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Weekend Preview: FSU-Ga. Tech Highlight ACC Start

Weekend Preview highlights some of the most important story lines from around the game of college baseball.
Florida State-Georgia Tech Highlights ACC Openers
Harvard at (1) Florida
Fresno State at (2) Texas A&M
San Francisco at (3) Oregon State
Notre Dame at (4) Louisville
Xavier at (5) Vanderbilt
(6) Miami at Virginia Tech
Ball State at (7) Louisiana State
Southern California at (8) Texas Christian
Texas Tech at (9) California
(10) Virginia at Duke
(11) Oregon at (24) Mississippi State
Pittsburgh at (12) North Carolina
Grambling State at (13) Mississippi
Texas at (14) UCLA
(20) Georgia Tech at (15) Florida State
(16) Louisiana-Lafayette at Troy
Boston College at (17) North Carolina State
Western Illinois at (18) Arkansas
(19) Michigan at Hawaii
(21) Houston at (23) Alabama
Abilene Christian at (22) Oklahoma State
(25) East Carolina at Rice
After three weeks of the season, the Atlantic Coast Conference trails only the Southeastern Conference in winning percentage (.792 to .762) and number of teams in the Top 25 (eight to seven). The conference, which won the national championship last year for the first time since 1955, appears to be poised for another outstanding season. “If records are any indication then there’s no question that everybody seems to be improved from last year,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said. “It’s just a league that every weekend is a challenge.” Martin and Florida State, as usual, are in the heart of the action. The Seminoles (10-3) are ranked No. 15 and begin ACC play with a tough test this weekend, as No. 20 Georgia Tech, the last undefeated team in the country at 12-0, comes to Tallahassee. The Yellow Jackets missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2007, due in part to their struggles on the mound (4.83 team ERA). So far this season, their pitching has been much better, thanks to an infusion of talent this fall from the fourth-ranked recruiting class. Righthander Jonathan Hughes, an unsigned second-round pick of the Orioles last June, has stepped into the rotation and is 3-0, 0.50, but Georgia Tech has gotten contributions from six other freshmen pitchers. The early success of the pitching staff has encouraged coach Danny Hall. “It gives you confidence heading in, but we also know the ACC is a great conference with a lot of great teams,” Hall said. “We’re going to have to continue to pitch well once we get into conference play.” Florida State is also relying on several young players, and they are still settling into their new roles. “We’re still doing some things that kind of make my hair stand up,” Martin said. Things haven’t always come easy for the Seminoles this season. Even Wednesday, when three pitchers combined for the school’s first no-hitter since 1998, Florida State required a walk-off to defeat Toledo, 3-2. But the Seminoles has found a way to keep winning while their young players figure things out. John Sansone, who moved from first base to third this season, is the team’s leading hitter. He is batting .431/.540/.627 with two home runs and four stolen bases. After starting the game with a six-game suspension, DH Quincy Nieporte has started strong, hitting .409/.481/.500 in six games. While Florida State has played well against nonconference competition, Martin knows conference play brings bigger challenges. “We’re off to a good start but now is when the season really begins,” Martin said. “We’re playing a team that has not been beaten. That in itself is a tremendous challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing how we respond. “We’ve played a good schedule, but this is part of the season where you hope that we’re getting better every day.”

— Teddy Cahill

Ducks Winging It With Lefthanders [caption id="attachment_162879" align="alignnone" width="600"]David Peterson David Peterson (Photo courtesy Evans)[/caption] In his 30-plus years of coaching, George Horton has never “had the honor” of coaching a game at Dudy Noble Field—the home of Mississippi State and often considered one of the premier venues in the country. He’s also never been to Alabama’s newly renovated Sewell-Thomas Stadium, but neither have most coaches. That one just opened this year. Horton will get the chance to visit both this weekend, along with his No. 11 Oregon Ducks, in a four-day excursion into Southeastern Conference territory in which Oregon will play a Thursday game at No. 23 Alabama followed by a three-game series at No. 24 Mississippi State. Horton said he’s looking forward to the multitude of challenges the trip should provide—the team’s final tune-up before Pac-12 Conference play begins next week against Utah. “They’re two well-coached top 25 teams,” Horton said. “We’ve changed time zones. We’ve got finals next week. We’re playing four games, one against Alabama, and then we get on a bus and go to Starkville. So there’s a lot of challenges that we’re going to get a good read on how tough we are. “It’ll be a good dress rehearsal I think for the rigors of our conference.” The Ducks carry an 8-2 record into the weekend, coming off an impressive series win against a hot UC Santa Barbara team in Eugene. Aside from an offensive outburst here and there, the Ducks’ early success has stemmed from the strength of their pitching staff. Oregon’s weekend rotation of lefthanders Cole Irvin, Matt Krook and David Peterson looked like one of the nation’s strongest on paper coming into the season, and they’ve performed like it. In the last two weekends, the three have combined for a 0.63 ERA, allowing only 17 hits and striking out 60 batters to 12 walks in 43 innings. The staff as a whole has a 1.61 ERA through 10 games, with an elite closer in junior Stephen Nogosek (0 ER, 13 K in 8.1 IP) shutting opponents down at the end of games. “We had high expectations for our starting pitching, and that has, I guess, arrived sooner than I thought it might,” Horton said. “Going into it I thought we might hit our best stride going into March with all three of those guys for different reasons. But they’ve gotten off to a tremendous start. If that maintains itself, we’ve got a heck of a chance.” Those pitchers will face their toughest test yet against the Bulldogs, who are hitting .317/.420/.476 as a team. DH Jack Kruger (.479/.576/.854) is off to a hot start, and will now face his former team. Kruger began his college career at Oregon, before transferring to Orange Coast (Calif.) JC for his sophomore season and then moving on to Mississippi State this year. As strong as the pitching has been for Oregon, the offense has been on the opposite end of the spectrum. Five of the Ducks’ nine starters are hitting below .200, and the team as a whole is batting .208/.309/.335. It won’t be easy for those hitters this weekend, especially against Mississippi State ace righthander Dakota Hudson (1-1, 1.50), who is one of the top college pitchers in this year’s draft class. “There’s some areas as far as our team production that I think we have a lot of room for improvement,” Horton said. “We’re not playing as good a defense as I think we’re capable of. Some of the errors that have shown up in the outfield and on the mound from the pitchers are errors that we can hopefully see those go away or cut down for sure. “And then the fact that we’re not hitting a lick. We’re hitting way under our capability, and we’re still 8-2. There’s a silver lining in that for sure.”

— Michael Lananna

Crimson Tide Readies For Challenging Homestand [caption id="attachment_163739" align="alignnone" width="600"]Geoffrey Bramblett Geoffrey Bramblett[/caption] After a year of having to bus over to Hoover, Ala., to play its “home” games, Alabama finally has a park to call its own again in the extensively rebuilt Sewell-Thomas Stadium. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Crimson Tide sits 10-2 and entered the Top 25 this week for the first time since 2014. “There’s such an energy in the ballpark,” seventh-year head coach Mitch Gaspard said. “It’s a fabulous, beautiful $42 million facility. It’s got all the bells and whistles, and it really has provided such a positive energy both for our players and our fanbase, and excitement for the program. We had two sellouts the first weekend. All our crowds have been really big.” Of course, it helps to have a dominant pitching staff, too. Through Tuesday’s games, the Tide owned the third-best ERA in the entire country at 1.33. They’ve thrown two shutouts and have allowed more than two runs just twice in 12 games. The 10-week gauntlet of Southeastern Conference play begins next week, but rather than allow itself a simple tuneup weekend, the Crimson Tide welcomes No. 11 Oregon on Thursday night, followed by a three-game series with No. 21 Houston. The Oregon game was essentially a spur-of-the-moment addition, as the Ducks were already coming East to play Mississippi State and both teams had an opening. The Tide will keep its rotation basically the same, with usual midweek starter Jon Keller getting the ball against Oregon, followed by Geoffrey Bramblett—coming off a dominant start against Notre Dame—and Jake Walters in their normal Friday and Saturday spots against Houston. Gaspard admits the Tide will have to “see where we’re at” on Sunday as it’s without No. 3 starter Nick Eicholtz, recovering from a forearm flexor strain. The good news is if the Tide has to lean on its bullpen, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Juniors Thomas Burrows and Matt Foster have combined to make 12 appearances and throw 13 2/3 innings without allowing a run. Both can throw into the mid-90s, Foster from the right side and Burrows from the left, and they give the Tide a considerable ability to shorten games. “I think we’re going to be a team that’s just going to be able to manufacture and execute some runs, and really lean on our pitching staff,” Gaspard said. “We’ve shown to play really good defense. That’s kind of been our formula for 12 games. I don’t see that changing a whole lot.” Houston, ranked No. 12 in the preseason, went winless at the Shriners Hospital for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park two weeks ago, part of what became a five-game losing streak, before bouncing back with a series win against Baylor. The Cougars have had to fight through injuries to offensive sparkplug Josh Vidales, out with a broken hamate, and the suspension of No. 2 starter Seth Romero for a violation of team rules before the season. “We’ve gotta get healthy, that’s the No. 1 thing,” Houston head coach Todd Whitting said. “We’ve gotta get Vidales back and get (outfielder Corey) Julks going. I think once we get those two pieces of the puzzle back in our offense, I think we’ll be pretty good. I still think it’s a good team. That weekend (of the Shriners College Classic), I said going in that that tournament doesn’t really dictate how you’re going to be. . . . You get all Omaha-caliber teams in there, and if you get caught not having your ‘A’ game, that’s going to happen.” Romero returned to Houston’s rotation last Sunday and threw five shutout innings to win the rubber game of the Baylor series. A Freshman All-American last year, he provides immediate stability behind dependable Friday starter Andrew Lantrip. Houston’s offense has shown more depth in terms of power than it did a year ago, a style that should play well in Sewell-Thomas. While Houston was largely dependent on the now departed Chris Iriart for its power output in 2015, Whitting now feels like five of his first six hitters have the potential to run balls out of the yard at any time. Freshman Joe Davis has quickly emerged as the centerpiece. The Houston coaches expected he could hit for power, and he already has three homers in his first 11 games. But he’s also hitting .467 and has just five strikeouts, showing a more advanced approach than even his own coaches expected. This weekend’s series is the return trip for Houston, as the Cougars took two of three from Alabama at home last year. But Whitting knows this go-around’s going to be a different type of challenge. “Their pitching’s been off the charts so far,” he said. “Their ERA is almost zero, down to nothing. Offensively, they’ll be athletic. They’re going to be a really good team. I thought they had a good team last year. Mitch does a good job over there. We’ll have our hands full going into their place this year—brand new stadium and all the energy that goes with that.”

2019 MLB All-Rookie Team

Baseball America's annual All-Rookie team, featuring prominent names like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Pete Alonso, Yordan Alvarez & more.

— Jim Shonerd

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