The 19th annual Shriners College Classic is set to commence Friday, March 1. It will be an all-Texas college baseball affair at Minute Maid Park in Houston, as No. 15 Baylor, No. 18 TCU, Texas A&M, Houston, Texas State, and Rice prepare to face off. The action can be streamed on MLB.com.
So, what will we be watching this weekend?
Can Texas A&M continue its hot start?
The Aggies are off to an 8-2 start and have made some history along the way, becoming the first SEC school to reach the 2,700-win plateau on Feb. 20.
Texas A&M has had the luxury of playing all ten of their games at home at Blue Bell Park against unranked competition. They now head to Minute Maid Park and open the Shriners Classic against No. 15 Baylor and No. 18 TCU for their first big tests of the season.
John Doxakis has made two impressive Friday night starts, allowing just four hits and no earned runs with 20 strikeouts to just two walks in his first 13 innings. He’ll have to be at his best against a Baylor lineup that is in the top 5 of most statistical categories. The Aggies suffered a minor setback in a mid-week loss to Incarnate Word but can get right back on track in Houston.
Can Baylor’s bats be slowed down?
The Bears lineup is rolling right now, sitting at 8-0 while scoring 10 or more runs in each of their last four games. That’s more impressive when you realize they are doing it without injured All-American catcher Shea Langeliers.
Instead, it’s been Davis Wendzel and Davion Downey leading the charge. Wendzel has been borderline ridiculous, registering at least one hit in each of his first eight games for a .516 batting average. He hit his first two home runs of the season in the same game his last time out. Downey is hitting .481 with a team-best three home runs and also went 3-for-3 with two homers against Dallas Baptist on Tuesday.
The bats were 🔥 in Waco last night!— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) February 27, 2019
Wendzel smacked out two home runs and Downey had a pair of 💣s and finished the game with three hits.pic.twitter.com/TOq67mT9QS
As a team, Baylor is posting a top 5 slash line of .375/.469/.584. While the starting pitching as a whole hasn’t been as impressive as the hitting, Hayden Kettler has been able to set the tone, yet to allow a run across his first two starts while striking out 17 in his first 13 innings. The expected Kettler vs. Doxakis matchup to open the Shriner’s Classic may be the best pitching matchup of the weekend.
How will TCU fare in its second big tournament of the season?
TCU opened up 2019 in the preseason top 25 for the 10th consecutive season. The Horned Frogs took that ranking to the inaugural MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament. While they opened up the season on the wrong side of a 2-0 shutout to nationally-ranked Cal State Fullerton, they caught everyone’s attention by handling No. 1 Vanderbilt in an impressive 10-2 victory.
So, what can we expect from TCU in its second tourney of the season?
There were plenty of question marks surrounding the new look lineup with five big names to replace. Thus far, seniors Johnny Rizer and Josh Watson are off to hot starts, helping to answer those questions. Rizner is batting a team-high .429, helping the offense not miss much of a beat, at least yet.
The starting pitching is where there was a sense of stability with Nick Lodolo and Jared Janczak anchoring the rotation, but it hasn’t gone exactly that way. Lodolo has looked good, suffering two tough-luck losses, but Janczak has been hit hard in his first two starts, only lasting a combined 6.1 innings while allowing six runs. Without any ranked teams on its slate in Houston, maybe this is where Lodolo and Janczak can find their groove and really make TCU a more balanced attack.
Is Houston back on track?
The Cougars opened the season in rather exciting fashion walking it off in the ninth in each of their first two games. They then dropped two in a row in extra innings before No. 24 Arizona came to town. Houston took two of three and look ready for the tough Shriners slate ahead.
One thing we know is that opposing pitchers should avoid Joe Davis right now. The senior first baseman is the heart of the offense, with seven of his nine hits going for extra bases, including four home runs. On the bump, Fred Villarreal is showing he may be one of the more valuable bullpen pieces in college baseball, making three solid appearances thus far in 2019. We’ll see right off the bat if Houston can continue its successful run against ranked teams, facing TCU on opening night.
Can Texas State surprise?
The Bobcats are probably the most pleasant surprise in the Shriners Classic. Texas State hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2011, but it has come out firing in 2019 playing like a tourney-bound team. The Bobcats have a win against Missouri State and come into Minute Maid Park winners of three of their last four.
Keep your eyes on Jaxon Williams, Jaylen Hubbard, and John Wuthrich. The trio is off to a hot start, with Williams leading the way, 15-for-29 on the season. You’re not going to find a lot of home runs on this team — just 31 of their 82 hits have gone for extra bases — but they have been manufacturing runs. Connor Reich is off to a hot start as well. The senior righty held Missouri State to just one hit in his first start of the season, striking out seven and walking none. In fact, he hasn’t walked any in 13.2 innings this season.
If the Bobcats can win two of their three games against Rice, Houston, or Baylor, we may have to pay close attention in San Marcos, Texas.
A new era of Rice baseball continues to unfold
While Texas State is off to a surprising start, Rice baseball is off to a disappointing one. To be fair, the Owls lost five in a row against teams that have earned top 25 spots in different polls in Texas, Arizona, and UC Irvine.
Of course, a midweek 25-run output heading into the Shriners Classic should be the momentum boost Rice needs.
Matt Bragga took the reins from Wayne Graham and has one of college baseball’s best pitchers in Matt Canterino. The junior righty was lights out against Rhode Island in the opener but struggled against the Anteaters. If he can right the ship against Texas State and give Rice the start it needs in the Shriners, the Owls could get back on track.
Trei Cruz is one to watch. Coming off a Freshman All-American campaign, Cruz exploded in the third game of the season, blasting two home runs to go along with two triples and nine RBI. He came alive on Wednesday, going 2-for-4 with his fourth homer of the year, his second round trip in consecutive games.
Will anyone leave undefeated?
It seems like a daunting task, doesn't it? Early in the season, it's tough to say as new lineups and rotations are still feeling each other out, but Baylor's offense seems in a zone all its own right now. The Bears don't face a ranked team, and two of the teams they face — Texas A&M and Texas State — are coming off midweek losses. Rice sure looked to be red-hot and replicating the 25 runs scored on Wednesday will help hang with this Baylor offense. What the Bears are accomplishing is obviously not sustainable, but they haven't showed any signs of slowing down just yet, giving them the best chance to come out unscathed on Monday.