April 15, 2024

College baseball in review: North Carolina sweeps Wake Forest, powers way to top of ACC

Wake Forest opened the season as the top-ranked team in the nation. Duke grabbed some early headlines with a bunch of quality wins in the first month of the season. Florida State stormed out of the gate with 19 consecutive wins. And Clemson was the talk of college baseball a few weeks ago after its two dramatic comeback wins over the Seminoles.

What about North Carolina? Is there a chance the Tar Heels might be the best team in the ACC?

It’s quite possible, after Scott Forbes’ club improved to 25-4 overall and 10-2 in the league with a convincing three-game sweep at Wake Forest by scores of 6-5 (10 innings), 10-6 and 14-10. The Tar Heels became the first team to get to Wake star right-hander Chase Burns, touching up the Tennessee transfer for nine hits and six earned runs in 6 1/3 innings (though Burns did strike out 14). They also became the first team to sweep the Demon Deacons in Winston-Salem since 2011.

The Tar Heels got it done with the long ball, hitting 14 home runs in the three games, including four by Parks Harber (three in one game) and three by both Luke Stevenson and Casey Cook.

Around the horn

In early March, Kentucky opened up a three-game series at home with consecutive losses to Kennesaw State by a combined score of 23-3. The Wildcats have lost only one game since.

On Sunday, Kentucky run-ruled Ole Miss 15-1 to complete the program’s first-ever sweep in Oxford and improve to 24-4 overall and 8-1 in the SEC. With this sweep at Ole Miss and their series win at Missouri two weeks ago, the Wildcats are responsible for two of the four series won by road teams in the SEC in 2024.

Kentucky also started strong a year ago, winning nine of its first 10 league games before going 7-13 the rest of the way. Does Nick Mingione’s team have staying power this time around?

There is still much work to be done, but USC has won seven of its last 10 after starting the season with just four wins in its first 16 games. The Trojans swept a two-game set from then-No. 2 Oregon State over the weekend, with wins of 2-1 on Thursday and 17-4 on Friday (Saturday’s game was canceled due to rain).

On Thursday, ace Caden Aoki allowed only one earned run and four hits in six innings. On Friday, the Trojans took advantage of six Oregon State errors (three by All-America second baseman Travis Bazzana) en route to a stress-free 13-run victory.

Brody Brecht is off to a rough start in the Big Ten. Iowa’s hard-throwing right-hander, a projected first-round pick in the 2024 MLB Draft, gave up five hits and seven earned runs in only three innings of a 16-9 loss at home to Minnesota on Friday. The previous week, in a 10-3 loss at Purdue, Brecht gave up seven hits and three earned runs in five innings.

Brecht’s strikeouts are up in 2024 — from 12.7 per nine innings in 2023 to 16.7 — but his WHIP has jumped from 1.27 to 1.63 and he’s averaging fewer than five innings per start.

Three different SEC West teams have claimed the last three national titles. LSU, the 2023 champ, is hoping to avoid the same fate as the previous two winners: finishing in last place in the division in the following season.

The Tigers dropped to 2-7 in league play after getting swept at Arkansas over the weekend.

So how does that compare to Mississippi State in 2022 and Ole Miss in 2023? The Bulldogs started 4-5 the year after their title and finished 9-21 in the SEC. Ole Miss went 1-8 in its first nine games on the way to a 6-24 league record last season.

Arkansas, meanwhile, is 8-1 in the SEC and ranked No. 1 in the nation. And although the Razorbacks are clearly an elite team — led by a fantastic starting rotation — it is worth noting that the three teams they have played (Missouri, Auburn and LSU) are a combined 4-23 in the SEC (3-15 in games not against Arkansas).

Missouri’s struggles continue. The Tigers scored a total of two runs (on 10 hits) in a weekend sweep at Vanderbilt and have now scored two runs or fewer in seven of their nine SEC games.

Missouri is hitting .144 in league games (almost 100 percentage points lower than the next-worst team) and has only nine extra-base hits in nine games.

Stanford, the only team to play in the last three College World Series, is 11-13 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-12 after losing two of three games at Utah over the weekend. The Cardinal have not missed the postseason since 2016, under former coach Mark Marquess.

Stanford suffered heavy losses from last year’s team that won the Pac-12 with a 23-7 record (five games ahead of second-place Oregon State), including its top four hitters from one of the nation’s most potent offenses as well as No. 1 pitcher Quinn Matthews. Most of those losses were expected, but the Cardinal were dealt a huge blow when All-America outfielder Braden Montgomery transferred to Texas A&M in the offseason. Montgomery, who also pitched for the Cardinal, is hitting .381 with 16 home runs and 47 RBIs for the Aggies.

Florida shook up its pitching rotation over the weekend, inserting closer Brandon Neely as the Friday night starter against visiting Mississippi State. Neeley started 10 games as a freshman (all on the weekend) but had pitched exclusively out of the bullpen since the start of the 2023 season.

He was solid through three innings, allowing one run on three hits, but stumbled in the fourth when he gave up two hits, hit two batters and walked one while retiring only one batter. His final line: five hits and five earned runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Florida rallied from a 6-1 deficit with five runs in the last two innings, winning on a walk-off single by Cade Kurland on an 0-2 count with two outs. Mississippi State bounced back with a 12-2 win on Saturday, but the Gators secured the series with a Jac Caglianone walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday.

Lamar had its 13-game winning streak snapped last Tuesday with a 6-4 loss at Houston. So how did the Cardinals respond? By sweeping Oklahoma in Norman over the weekend — the same Oklahoma team that leads the Big 12 with a 7-2 record in league play.

Lamar scored 31 runs and hit seven home runs in the three games, headlined by a 5-for-5, two-home run, six-RBI performance by DH Zak Sinner in Friday’s 13-8 win. Lamar, which last played in a Regional in 2010, is 22-5 overall and 3-0 in the Southland.

Georgia and Tennessee entered the weekend ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation in home runs, so some fireworks were expected when the two teams met at homer-friendly Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville.

The first two games lived up to the hype, with a combined 12 home runs hit as Georgia won on Friday 16-2 and Tennessee rallied for a 16-11 win on Saturday. On Sunday, however, there was only one home run hit as the Tennessee pitching staff shut out Georgia’s powerful offense in a 7-0 victory.

Georgia slugger Charlie Condon was held to one hit on Friday and no hits on Sunday but went 5-for-6 with two home runs and three RBIs on Saturday. He still leads the nation in average (.505) and home runs (19).

And finally

• TCU is working its way back into the mix in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs improved to 5-7 in the league with a three-game sweep over Houston in Fort Worth.

• Washington State senior right-hander Grant Taylor threw a one-hit complete game on Thursday against rival Washington. Taylor gave up a two-out single in the first inning and then retired 25 straight (including 17 strikeouts) to close out a 4-0 win.

• Grand Canyon freshman Connor Mattison topped Taylor’s performance on Friday night, throwing a no-hitter in the Lopes’ 4-0 win over Sacramento State.

• UCLA outfielder Payton Brennan went 7-for-7 in the Bruins’ 13-12 extra-innings victory over UCSB on Tuesday. He raised his batting average from .193 to .342 in one game.

• Louisiana has won 11 straight after sweeping a series at Texas State over the weekend. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 20-8 overall and in first place in the Sun Belt with an 8-1 record.

• Clemson stayed hot, taking two of three from Miami in Coral Gables. The Tigers held a very good Hurricanes offense to a total of five runs in three games.

• UC Irvine has raced out to an 8-1 record in the Big West and is two games up on Cal State Northridge and Cal Poly. The Anteaters are 22-3 overall.

• Nebraska is looking like the team to beat very early in the Big Ten race. The Cornhuskers improved to 20-5 overall and 3-0 in the league with a sweep over Northwestern. Nebraska plays Creighton, which is 20-4 after sweeping Charleston Southern on the road, on Tuesday at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha.

(Photo of Parks Harber courtesy of UNC Athletics)