Series to Watch: Ole Miss vs. LSU

A month into the regular season, SEC play is set to begin this weekend. The beginning of play in the nation’s premier baseball conference means matchup between big-time programs week in and week out.

Six SEC teams are ranked in the NCBWA top 30 -- tied with the Pac-12 for most of any conference -- with five of those teams all falling in the top eight. While none of those teams are playing each other this week, there is still plenty to look forward to, starting with Ole Miss’ trip to Alex Box Stadium to take on the third-ranked Tigers of LSU.

MISSISSIPPI VS. NO. 3 LSU

9-7         16-1
Alex Box Stadium | Baton Rouge, La.
Friday, March 13: 8 p.m. ET | SECN+
Saturday, March 14: 8 p.m. ET | SECN+
Sunday, March 15: 4 p.m. ET | SECN
LSU is the program with six national championships, but it was the Rebels who made the College World Series last season. That was their first appearance in Omaha since 1972. The Tigers made 16 College World Series appearances in between those years. Order has been restored in 2015, at least in the form of rankings. LSU is third in the NCBWA poll and no lower than fifth in other major polls, including a top spot in the Baseball America rankings. Meanwhile, Ole Miss dropped out of the NCBWA poll after a 16-4 loss to Stetson last Sunday.

It would not be wise to sleep on these Rebels, though. This team has had an up-and-down season so far, with the ups including wins against top-20 teams UCF and Louisville. Ole Miss split a Tuesday-Wednesday series with the Cardinals this week and now stands at 9-7 entering league play.

Freshman second baseman Kyle Watson is enjoying a breakout first season, hitting an (easily) team-best .350 in 12 starts. He gets on base 50.9 percent of the time, and when he gets there, he’s dangerous -- he has stolen successfully in seven of eight attempts. Starting pitchers Brady Bramlett and Christian Trent both have sub-3.00 ERAs and have combined for 57 strikeouts in 46.1 innings.

On the other side, LSU is coming off a big weekend of three wins at the Houston College Classic. The Tigers’ weekend rotation of Jared Poche, Alex Lange and Joake Godfrey is one of the best in the nation. The three have combined ERA of 1.79. Lange leads the way at 1.57 with 26 strikeouts in 23 innings. Poche, the Friday starter, is a lefty, but Mississippi is 5-1 against southpaws this season.

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ offense features eight hitters with at least 10 starts who are batting better than .300. Shortstop Alex Bregman (.343) holds the team lead or is tied for it in RBI (15), home runs (3), doubles (6) and steals (12).

Last season, LSU went in to Oxford and took two out of three. If the Rebels can pull off returning the favor this year, that would make a loud statement as to how seriously they can content in the SEC.

On the Hill: Anthony Shew (San Francisco) vs. Brandon Bailey (Gonzaga)

  GS W-L ERA IP H R ER BB K B/AVG

  Anthony Shew
4 1-2 3.03 29.2 18 11 10 7 22 .171

  Brandon Bailey
4 3-1 2.17 29.0 23 9 7 6 29 .217

Anthony Shew and Brandon Bailey will take the field opposite each other at 9 p.m. ET Friday in Spokane, and both pitchers are coming off of nearly identical starts.

Last week, Shew tossed eight shutout innings in San Francisco’s 4-0 win against UC Riverside. He gave up four hits and struck out 10. His Friday counterpart yielded three hits and no runs in 8.1 innings, while also striking out 10 as Gonzaga topped Tulane 2-0. Bailey took a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

Shew, a junior right-hander, has a 1.12 ERA in has past three starts, three runs in 24 innings pitched. Bailey, a sophomore righty, has set career highs in strikeouts in each of his past two starts, as he allowed one run in eight innings two Thursdays ago against Purdue.

The similarities don’t stop with their previous outings. These are two teams trying to get on track this season, and both had a productive week in that respect. San Francisco, which started the season with 10 consecutive losses, was 3-12 before a mid-week trip to No. 5 Oregon. The Dons promptly took both games from the Ducks.

Gonzaga, meanwhile went into a mid-week two-game series with SEC-foe Arkansas under .500, and came out with two wins and now stands at 9-8 on the year. The Bulldogs have won four of five after losing four of the previous five.

As both teams try to continue their turnarounds, it will be up to the aces on Friday.

In the Box: KJ Harrison and Gabe Clark, Oregon State

KJ Harrison.
Oregon State Athletics
KJ Harrison.
As of Thursday, there are 12 players in the country tied atop the home run list with six. Two of those players wear the orange, white and black of Oregon State. In 17 games, the Beavers have already equaled their home run total from 2014 with 21. And the leader of the offensive charge is doing so in his first season in Corvallis.

A freshman first baseman out of Hawaii, KJ Harrison has a .441 batting average to lead the team and sit at 37th in the country. One of three Beavers to start every game in 2015 thus far, he also leads the team in hits (30), doubles (seven), triples (eight), RBI (24), slugging (.897) and on-base percentage (.530). Last Friday, he hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning to lift Oregon State to a 2-1 win against Fresno State.

His home run output is matched by junior infielder Gabe Clark, who has six this season after knocking just one over the fence in his first two seasons. Clark has done so in five fewer games than Harrison. He is hitting .349 with 19 RBI and an .837 slugging percentage, and he showed off his patience in Tuesday’s win against Portland by drawing three walks.

This weekend, No. 30 Oregon State (14-3) will open Pac-12 play when it takes its homer-happy lineup to No. 20 Arizona State (10-5), where opponents have struggled to get the ball out of yard. The Sun Devils have given up eight dingers in 15 games.

Around the Bases

• No. 17 Florida State is on an 11-game win streak following two big mid-week victories against No. 12 UCF. The Seminoles are at Wake Forest this weekend.
• One more unbeaten team remains in Division I -- No. 8 Texas A&M. The Aggies play host to Auburn as SEC play begins.
• Kevin Barker of UC Davis leads the nation in stolen bases with 16. He will be looking to keep that lead when the Aggies travel to Fresno State.