Brett Mooneyham, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound left-hander who throws 90 to 94 mph, could one day match or exceed his father's big league feats.
Mooneyham, who is ranked among the nation's top 100 prospects eligible for the 2012 MLB draft, has a 3.98 ERA. He is the Saturday starter for a Stanford team that is ranked seventh nationally in the USA Today / ESPN Top 25 Coaches' Poll.
He's been part of Stanford's starting rotation since his freshman year in 2009, compiling a 9-10 record in his first two years. He missed all of 2011 because of an injury.
It all started in January 2011, when he cut his left middle finger trying to open a can of black beans.
"I was making lunch, and I was getting frustrated because the can opener wasn't working properly," he said. "The can was about 60 percent open, and I used my hand to try to finish the job. The next thing I know, I'm in the emergency room and I took five stitches."
He tried to return to the mound after a month of rehab. However, the finger became swollen after pitching in an intrasquad game.
The cut had partially torn a tendon and surgery was required.
After the operation, he couldn't pick up a ball for three months. During his time away from the mound, he spent more time with his then-girlfriend, Ashley, who is now his wife.
The couple met when Mooneyham was a freshman in high school and a neighbor made like a matchmaker and handed him a phone. It was Ashley, and they spent the next three hours getting to know each other by phone.
This past November, they wed.
"We got married on 11-11-11," said Mooneyham, the only married player on Stanford's baseball team.
Mooneyham, 22, returned to regular-season baseball on Feb. 18, when he beat Vanderbilt, allowing three runs and striking out eight in six innings.
He was even better in his next two starts. He allowed just one run in eight innings to beat Texas, and he blanked his hometown team, Fresno State, over eight innings, tying a career high with 13 strikeouts.
Mooneyham, who also beat Rice and USC, is second in the Pac-12 with 74 strikeouts, trailing only Stanford ace Mark Appel.
Drafted in the15th round by the Padres out of high school, Mooneyham was selected in the 38th round by the Nationals last year, when he was recovering from his finger injury.
He said he's not concerned with where he will get picked this June, and his father said that even-keel temperament is something they share.
Physically, though, the two are very different. Bill, a 6-foot right-hander, was a first-round pick, 10th overall by the Angels in 1980. He made it to the big leagues in 1986, going 4-5 with a 4.52 ERA, appearing in 39 of his 45 games as a reliever.
Bill pitched in Triple-A the next two years then retired. But before he did, he witnessed the birth of the Bash Brothers. Mark McGwire made his big league debut in '86, and Jose Canseco made that his breakout year, smashing 33 homers at age 21.
Canseco was particularly impressive, Bill said.
"He won this home-run hitting contest at [Triple A] Tacoma," he said of the right-handed hitting Canseco. "For his last two swings, he hit lefty and hit both of them out. He was so talented."
Brett has his own skills, of course, and his father couldn't be prouder.
"He's a power pitcher with a nasty slider and a good changeup when everything is working," Bill said. "He just needs to keep the ball down and be more consistent."
Spoken like a father who has spent some anxious moments watching his son pitch.
Places to be this weekend
Special to ESPN.com
1. Dartmouth (23-16, 14-6 Ivy League) at Cornell (29-14-1, 14-6 Ivy League)
Hoy Field, Ithaca, N.Y.
What's at stake: Ivy League championship and NCAA tournament berth
The first tux fitting for the postseason gala happens this weekend in the Ivy League playoffs in which Cornell and Dartmouth face off in a best-of-three series. When these two last matched up on April Fools' Day, Cornell's Connor Kaufmann threw a no-hitter at Dartmouth as part of a two-game sweep. Dartmouth leads the Ivy League offensively by a big margin with a .303 team average. But Cornell has the top arms corps with a 3.69 team ERA. The big difference here might be Cornell reliever Kellen Urbon, who is 2-1, 0.59 ERA with nine saves and holds opponents to a .170 average. Big Green versus Big Red for the Big Dance. Let's go.
2. No. 5 Florida (33-12, 12-9 SEC, No. 2 RPI) at No. 6 Kentucky (36-9, 14-7 SEC, No. 10 RPI)
Cliff Hagan Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
What's at stake: Staying in contention in the SEC East title chase
These two have been drawing a lot of headlines this season, and for good reason, since they have arguably been the upper crust of the SEC. The Gators, easily the preseason national favorites, have been scuffling of late, on the mound and now at the dish after getting shut down by Arkansas last week. To make matters worse, ace reliever Austin Maddox was listed as day-to-day, putting his availability for this weekend's series in some doubt. The Bat Cats come in with a .308 average and will face the Gators in the comfort their hitting-friendly stadium known as The Cliff. So look for their offense to give UF its biggest test this season. Conversely, if the Gators can't get their offense back to where it should be consistency-wise, this could be a long weekend for the Gators. It almost feels strange to even type that, but it's true.
3. No. 11 Purdue (34-7, 14-4 Big Ten, No. 5 RPI) vs. No. 14 UCLA (29-12, 12-9 Pac-12, No. 4 RPI)
Jackie Robinson Stadium, Westwood, Calif.
What's at stake: National seeding prospects
At the beginning of the season, it was hard to imagine this series would be as huge as it is. But it looks like the winner here will get a big leg up on improving their shot at a national seed. But this one means more to the Boilermakers, who won't have the luxury of a strength-of-schedule bump after this. Both teams have great offenses -- Purdue has a Big Ten-best .318 team average; UCLA a Pac-12 second-best .306. Believe it or not, Purdue might have the arms to get the best of UCLA (2.97 team ERA), issuing just 87 walks all season. UCLA, however, has earned a Pac-12-high 161 free passes. Who is more motivated here? We'll see.
4. No. 12 Oregon (32-13, 14-7 Pac-12, No. 15 RPI) vs. No. 16 Arizona (29-13, 12-6 Pac-12, No. 18 RPI)
Hi Corbett Field, Tucson, Ariz.
What's at stake: The top spot in the Pac-12
With Oregon's three-game sweep of Cal last week, the Ducks inched ahead of Arizona in the conference standings, making this week's matchup even bigger. And what a classic this should be. You couldn't get two more polar opposites. Oregon leads the Pac-12 with a 2.99 ERA, and Arizona leads the Pac-12 with a .336 team batting average. Oregon is the best fielding team in the conference at .979; Arizona is second-to-last at .962. Oregon's hitters have struck out an alarmingly high 310 times; Arizona pitchers lead the conference in whiffs at 307. The Alex Keudell (7-3, 1.87) versus Kurt Heyer (8-1, 2.42) showdown should be a thing of beauty on Friday night. Can't wait to see where this one goes.
5. Oklahoma (29-17, 9-8 Big 12, No. 58 RPI) at Oklahoma State (26-17, 11-7 Big 12, No. 100 RPI)
Tulsa and Oklahoma City
What's at stake: Bedlam
and a possible at-large berth
Both teams are still within striking distance of getting into the at-large discussion, so this one is really big. Both teams are light sticks, hitting .273, which makes the Friday matchup of OSU's Andrew Heaney (6-1, 1.82) and OU's Jordan John (8-4, 2.36) so vital. Whoever gets the more effective start from that matchup will give their team a huge boost for a weekend win.
Top 25 matchups
No. 3 South Carolina vs. No. 13 Arkansas
No. 4 LSU vs. No. 25 Ole Miss
No. 5 Florida vs. No. 6 Kentucky
No. 7 Stanford vs. No. 20 Oregon State
No. 8 Rice vs. Houston
No. 9 Texas A&M vs. Texas Tech
No. 10 North Carolina vs. Boston College
No. 11 Purdue vs. No. 14 UCLA
No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 16 Arizona No. 15 UCF vs. Presbyterian
No. 17 Cal State Fullerton vs. Pacific
No. 18 North Carolina State vs. CS Bakersfield
No. 19 Louisville vs. West Virginia
No. 21 Miami vs. Bethune-Cookman
No. 23 San Diego vs. BYU
No. 24 Texas vs. Missouri
ESPN's resident NCAA baseball bracketologist, Jeremy Mills, offered his NCAA tournament projections. Mills' eight national seeds are:
1. Florida State
4. North Carolina
You can find the rest of his projected 64-team field in ESPN.com's college baseball blog.
What we learned in April
1. Baylor and Florida State had the best month
The Bears lost just once and the Seminoles lost three times in the entire month of April, which is why they are at the top of the polls. But even with those hot streaks, I still don't think any team in college baseball is running away in fear of the Bears or the Noles, or any team in the country for that matter.
2. There is no heavy favorite for the national title
Last year, I think the months of April and May started to show why Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt were the favorites to play for the big brass ring. We're not seeing that this year. Sure, Florida and Florida State have been at the top of the RPI the entire past month, but both have shown cracks in their foundation.
3. Reports of the demise of the defending champions are greatly exaggerated
South Carolina has turned around a 2-6 start in SEC play by going 12-1 in conference play during April. The Gamecocks are now tied for first with Kentucky at 14-7.
4. The Big 12 may be stronger than we thought
Baylor and Texas A&M are still contenders for national acclaim, but the rest of the conference have seemed to be in a down-cycle for 2012. That is, until April came around. Now, the recent rise of teams like Texas (11-6 in April), Oklahoma State (12-4) and Oklahoma (12-6) show that this conference may be deeper than the big two after all. We'll see how that transpires into at-large bids.
5. The six Pac is back
The top half of the Pac 12 is arguably the best six teams of any conference in the country. April was a donnybrook in the Pac-12, with every team taking shots to the nose and delivering haymakers week in and week out. Going into May, Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State and Oregon State are all within 3½ games of each other and all six are within the top 19 of Boyd Nation's ISR strength rankings.
Five more to watch
1. No. 3 South Carolina at No. 13 Arkansas
Both teams have major mojo working. The Gamecocks have won 14-of-17, and the Razorbacks are fresh off a series win in Gainesville, Fla.
2. No. 7 Stanford at No. 20 Oregon State
The Beavers could really use a series win here, especially if they hold any hope for a postseason in Corvallis.
3. No. 4 LSU at No. 25 Ole Miss
The post-Gator factor: Since that series win versus Florida, the Rebels are 9-8. Since winning a series in Gainesville, the Tigers are 12-3.
4. College of Charleston at Clemson
The Cougars are 10-13 in games versus winning teams, but the Tigers can't treat this as a "break" from ACC rigors.
5. New Mexico at TCU
The Frogs have the RPI (No. 41), but the Lobos have the Mountain West lead (by one game) and have beaten TCU twice already.
-- Eric Sorenson
Bryant (28-18, 19-5 NEC) at Monmouth (30-17, 18-6 NEC)
It won't grab a bunch of national headlines, but the showdown for the Northeast Conference's top spot should be one of the more competitive series in the country this weekend. Both teams are coming in with sizable momentum, as the Bulldogs went through April with a 16-5 mark, and the Hawks are hot as well, going 17-5 in that same stretch. One of the best pitching matchups of the coming weekend will be BU's crafty/deceptive Peter Kelich versus MU's power-armed Pat Light on Friday. But the remainder of the weekend could favor the Bulldogs' deeper staff.
-- Eric Sorenson
Under the radar
South Carolina-Upstate (29-13, 13-5 Atlantic Sun, No. 73 RPI)
Offense: .284 team average, 13 HRs, 17 triples, 180 walks
Pitching: 3.74 team ERA
Defense: .970 fielding percentage
Everybody is talking about Purdue, Baylor or Kentucky as the surprise team in 2012. But the Spartans were stuck in the A-Sun cellar in both 2009 and 2010, then went 19-36 overall in 2011. Coming into this season the Spartans were picked 10th in the A-Sun coaches poll. So nobody expected this year's quantum leap to the top of the conference standings, even with all nine starters and all three weekend pitchers coming back. But this weekend is going to be the telltale series as Upstate travels to Stetson to take on the preseason A-Sun favorites, who sit two games back at 11-7. Their pitching staff is headed by ace David Roseboom, who has improved his numbers from 4-10, 6.20 in 2011 to 6-1, 2.59 this season.
The best part is this is the first year that Upstate is eligible for the NCAA tournament after transitioning to Division I in 2008. Perfect timing.
-- Eric Sorenson