Series to Watch: No. 19 Houston at No. 9 UCF
While some conferences have been in full swing since the beginning of March, others start league play this weekend -- like the AAC, which gets underway highlighted by a matchup of two of its best teams. Houston will travel to UCF, the only team in the league with more wins coming into conference play.
The Cougars and Knights have had seasons that are somewhat mirror images of each other. Houston started in the NCBWA top 10 and declined, especially after losing seven out of nine from Feb. 22 to March 7. Meanwhile, UCF has had a steady climb from the bottom end of the poll into the top 10.Houston has righted the ship after its tough two-week stretch and comes into its AAC opener on a 10-game win streak, thanks to a more consistent and potent offense. In March, the team is hitting .280 with 16 home runs, 34 doubles and 10 triples. The Cougars have more walks and hit-by-pitches (159) than strikeouts (157), leading to a team on-base percentage of .390. And once they get on base, that’s not the end of opponents’ worries -- they are a combined 42-for-50 on stolen base attempts. Josh Vidales, the Cougars’ leader in batting average at .370, is riding a streak of 28 consecutive games reaching base, going back to last season.
As strong has Houston has been at the plate, their weekend counterparts have been one of the best in the country. UCF leads the nation in home runs, with 38 in 26 games, and has a team on-base percentage of .424. Top to bottom, it’s a tough lineup to get out -- there are nine players with at least 14 games that are batting at least .299. Leading the charge are Tommy Williams (.414 batting average) and Dylan Moore (seven home runs, 34 RBI).
Among those looking to quiet the Knights’ bats will be Houston Friday starter Andrew Lantrip, one of the top pitchers in the conference. He is 5-1 on the year with a 1.73 ERA. Two weeks ago, he struck out a career-high 12 against Buffalo, and has 33 punch outs on the season to seven walks. His opposite in the series opener will be UCF’s Cre Finfrock, who is 5-0 in six starts with a 2.62 ERA.
Only two of the Knights’ six losses have come in a weekend series, and they are 15-2 at home. Houston is 4-1 on the road, with the one being at Texas State on Feb. 25.
Houston holds the all-time series 23-15 and has won the past three contests, including one last year’s AAC tournament, which the Cougars won 13-8. As the two meet again this season, both are looking to avoid falling into an early hold in the conference standings.
On the Hill: Jared Walsh (Georgia) vs. Wil Crowe (South Carolina)
As Georgia and No. 7 South Carolina renew their SEC rivalry this weekend, the Friday pitchers come in with contrasting backgrounds.
For Georgia starter Jared Walsh, the coveted Friday spot has been a long time coming. He underwent Tommy John surgery in his senior year of high school, so his contributions were limited to the plate in his freshman year at Georgia. In the next two seasons, he became a two-way player, but a back injury cut his 2014 season short. Now in 2015, in addition to hitting .270 in 21 starts, he’s leading the SEC in ERA at 0.96. He made his first Friday start for the Bulldogs last week.
On the other side, Wil Crowe made a name for himself in his first season at South Carolina. In 2014 he received freshman All-America honors from Baseball America and earned a spot on the All-Regional team with his complete-game shutout of Campbell in the postseason. After going 8-3 in 15 starts with a 2.75 ERA last season, he’s lowered that to 2.58 in 2015 and is tied for 15th in the country with 47 strikeouts.
In the Box: Scott Kingery and Kevin Newman (Arizona)It is not often that the top of the national hits list is the identical to the top of a lineup, but that is the case right now. Arizona two-hole hitter Kevin Newman is second in the country with 46 hits, and the only guy ahead of him on that list is the guy who is in the batter’s box when he’s in the on-deck circle. Scott Kingery, the Wildcats’ lead-off hitter, as a nation-best 49 hits.
Kingery’s .450 batting average is sixth in the country, and his 109 at-bats are far more than anyone ahead of him. Newman isn’t far behind, hitting at a .438 clip with 105 at-bats. Both juniors, they also make up the Wildcats’ up-the-middle double-play combination, with Kingery at second base and Newman at shortstop.
While Newman has the slight edge in doubles -- 11 to Kingery’s nine -- Kingery has three triples and a homer while Newman has yet to enter those categories. They have combined for just 16 strikeouts, and have also combined for 16 walks. Newman has been a slightly better threat on the bases, successfully stealing on 12 of his 14 attempts.
Arizona hosts No. 18 Oregon this weekend.
Around the Bases:
• It will be a matchup of first-place squads this weekend in College Station, Texas. Visiting Missouri is tied for first in the SEC Eastern Division with Vanderbilt, and No. 3 Texas A&M is first in the Western Division. The Aggies were the last remaining undefeated team in Division I before falling to Alabama last Saturday.
• One of the hottest hitters in the country is No. 15 Miami (Fla.) slugger David Thompson. In four games last week, he smashed two doubles, a triple and four homers for 13 RBI. He is on a 15-game hit streak as the Hurricanes head to No. 22 North Carolina this weekend.
• With 71 strikeouts in 44 innings, Navy's Luke Gillingham is starting to run away with the top spot on the national strikeout list. The next closest is UConn's Carson Cross, who has 58. The Midshipmen host Bucknell for two doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday.