Places to be this weekend
Special to ESPN.com
1. No. 3 South Carolina (15-1) at No. 20 Kentucky (18-0)
Sure, this one wins the top place on this list nearly by default due to a lack of top-ranked showdowns this weekend. But it's also the most interesting for a number of reasons. How will the defending national champions do facing a full weekend on a true road trip? Will they end Kentucky's unbeaten streak? Will the Wildcats prove us all wrong? Will the Gamecocks need their offense? And, while this could be the biggest test yet for that highly-regarded South Carolina pitching staff, don't sell the Wildcats' staff short either, as Corey Littrell is 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA and Taylor Rogers leads the conference with 33 strikeouts going into this weekend.
Key matchup: Gamecocks pitchers vs. that UK order
No surprise here, as the big matchup will be one of strengths. As everyone knows, South Carolina can pitch with just about anybody in the major leagues, that is. But the Wildcats are the fifth best offense in the country with a team average of .348. Obviously, whichever strength is more dominant wins.
2. Arizona State (11-5) at No. 12 UCLA (13-3)
This is a great lid-lifter to the Pac-12 season. ASU and UCLA both need to find their own motivation here as each has looked brilliant at times while also very pedestrian at times. The Sun Devils have displayed impressive balance, entering this week ranked No. 10 in the country in offense (.333 average) and No. 10 in the country in pitching (2.28 team ERA). Both numbers will be tough to maintain considering this will be their second straight road trip to SoCal and they are faced with the daunting task trying to cool off a Bruins team coming off a confidence-building three-game sweep at Georgia.
Key matchup: ASU's Trevor Williams vs. UCLA's Zack Weiss
The steadiness of the Sunday starter will be tested here as both Williams (4-0, 1.67) and Weiss (1-1, 3.60) have provided a solid presence in their respective team's getaway games. With both offenses playing well, it could come down to whichever Sunday stud gets the better start here.
3. Virginia (11-5) at No. 6 Florida State (14-2)
This could be the series the Cavaliers have been waiting for, an opportunity to prove those early stumbles were just minor missteps, not a lingering limp. After taking down rival Virginia Tech last weekend, they can really re-establish their prominence in the ACC with a weekend win. However, those experienced Florida State bats of James Ramsey (.468 and leads the nation in runs scored) and Jayce Boyd (.421) will force the rebuilt Wahoo pitching staff to be as disciplined as they have been all season. Plus, new FSU arms like freshmen Mike Compton (4-0, 1.54) and Brandon Leibrandt (2-1, 3.44) have pitched beyond their years.
Key matchup: UVa speed vs. FSU pitchers and the field.
Yes, the field will play a part in this one. The Cavs are used to playing in the cavernous Davenport Field, where they've hit 11 triples, good for fourth in the nation. They also have 24 stolen bases on the season, so you know the FSU pitchers will have to be aware of that.
4. Texas (7-8) at No. 17 Oklahoma (11-6)
This certainly isn't your father's Red River Rivalry series, as the Longhorns come in struggling to find an identity (not to mention a better offense). It's bizarre to see Texas at the bottom of the rung with its 7-8 mark, but the Longhorns also have a team ERA of 3.36. The loss of pitcher Sam Stafford has hurt much more than expected and the offense is hitting -- are you sitting down? -- just .221 so far. OU is better, but with a team average of .278, there is plenty room for improvement there, as well. There's lots to work on here before these teams get back to their expected levels of play.
Key matchup: Oklahoma short game vs. Longhorns pitch-and-catch.
The Sooners lead the Big 12 in sacrifices and the Longhorns' defense is at a bottom-rung level of .962. If the Sooners get leadoff men on base and work on their station-to-station game as they've been doing, Texas cannot crumble. If the Longhorns don't field and throw well, the advantage goes to the Sooners.
5. No. 24 Oregon State (11-5) at No. 18 California (11-4)
How about those freshmen for OSU? Michael Conforto leads the team with a .447 average and Dylan Davis is third at .345. Talk about precocious starts to their college careers. It's a good thing too, because there are a handful of upperclassmen that are struggling. Perhaps more shocking, the Beavers pitching staff is second-to-last in the conference in team ERA. This staff is way too talented to have that happen. The Bears return from a tough series at Nebraska, but in the past 10 days they've raised their team batting average from .279 to .320. If they stay hot, it may not matter how much better the Beavers pitch, because this Bears team can rake, big time.
Key matchup: The Cal bullpen vs. the sophomore slump of Kavin Keyes.
In the early part of the season, Keyes was actually slotted in as the three-hole hitter in the lineup, but he's hit just .192 so far. If Keyes can return to his freshman All-American form, it should wake up an offense from its current .287 average.
6. Wake Forest (15-4) at No. 25 NC State (12-3)
This one should be fun. A below-the-radar series just two weeks ago, these teams raised eyebrows last weekend when the Demon Deacons swept a hot Maryland squad in three games and the Wolfpack ambushed Georgia Tech on Saturday and Sunday. Pitching has been the calling card for both teams, with NC State turning in a 2.58 team ERA and Wake Forest a 3.91 ERA. But two things that jump out are that the Pack have a slightly more potent offense (hitting .321) and a deeper pitching staff.
Key matchup: The battle of nerves.
Both teams have been incredible on the basepaths, with the Deacons nabbing 31 of 39 attempts and the Pack being a very efficient 27-of-31. Whichever pitching staff/defense adjusts best and doesn't allow for free bases will win this one.
7. No. 22 Mississippi State (14-5) at No. 16 LSU (14-3)
It's hard to predict what you're going to get from these two teams. At times they can play brilliantly and at other times they have shown vulnerability. One thing is for sure, Tigers ace Kevin Gausman (4-0, 1.32) has been outstanding, especially his 31-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If he keeps the ship steered the right way, MSU's mostly-new offense (seven new starters) will have an uphill climb. But from there, it's anyone's guess. LSU's offense was hitting .316 after last weekend but has a tendency to disappear at times, too. The Bulldogs will need the best efforts of the season from their starting pitchers this weekend.
Key matchup: MSU's bullpen vs. LSU's offense.
Chris Stratton (4-0, 2.57) and Caleb Reed (five saves) have been a great one-two punch out of the 'pen for the Dogs. They are a big reason MSU has given up just 14 combined runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings so far.
8. No. 4 North Carolina (14-3) at Maryland (13-4)
After last weekend's tank job versus Wake Forest where they were swept in three straight games, this is a chance at redemption weekend for the Terrapins. Their pitching staff has been on lockdown mode, currently eighth in the country with an ERA of 2.28, led by Brett Harman, who is 2-1, 1.49 after missing last year with Tommy John surgery. But the Carolina pitching staff has been its typical self, with Chris Munnelly and Kent Emanuel not missing a beat from last year's CWS team. But the best bet could be Michael Morin, who has six saves and 13 K's in 12⅓ innings of work.
Key matchup: The bottom of the Maryland order vs. UNC's arms.
Maryland has a knack of going south at the dish, hitting just .271. If its No. 5-through-No. 9 hitters (particularly speed merchants Charlie White and Alfredo Rodriguez) continue to struggle, this one could turn into another Wake-like weekend.
9. Purdue (12-1) at Wichita State (10-8)
It'll be a black-and-gold fest at Eck Stadium as Purdue brings in the top-hitting team in the country with a .373 average. Five guys come in hitting .400-plus, led by Eric Charles, No. 11 nationally at a staggering .481. But the Boilers aren't all offense as they'll deal from the rubber too, particularly if they can turn the game over to stud closer Nick Wittgren. But this is still your typical WSU pitching they'll be facing (2.45 team ERA, No. 17 in the country), which will be the best Purdue has gone up against this season. For example, relievers Foster Vielock and Cale Elam have yet to give up an earned run in 32 innings of work. Those are the Shockers we're used to seeing.
Key matchup: Johnny Coy vs. Purdue pitching.
The Shockers' All-American candidate leads the team in hitting but was decidedly cool in last week's series win over Tulane, going just 1-for-12. He has to amp his game up here or it could be a long weekend against the Boilermakers.
10. Kent State (7-6) at Pepperdine (13-4)
Very quietly, Pepperdine is playing its best baseball in the past four or five years, beating teams like Oklahoma, Fresno State, USC and UC Irvine. The only hiccup was a tough series loss at Louisville that could've gone either way. Meanwhile, Kent State is a good team but has been a little up and down, making headlines with a season-opening win versus Georgia Tech and then seeing their pitching butchered at New Mexico State last weekend. Still, talents like Nick Hamilton (.541), Evan Campbell (.404) and T.J. Sutton (.367) will be a great test for this confident Waves staff.
Key matchup: Kent State's sea legs vs. Pepperdine's fresh legs.
This weekend will be the end of an 18-game road swing to start the season for the Flashes. And after giving up 35 runs in their past three games in Las Cruces last week, you have to wonder how road-weary the Flashes are. Keep an eye on their stamina in Malibu this weekend.
Gators focus on small fixes, big picture in mind
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan is doing a lot of nitpicking these days.
When you're the No. 1 team in the nation with a 16-1 record and have just tied a school record for consecutive victories, there's really not much going wrong. So it's all about fixing the little things as the Gators prepare to begin SEC play this weekend at home against Vanderbilt.
"We've still got some things to work on," O'Sullivan said after the Gators' 9-2 victory over sixth-ranked Florida State on Tuesday night in Gainesville. "We missed a couple signs [against FSU], a couple of hit-and-run signs, made the error there that scored the two runs. But overall, how disappointed can you be?"
Not very, because UF is playing pretty well in every aspect of the game. The Gators came out of the FSU game leading the nation in home runs (27) and are hitting .312 with 62 extra-base hits. Of the seven players with at least 50 at-bats, six are hitting .300 or better -- including catcher Mike Zunino (.417) and right fielder Preston Tucker (.313). Those two have a combined 13 home runs and 39 RBIs.
"The bottom half of our lineup is really swinging the bats well," said Tucker, who has six homers and 16 RBIs. "When the bats come alive there, and there's guys on base for guys at the top of the lineup, it's really tough to pitch to a lot of these hitters."
Two of those .300 hitters are freshmen Taylor Gushue (.308) and Casey Turgeon (.300). Turgeon has started 16 games at second base while Gushue has started at catcher, first base and DH. Gushue graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled in January. He homered on the first college pitch he saw in the season opener against Cal State Fullerton.
"I don't know if we've had the same lineup two days in a row," O'Sullivan said. "We've gotten a lot of different guys some action. Our guys that we're counting on have played well up until this point. We've had a lot of young players, some freshmen, come in and have had some really good moments these 17 games."
So has the bullpen, which is 9-1 with seven saves and a 1.77 ERA this season. The group has given up just 14 earned runs, struck out 76 and walked only 12 in 71 innings. Austin Maddox already has six saves, which is just shy of halfway to the school's single-season record (13), and the Gators still have 39 regular-season games remaining.
Against FSU, four relievers held the Seminoles to two hits and struck out four in 6⅓ innings. That allowed UF to overcome a 2-0 deficit and post its 10th comeback victory this season.
"Our bullpen showed that we can just throw anybody out there and they won't give up a run," Tucker said. "And if they give up one, they won't give up two."
The only concern the Gators have is that the starting pitching hasn't been as dominant as expected. Karsten Whitson has thrown just 5⅔ innings this season because of arm fatigue, and O'Sullivan is being cautious with the 2011 freshman All-American. The rest of UF's projected weekend rotation -- Hudson Randall and Brian Johnson -- are a combined 4-0, but they have ERAs of 3.65 and 4.12, respectively. Randall was 11-3 with a 2.17 ERA last season, and Johnson went 8-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 2011. Both, along with Whitson, were preseason All-Americans.
Still, that's probably a bit of nitpicking because UF's starting pitchers have gone a combined 7-0 and have struck out 60 and walked only 17 in 78⅔ innings.
The Gators have had this impressive start against quality competition. In addition to Tuesday's victory over No. 6 FSU, the Gators went 2-1 against No. 11 Cal State Fullerton to open the season and swept No. 10 Miami in a three-game series in Coral Gables earlier this month.
That's good preparation for the start of SEC play, even though it comes against a Vanderbilt team that was 6-10 through Tuesday.
"Like everybody else we need to improve on some things, but we're certainly playing well right now," O'Sullivan said.
Top 25 matchups
No. 3 South Carolina vs. No. 20 Kentucky
No. 4 North Carolina vs. Maryland
No. 7 Arkansas vs. Alabama
No. 8 Texas A&M vs. Kansas State
No. 9 Arizona vs. Washington State
No. 10 Miami vs. Duke
No. 11 Cal State Fullerton vs. Long Beach State
No. 12 UCLA vs. Arizona State
No. 13 Oregon vs. Washington
No. 14 Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech
No. 15 Ole Miss vs. Auburn No. 16 LSU vs. No. 22 Mississippi State
No. 17 Oklahoma vs. Texas
No. 18 California vs. No. 24 Oregon State No. 19 Georgia vs. Tennessee
No. 21 USC vs. Utah
No. 23 UCF vs. Harvard
No. 25 NC State vs. Wake Forest
Miami at Duke
If there is a team that needs a big about-face, it's the Blue Devils. They had things rolling early on this season, winning a game at Texas as part of a 7-5 start. They even had Florida State on the ropes in their ACC opener last week before giving up a late lead. Now Duke seems to be at a crossroads; a series with the Hurricanes is a prime opportunity.
How it could happen: First off, this is the Hurricanes' first road weekend of the season. They're used to playing nearly 40-plus home games, so getting away from Coral Gables really gets them out of their comfort zone. Plus, Duke's three starters -- Marcus Stroman (1-2, 3.08, 39 K's in 26⅓ innings), Trent Swart (2-2, 3.10) and Robert Huber (2-2, 3.86) -- have been stellar so far. If those three can go deeper into games this weekend, Duke's shaky bullpen can have shorter stints and be more effective. The offense hits just .281 but has a lot of speed (24-of-30 on stolen bases).
Why it might not: If last week's series sweep at the hands of Florida State is any indication, this Blue Devils unit needs some work. The arms corps has put too much pressure on itself and has issued an ACC-high 93 walks so far. If the Blue Devils can keep Miami from getting free passes, the guys in the bullpen should be a lot looser and pitch with confidence. But watch those walk totals. If they spike, this one could get nearly as ugly as last week's sweep at the hands of Florida State. -- Eric Sorenson
Wayne Graham Q&A
The Hall of Fame Rice coach won his 1,500th game as a college head coach on Tuesday night when his Owls downed Arizona 5-1. I was able to catch up with the legendary Graham in his office this week and asked him about his team, his struggling ace, his hopes for another trip to Omaha and his feelings on never being able to catch Augie Garrido in the wins department.
Eric Sorenson: What did that series at Stanford tell you about your team?
Wayne Graham: Well there's not a more talented team in the country than Stanford is right now. So they'll tell you exactly what you've got to do and what you've got to work on. That Friday night game could've gone either way, we just happened to throw a strike right where their guy [Justin Ringo] needed it to be in his swing and he hurt us with it. But overall I thought we competed well, our defense was outstanding, especially in that third game which we won. Stanford is really good so there's no disgrace in losing there.
ES: The thing that jumped out about your team on the stat sheet was how you've outscored your opponents 36-10 in the first two innings of games. What's been the key to that?
WG: That's actually both good and bad, because we haven't done a lot after that in our games. We've been able to jump out on top because a lot of times, that's the time to go get 'em, before they've settled in and before they've started hitting their spots. We need to do a better job of hitting them when they are hitting their spots later on in the game.
ES: Your ace Austin Kubitza is struggling a little bit now. Is that a big concern for you going forward?
WG: It's a concern, though I think we can survive either way if he comes back or if he doesn't. But he was our most dominant pitcher last year and you just can't lose a guy like that and not have a big hole in your pitching staff. If he comes back to form, we'll be in much better shape.
ES: Talk about your offense a little bit more, I know you guys have struggled a little bit up 'til now, hitting .278 going into tonight's game. But is the offense the biggest key to your season?
WG: It is. I think our pitching has enough potential to take us far. But offensively, I think we're going to have to do a much better job of battling off pitches and hitting with two strikes. Tonight, we didn't do a good job of either one of those at all. If we do that, we've got a chance to be a lot better.
ES: Speaking of your team, tell me your feelings overall about your team. How far do you see your team going this year? Is the potential there?
WG: You know, I think we're a possible -- possible -- Omaha team. Our infield is a good infield. They have the potential to be solid every day. Our outfield is a good outfield, too. All the defense is really solid and I think we showed that at Stanford last week. And I really think the pitching is going to be fine, whether Kubitza throws OK or not the bullpen is going to be good. Our closer, J.T. Chargois, couldn't pitch tonight because he had a slight ankle sprain, but he can give us three innings every night and gives us a chance to win every game. But if you ask me if the potential is there for this team, it's a good enough team to make a run in the postseason. It really is. We're going to have to hit better, there's no doubt about that. But there's some hidden talent there and I think it will come through.
ES: Does winning that 1,500th game mean anything to you? I know you're not a milestones kind of guy, but it's got to mean something, right?
WG: Oh I think those milestones do matter. I think it matters to your school, to your program and to your family. And I always like to sit back and think about the people who helped me get there. Milestones are good. They mean something statistically and you know, statistics drive baseball over generations. But I'll tell you one thing, I'm not going to top Augie Garrido, that's for sure. I'd have to coach until I'm 100 to beat Augie.
-- Eric Sorenson
Dallas Baptist (10-6, No. 70 RPI, No. 129 SOS)
Best win: Beat Oklahoma 7-6 on Tuesday with four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Close losses: Nip-and-tuck losses against Oklahoma State, Rice and Texas have seen them come close to RPI-building upsets.
Up next: At Charlotte (10-7) this weekend.
The skinny: The last time we saw the Patriots, they were within a couple of whiskers of going to the College World Series, falling to Cal in the Santa Clara Super Regional. That was where their magical run as the upset darlings of the Big Dance ended -- they won the Fort Worth Regional, beating Oklahoma and TCU along the way. Their record this year is the exact same as it was through 16 games last year, when they finished 42-20. Despite returning only one weekend starter on the mound, head coach Dan Heefner says that this year's staff is better than last year's; they've posted a 3.80 team ERA so far, led by Cy Sneed (3-1, 2.08), Taylor Massey (3-1, 2.45) and electric closer Michael Smith (1-1, 1.56).
What coach Dan Heefner says: "The biggest thing last year's success did for us was give us confidence. Offensively we're a lot more aggressive and top to bottom we've got better arms. The difference is that there is a looseness about this team. They've got that confidence to win now, but there's also no pressure. We look forward to playing the big-name teams on our schedule. There's no intimidation to these guys."
-- Eric Sorenson