Welcome to 'Prove It' weekend
You know what this time of the year means? It's March. That means upsets. White-knuckle finishes. Davids. Goliaths. Madness.
Oh, you thought we were talking about basketball?
That's what we're looking for on the diamond, too. This weekend in college stitched-ball there aren't a lot of marquee matchups of highly ranked teams, so the best we can do is hope for a gaggle of upsets. Who do we look to for that? Check out the top five of the latest USA Today Coaches Poll. All five of those teams go up against opponents that have the talent and have shown flashes of being capable of greatness. This weekend could get interesting.
There are a lot of teams out there in college baseball that we just can't seem to figure out. Pretender? Contender? Which is it? Well, nothing shows the true colors of a team better than taking on a top-five superpower.
Here are the "prove it" teams, the teams that need to step it up and impress us, or else face up to more questions.
Clemson (13-7)Start: 6-1
Skid: Went 0-4 vs. South Carolina and Western Carolina at the beginning of March
This Week: vs. No. 1 Florida State
The Skinny: Sure they're ranked No. 18 nationally, but to be honest Clemson has been a tad inconsistent and has left us all wondering if it is worthy of that ranking. The big sore thumb has been the pitching staff which has a relatively high 4.71 ERA. Matthew Crownover, a freshman All-American last year with a team-best 1.95 ERA, has struggled as opposing hitters are batting .310 against him in his five starts so far. If his sophomore slump continues this weekend, things could get ugly.
Kentucky (15-6)Start: 11-2
Skid: Currently on a 4-4 stretch
This Week: vs. No. 2 South Carolina
The Skinny: To be fair, we've seen the Wildcats jump out to some big-time starts before, only to see them fall apart once SEC play began. So let's see if we're looking at a team ready to break into the big time, or for a bad case of deja vu. When they've been good, they've been really good, averaging 12.4 runs a game in their wins. But they are also 10th in the SEC in pitching and 12th in defense. So beware if the Gamecocks get some early leads.
Mississippi State (15-8)Start: 11-4
Skid: 1-3 at Hi Corbett Classic, giving up 55 hits in four games
This Week: vs. No. 3 Vanderbilt
The Skinny: It's weird to see MSU sitting at 11th in the SEC in pitching and 10th in hitting, but it's been a rough ride so far in the early season. When I saw them in Tucson against Arizona and UC Santa Barbara they got clobbered roundly. Now come the pitching-rich Commodores, who took the bats out of LSU's hands last weekend, giving up just 14 hits in 27 innings. This could turn out really good or really bad for the Cowbells.
Arizona State (10-9)Start: 7-4
Skid: Have gone 3-5 since
This Week: at No. 4 Oregon State
The Skinny: This rough stretch isn't completely a shock. Coach Tim Esmay said at the Surprise Tournament a few weeks ago that he's dealing with a lot of new faces this year. Still, youth be damned, seven Sun Devil hitters with 30 or more at-bats are hitting .300-plus. So they'll actually be a good challenge for that nails-tough Oregon State pitching staff, which leads the Pac 12 at 1.83 ERA. If hitting is contagious, the Devils have to hope they'll be sick with the sticks in Corvallis.
Miami (12-10)Start: 5-3
Skid: On a 2-5 stretch now
This Week: vs. No. 5 Virginia
The Skinny: This team has a lot of young talent, as well, but should still be better than the near-.500 baseball it has been playing. Opponents are hitting better than the Canes, .255 compared to The U's .250 and the Canes' defense has committed an ACC-high 36 errors. This is their chance at a breakthrough weekend as Virginia hasn't exactly been lights-out on the road, hitting just .209 in last week's escape at Duke.
Under the radar: West Virginia
West VirginiaRecord: 11-6
RPI: No. 21
Best Wins: San Diego State, Coastal Carolina, North Carolina
Up Next: at UNC-Wilmington
Before Randy Mazey took over the West Virginia program, it had won 23, 28 and 27 games the previous three years. In his first year, Mazey led WVU to 33 wins and had a 14-13 mark in its new, tougher conference, the Big 12. This year, the boys from Morgantown could be in for even more.
"I think it's just been a whole culture change," Mazey said. "We play with more energy and enthusiasm. We needed to get our kids used to winning and then they'll expect to win when the pressure is on and the game is on the line. In the past, I don't know that was the case with these guys."
The Mountaaineers have a weekend rotation that should give them a chance to win each time out. Sean Carley (3-0, 2.78), John Means (4-1, 1.45) and Harrison Musgrave (3-1, 2.25) are all draft-eligible and highly regarded.
"Our three starters happen to be really good," Mazey said. "All three have the chance to go in the top four or five rounds of the [MLB] draft. And the key has been that they have all been going deep into games."
That formula showed itself to be true once again on Wednesday night as Means went the distance -- even holding onto a no-hitter into the sixth inning -- as West Virginia beat No. 13 North Carolina 5-1 in Chapel Hill.
"I think we've got a good team," Mazey said. "But we can't just pick and choose when we want to show up and play. Great teams find a way to play well each time out. That's what we're striving for."
Top 25 scoreboard and schedule
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College baseball on ESPN
All times p.m. ET
3: James Madison at St. John's (ESPN3)
5: Georgia Tech vs. North Carolina (ESPN3)
6:30: Missouri State vs. Wichita State (ESPNU)
6:30: Florida State vs. Clemson (ESPN3)
7: Dartmouth vs. Kansas (ESPN3)
7: High Point vs. Liberty (ESPN3)
7: Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State (ESPN3)
7: Long Beach State vs. Cal State Fullerton (ESPN3)
Noon: Mississippi State at Georgia (ESPN3)
1: James Madison vs. St. John's (ESPN3)
2: Dartmouth vs. Kansas (ESPN3)
2: South Carolina vs. Kentucky (ESPN3)
3: High Point vs. Liberty (ESPN3)
3: Georgia State vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (ESPN3)
4: Auburn vs. Tennessee (ESPN3)
6: Georgia Tech vs. North Carolina (ESPN3)
6:30: Florida State vs. Clemson (ESPN3)
7: Virginia vs. Miami (Fla.) (ESPN3)
8:30 Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State (ESPNU)
9: Long Beach State vs. Cal State Fullerton (ESPN3)
College of Charleston at Houston
It's a clash of the Cougars in H-town this weekend. This is an interesting, and somewhat random, nonconference showdown set for Cougar Field. Both teams have pulled some "upsets" this season, particularly CofC taking two of three versus North Carolina in Week 1 and UofH's wins over Rice, UCLA and Texas Tech.
If you're looking for the big differences in the two teams, keep an eye on the early frames for Charleston, which is outscoring opponents 33-12 in the first three innings. Also watch the late clampdown of Houston, which is outscoring opponents 33-10 in the last three innings. So a big early lead will be vital for Charleston.
Also watch for the Charleston arms in pressure situations, as they have issued a slightly high 52 walks and hit 26 batters so far. On the opposite end, Houston has been very disciplined on the mound with a team ERA of 1.65, just 28 walks issued and holding opponents to a .205 average.