Lessons learned in March
Special to ESPN.com
A baker's dozen of things we learned from the past 31 days:
1. Everybody is hiding a weakness.
You think your team is unbeatable and a lock for Omaha? Ha. I chuckle like a fat Viking holding a turkey leg. Just look at this past weekend. Florida got dinged by South Carolina twice. Texas lost to Oklahoma State twice. LSU had lost six of seven after a doubleheader sweep at Georgia. Clemson lost to NC State twice. UC Irvine got swept at Gonzaga. Oklahoma lost to Missouri while scoring just four runs in two games. Vanderbilt lost with Sonny Gray on the mound at Arkansas. Florida State was blanked by Wake Forest. You get my drift here -- there is an Achilles' heel just waiting to be exposed for every team out there.
2. Lots of teams have great pitching, but zero hitting.
Texas (.251), UCLA (.241), Oregon (.235), Tulane (.261), Arkansas (.277), Coastal Carolina (.240) and Louisville (.258) all have gonzo pitching staffs, but with so little offense to support them, they are a potential loss every time they take the field. Come June, that could become a huge factor.
3. March made for tough schedules and early struggles.
But here are five losing teams that will become winning teams in April: Iowa, Oral Roberts, Georgia, Maine and Hawaii.
4. March turned hot starts into cold spells.
Winter came a little late for some teams. Five teams that have seen their seasons go south in the past 30 days: Clemson, Southeastern Louisiana, UNLV, College of Charleston and UC Irvine.
5. March has made April a vital month for some.
Here are five preseason monsters that better start winning now or forget the Big Dance: UCLA (No. 108 RPI), Connecticut (No. 131 RPI), Oregon (No. 76 RPI), Coastal Carolina (No. 112 RPI), Washington State (No. 33 RPI).
6. March reminded us that some teams should temporarily switch conferences.
Here are the five teams that should be given a pass to play in a big six conference for the season so they don't suffer the "anchor effect" from their conference: Troy, Stony Brook, Stetson, Wichita State and Texas State.
7. The Pac-10 has fallen further off the grid.
Going into this season, the Pac-10 was supposed to be the big boss with the hot sauce in conference power. After a decent start in February, this past month saw the Pac-10 begin to fall. UCLA, Washington State and Oregon have fallen short of expectations so far (put some emphasis on the "so far" part). With Stanford's tough schedule and Cal and Arizona State having roller-coaster rides, the West Coast power conference has dipped to No. 5 in BoydsWorld.com's conference RPI ranking.
8. No conference has disappointed more than the Big West.
Speaking of western leagues that have left us slapping our foreheads, the Big West is considered one of the big six conferences in the country, but after a poor month of March is at No. 16 in the conference rankings. Sixteenth!
9. Virginia's Danny Hultzen put a stronger grip on his "Best Player in the Country" status.
On the mound in the month of March, the Wahoo ace threw 26.2 innings, struck out 46 batters, walked six and gave up three earned runs. Oh, and he's hitting .316 at the dish and is a perfect 1.000 on defense. His bronzed baby shoes will soon fetch millions on eBay.
10. Fresno State is the best mid-major in the country.
With all due apologies to Stetson and Troy, as I said in last week's video, the Bulldogs are a complete team with a deep pitching staff, a great offensive lineup and the most experienced team in the Mike Batesole era. Keep in mind that the Dogs haven't hosted a regional since 1995. Just file that away for now, that's all I'm saying.
11. We still can't put a lot of stock in the RPI, but you have to wonder.
It's now the end of March and there are still some freakish RPI rankings in that moribund formula. I mean, how long can we write off teams like Southern Miss at No. 8, Texas State at No. 15, East Tennessee State at No. 18, Troy at No. 22 and Elon at No. 31 by saying, "Eh, the RPI is always weird early in the season"? It's not early in the season anymore.
12. The Matt Purke mystery got more confounding.
The TCU golden arm has mysteriously underperformed through the ides of March. He sat out a few starts because of a blister problem, but since he's been back things haven't been the same, with no dominant performances and hitting only 90 mph on his fastball, according to Keith Law. The biggest stunner was taking the loss in the Saturday game versus Houston Baptist on March 12, when he gave up four runs and three walks in 3.2 innings of work. To this day, that is still HBU's only victory of the season.
13. I can't wait until June gets here.
With all the March Madness going on in college hockey and college basketball, it's got me giddy for baseball with a no-tomorrow feel. But I know, I know, let's not rush things. Don't want the season to go too fast, ya know.
No rest on Sundays for Florida State
Special to ESPN.com
If the Florida State baseball team were in the NFL, they'd be Super Bowl champions by now.
That's one way to look at what can only be viewed as an amazing streak of 24 straight Sunday wins by FSU.
The streak, which was kept alive with an 11-2 win over Wake Forest this past Sunday, includes victories over six teams that were nationally ranked and two that were in the top five. In the mix were two NCAA regional games, one super regional and one ACC championship.
The most recent power to go down on a Sunday was Virginia. The Seminoles snapped the host Cavaliers' 13-game win streak on March 20, battling for a 12-11 win in 10 innings.
"That streak has entered my mind only once or twice," FSU coach Mike Martin said. "When someone pointed it out to me after that game, it just astounded me."
FSU center fielder/closer Mike McGee was equally amazed.
"It's hard to know what the factors are," McGee said of the streak. "Maybe since it's the last game of the series, we want to end on a good note. Or maybe it's that Sunday games are day games, and I see the ball better, especially in our park."
That was certainly true on Sunday, when McGee drilled a two-run homer in the win over visiting Wake.
The previous Sunday's win over Virginia completed a string of five consecutive one-run games, the first time that's happened in 64 years of FSU baseball. The Seminoles went 2-3 during that run, but all three losses came on the road against top-five teams Virginia and Florida.
"That stretch was rough on your body and your mind," McGee said. "Every at-bat was crucial. You could never relax, and it was pretty taxing. But I think that will help us in the postseason."
Three days after the Virginia series concluded, FSU lost to Stetson while setting another school record with its fifth straight extra-inning game.
The results might have been better for FSU had McGee been available for the middle game of the Virginia series. But the 6-foot, 188-pound senior had to sit out due to a quadriceps injury.
Martin said McGee reminds him a bit of former Seminoles catcher Buster Posey, one of MLB's rising stars with the Giants.
"Mike had the pleasure of playing a year with Buster, and maybe some of Buster's professionalism rubbed off," Martin said. "Mike is very poised and competitive. He's been our guy the past couple of years."
As for this season's team overall, Martin said he still has questions, especially in the rotation behind ace Sean Gilmartin (5-0, 1.49 ERA).
As of now, Scott Sitz (2-1, 3.98) is the No. 2 starter and Gary Merians (4-1, 2.05) is In the third slot.
"We're still searching a bit," Martin said. "I do like our bullpen, but [overall] the jury is still out."
Except on Sundays. FSU has that day pretty much locked down.
Places to be this weekend
Special to ESPN.com
If you get your hands on the company Learjet, here are the places you want to put into the flight plan this weekend.
1. No. 13 Arkansas at No. 25 Alabama
By the numbers:
Arkansas: 18-6, 3-3 SEC, RPI No. 32
Bama: 18-8, 5-1 SEC, RPI No. 36
Since giving up 32 runs in a three-game stretch at the end of February/beginning of March, the Tide went on a 14-3 run during which they gave up more than five runs in a game only once. And speaking of solid pitching, the Hogs got that in spades this past weekend, holding Vanderbilt to just seven runs in three games. The problem was that the offense was completely handcuffed, held to four runs and 15 hits while striking out 29 times. Yikes. But the Razorbacks won't face a Vandy-like pitching staff this week, at least not quite. Still, Friday ace Nathan Kilcrease has been the man for Bama, including last week's complete game shutout of Kentucky.
Key matchup: D.J. Baxendale versus Bama bats. The versatile Razorbacks right-handed flinger already has five wins, two saves, a 1.65 ERA and a win over Vanderbilt All-American Sonny Gray. Wow. If the Hogs get any kind of lead, he's the shut-'em-down type who can make life miserable for the opponents. Especially for the Tide, who are hitting just .293 and also have a knack of going quiet at the dish at the wrong time.
2. No. 20 Oregon State at No. 17 Arizona
OSU: 18-6, 5-1 Pac 10, No. 30 RPI
UA: 18-7, 3-3 Pac 10, No. 66 RPI
OK, it's time we find out about this Arizona team. Sure, they won a game at Arizona State last week, but they still dropped a series to their hated rivals. Since it's after adversity that you find out how much character a team has, it's time to see if the Wildcats can put together a good rebound weekend against a really good Beavers squad that has earned raves the past few weeks; the battery of Sam Gaviglio and Andrew Susac is one of the best in the country.
Key matchup: Sam Gaviglio versus Kurt Heyer. The numbers don't lie: Gaviglio is 5-0, 0.39 and Heyer is 4-1, 1.33. This is the battle of aces in the country for this weekend. In fact, the UA administration should probably charge twice the price at Sancet Stadium for this one, even though it could be one of those one-and-a-half hour games. Gaviglio finally gave up his first two earned runs of the season this past weekend (c'mon, it had to happen sometime). And Heyer is a strikeout machine, with 60 K's in 47.2 innings, good for second in the Pac-10.
3. Ole Miss at No. 16 LSU
Ole Miss: 18-7, 3-3 SEC, No. 13 RPI
LSU: 17-7, 1-5 SEC, No. 42 RPI
LSU coach Paul Mainieri was pretty curled about his team's play in getting swept in two games at Georgia on Sunday. I believe something called the "Riot Act" was read aloud. Young teams like that tend to go two directions after a bad early weekend: by breathing fire out of its nostrils, or by cowering in the corner like a sick kitten. Ole Miss has had a bumpy ride so far, losing to most of the good teams it has faced and playing one too many close games against teams it should rout. But this is the Rebels' chance to plant a flag in the dirt and make an official "we're back" proclamation. If LSU loses or is swept, the Tigers could start shuffling the deck for the "wait 'til next year" card. (I know, let's not get too dramatic here, this isn't reality TV).
Key matchup: The Tigers versus their own psyche. I hate to belabor the point, but losing streaks tend to compound daily on a young team. And with the memory of last year's horrible dog days of April and May still in the memory bank, the Tigers can't afford to trip over their own lip now. The other thing that can start to pile on a young team's mind? Errors. LSU has the 12th-rated defense in the SEC (.960 fielding percentage). Better tighten up here, boys.
For the full weekend preview, check out the college baseball blog.
Top 25 matchups
No. 1 Virginia at Virginia Tech
No. 2 Vanderbilt at Auburn
Tennessee at No. 3 Florida
Kentucky at No. 4 South Carolina
No. 5 Texas A&M at Kansas State
No. 23 Clemson at No. 6 UNC
No. 7 Florida State at Maryland
Missouri at No. 7 Texas
Oregon at No. 9 Arizona State
No. 10 Georgia Tech at Duke
Texas Tech at No. 11 Oklahoma
San Francisco at No. 12 Fresno State
No. 13 Arkansas at No. 25 Alabama
Air Force at No. 14 TCU
No. 15 Cal State Fullerton at UC Davis
Ole Miss at No. 16 LSU
No. 20 Oregon State at No. 17 Arizona
USC at No. 18 Cal
Cal State Northridge at No. 19 UC Irvine
No. 21 Stanford at Washington State
No. 22 Southern Miss at UCF
Washington at No. 24 UCLA
Q&A: Matt Senk
The Stony Brook Seawolves have shot out of the gate at 13-5 to start the season, having posted two no-hitters in their past five games. On top of that, they are ranked at No. 44 in the latest RPI rankings by Boyd Nation, which is rare for a team from the Northeast this early in the season. Heady stuff for a team from Stony Brook, N.Y. (on Long Island) that barely spent a day outside prior to opening their season with a series win at a good Florida Atlantic team. I caught up with Seawolves coach Matt Senk before their Monday game at Army. -- Eric Sorenson
ES: Talk about your team in general. Did you foresee this kind of start for you guys this year?
MS: I felt coming in that we would be improved on the mound. We had our two big starters coming back in Nick Tropeano and Tyler Johnson, so that's not a big surprise. I also felt we would have a strong defense, so the old adage of pitching and defense is true, we knew with those two things we had a chance to win any ballgame. I hesitate to give us a proper letter grade for our efforts, but I'd say we've done very well and would give us high marks so far.
ES: I hate to ask about the bats, because it seems so common to do so now, but you guys seem to have adjusted to them very well compared to other teams.
MS: I think we have, yes. We lost some of our bangers from last year, but of the guys we had coming back, a lot of them played in some high- quality summer leagues and are used to using wood bats and manufacturing runs anyway. Our philosophy has always been not to rely on the three-run homer, so we feel comfortable in our style facing any pitcher out there, no matter how good he is.
ES: You guys are fielding really well so far, like .980 or so last I saw. Is that a surprise given that you guys had so little outdoor work before the season?
MS: My assistant coaches have done a great job preparing our guys. Joe Pennucci handles our defense, and whether it's in the gym or out on the field turf, wherever, we're constantly working on our defense. So not getting out on a baseball field until our first game at Florida Atlantic and going up until now, it's a little surprising we've done so well. But it's also what we expect with all the work we put into that part of the game.
ES: Shockingly, I'd like you to talk about the two no-hitters by Vanderka and Tropeano.
MS: [Laughs] Well first off, nobody expects a no-hitter, ever. But I admit, I'm surprised overall at how good our pitching has been beyond Tropeano and Johnson. Our freshman, Frankie Vanderka, he came to us as the prototypical Stony Brook-type pitcher, a body type that is going to get bigger and stronger, and he has a good fastball, and what we like is his above-average breaking ball. He got both of them working against New Jersey Tech that day. And Nick Tropeano, he had a great summer on the Cape, and he and [closer] Brandon McNitt just threw a great game in the second no-hitter yesterday. It just proves that we've got some good arms to throw at people and we're excited about how far they can take us.
ES: Looking at the America East, some of the top teams like Binghamton and Maine are struggling while you guys are cruising along. Does that put a little more pressure on your team?
MS: We haven't really thought about what our conference teams have done or how we compare yet; it's too early. But we've all been in their situations before with tough early schedules and having to travel. We know the bull's-eye is on us and I'm really pleased with how we've played so far, but it doesn't mean a lot. We all know we're all going to be playing better at the end of the year and anyone can get hot in the conference tournament.
Under the radar: Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky (16-7, 5-1) sits atop the Sun Belt Conference after taking two of three at FIU this past weekend. In six previous trips to Miami, WKU had won only one other series. On Sunday, WKU nearly swept FIU, coming within one strike on two consecutive batters before losing 9-8 in 10 innings. WKU has the leading hitter in the conference, left fielder Jared Andreoli (.410), and a pitcher, Tanner Perkins, who is tied for the Sun Belt lead in wins. Perkins, the team's ace, is 5-1 with a. 2.45 ERA. Meanwhile, catcher Matt Rice (.337) is an interesting player to follow. He was the last player selected in the 2010 draft -- Mr. Irrelevant. He was pick No. 1,525, to the Yankees, after winning WKU's Triple Crown with a .369 average, 10 homers and 65 RBIs. -- Walter Villa
Michigan State (15-5) at Iowa (9-12)
OK Sparty, we've seen this scenario before with you. In 2010, the Big Green got out to a 22-5 start and was all the rage in the Great Lakes states. But a 7-12 finish in Big 10 play saw the season crumble, and Michigan State didn't even make the Big Ten tournament. This year, a much wiser team takes the field for MSU, so the hopes are that this won't be a repeat of 2010. One thing that the Spartans have in their favor is a stout pitching staff which leads the Big 10 with a 2.78 team ERA and has issued just 44 walks, the third-lowest total in the country. Also, Brandon Eckerle (.448) and Jeff Holm (.428) are the top two hitters in the Big 10 and lead the best offense in the conference at .331. But don't overlook the Hawkeyes. They've played the toughest schedule in the Big 10 and have a few bumps and bruises to work through, but have gotten steady pitching, led by Nick Brown (3-1, 2.31 ERA). -- Eric Sorenson
Upset watch: Baylor
Baylor (16-9, 3-3) at Kansas (10-13, 2-4)
If the Jayhawks win, this may not seem like such a big stunner because the Bears will be taking on a team that has beaten TCU and won twice at Oklahoma State. Besides that, don't you figure the Jayhawks are tired of close losses? They have one-run losses to the likes of Arizona State, UC Riverside and Texas A&M and two run-losses to the Aggies, Arkansas and Oklahoma State. And believe it or not, beyond BU ace Logan Verrett, the Jayhawks have the better staff, throwing at a 3.55 pace and feature a far-underrated closer in Colton Murray, a Cape Cod vet (2-0, 1.86 ERA, 4 saves). Besides, if T.J. Walz can go pitch-for-pitch with Verrett in Hoglund Ballpark in Friday's matchup, this series gets dicey for the Bears. -- Eric Sorenson
Watch out for: Hudson Randall
Florida sophomore Hudson Randall, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound right-hander from Atlanta's Dunwoody High, is off to a blazing start. He is 4-0 and leads the SEC with a 0.66 ERA. In Saturday's 2-1 win over No. 4 South Carolina, he pitched a five-hitter, all singles, and walked none. He needed just 95 pitches to earn his first career complete game, retiring the final 19 batters in order. The previous week, he beat then-No. 5 LSU 1-0, combining with two relievers on the shutout. Randall's efforts continue a trend from last year, when he was a Freshman All-American and led the SEC in ERA in conference games (2.63). Randall, 12-4 in his college career, is improving his draft stock for 2012. -- Walter Villa
What we're reading
• Florida's starting pitchers are mostly freshmen and sophomores -- but they're the driving force behind the Gators' fast start this season. Can the young guns take the Gators back to Omaha? Mark Schlabach visits with the Gators.
• Georgia Tech has had numerous postseason failures in reason years. But the Yellow Jackets are off to a 9-0 start in ACC play, and coach Danny Hall is hoping that his squad, which has 17 freshmen and is loaded with pitching, can finally figure out the postseason.
• Jeff Sackmann of College Splits examines the strength of the ACC, a conference that has four teams ranked in the top seven of his power rankings, with no team ranked below No. 90. It's currently the strongest and deepest league in college baseball.
Capital One Cup
The Capital One Cup rewards the best Division I men's and women's programs in the country for their on-the-field performance throughout the year. For more information about the Cup, visit capitalonecup.com.