At the midway point of the season, the American Athletic Conference has a strong case as college baseball’s most surprising league. The AAC ranks fourth in conference RPI, with seven of its eight teams ranking inside the top 85. Each of those seven teams look like a legitimate regional contender, and that depth will help the conference send more teams to the NCAA tournament than it did in its inaugural 2014 campaign, when just two AAC teams went to regionals (one of them Louisville, which is no longer in the conference).
UCF and Houston have spent most of the season in the Top 25, but the teams at the top of the standings are South Florida (5-1 in the league) and Memphis (4-2). No one had any expectations for the Tigers heading into the season, but they are building a nice postseason résumé with a 21-8 overall record, a No. 52 RPI and a big series win against Houston this past weekend.
Memphis is one of the most pleasant surprises in the nation’s most pleasantly surprising conference, and the Tigers look set to benefit from the AAC's strength of schedule.“Just talking amongst the coaches, we feel like our league is somewhat under appreciated because it’s only the second year of the league, some people don’t even know what it’s called yet,” Memphis coach Daron Schoenrock said. “And because of that, they really don’t know who’s in it. When you look at the makeup of this league, there are a lot of schools that are very committed to high quality baseball, from the standpoint of coaching staffs and facilities and everything -- a lot of committed programs that recruit at a high level.
"The league has been fun. And I don’t see a huge difference between the kind of lineups you have to face and the power five conferences. This league is good.”
Schoenrock spent seven years in the SEC as an assistant at Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi State, so he has a good frame of reference when he discusses the level of competition in the American. His Memphis team has also been able to hold its own against SEC foes in midweek competition, splitting a pair of games against Arkansas in late March and beating Mississippi State this week.
Wily fifth-year senior Alex Gunn threw seven innings of one-run ball against the Bulldogs, improving to 3-0 and a 1.80 ERA in five midweek starts this year. He missed 2014 with Tommy John surgery and wasn’t quite ready to step into the weekend rotation when the season began, allowing talented freshman Connor Alexander to earn a rotation spot.
And having Gunn as a big gun in the midweeks has been important for Memphis. One quirk of the AAC is all eight teams make the conference tournament, which de-emphasizes regular-season series just a bit, and perhaps makes it a little easier to save a good pitcher for those tough midweek games against SEC-caliber opposition.
Meanwhile, Alexander has been a revelation, going 4-0, 1.82. Schoenrock is very excited about his future, calling him a “quiet assassin” who pounds the zone with three quality pitches, headlined by a sinker that can bump the low 90s and peaked at 93 this past weekend.
“It’s a real easy delivery, and I really compare Connor at this stage of the game -- this may sound crazy, but I had Brandon Webb at Kentucky, his freshman and sophomore seasons,” Schoenrock said. “He was a sinkerball guy, and he learned how to keep his movement in the vertical plane in the strike zone. A lot of guys with movement, they run out of the zone or hit guys. [Alexander] keeps his movement in the zone, it’s more sink than run. That’s what Brandon had to learn to do, turn that run into sink. I see a lot of similarities between him and Webb. He’s got secondary feel. The curveball is more of a third pitch, but he’s got good feel for a changeup for a younger guy.”
The other two weekend starters, Caleb Wallingford (3-3, 2.53) and Dylan Toscano (4-1, 3.05), have also pounded the zone, walking just eight batters apiece in 46.1 and 41.1 innings, respectively. Neither is overpowering -- Wallingford is a mid-80s lefty with pitchability, and Toscano is a high-energy senior bulldog who can bump 90 or 91 but pitches mostly in the 80s. It might not be a flashy rotation, but it’s very competitive, like Memphis as a whole.
“The team’s just slicing this thing up, the chemistry’s good. It’s kind of a team that’s just plugging along,” Schoenrock said. “Nothing great, but really no deficiencies right now.”The bullpen might be the team’s greatest strength. Schoenrock said the trio of Nolan Blackwood, Blake Myers and Craig Caufield gives his team enormous confidence that it can protect leads and allows Memphis to shorten games significantly. Blackwood, a submariner whose velocity has jumped from 84-86 last year to 88-91 as a sophomore this year, has yet to allow a run, posting a 0.00 ERA with 11 saves in 10.2 innings. That velocity is very unusual from such a low slot, and his fastball really jumps on hitters. He also complements it with two much-improved secondary pitches this year, which has been another big key to his development.
Myers (2-0, 1.32) is a fifth-year senior lefty with good movement on his 86-88 fastball and two legit offspeed pitches, giving him the ability to cross-count hitters. And Caufield (3-0, 1.50), a fourth-year junior righty, has the best stuff on the staff with his 92-93 fastball and power breaking ball at 80-82. “The big change he’s made is his fastball command has improved so much, and that’s opened up a whole new world for him,” Schoenrock said.
Improvement is a common theme for this Memphis team, which is better in all phases than it was a year ago, thanks to major individual improvements by a large number of players. The Tigers have lowered their team ERA from 3.97 last year to 2.78 this year. They have raised their team batting average from .269 last year to .291 this year. They are hitting for dramatically more power, slugging .401 as a team after slugging just .338 last year. Even their fielding percentage is up from .966 to .970.
“Every day’s a little different with this team. I guess what this team has done is we’ve won games several different ways now,” Schoenrock said. “Early in the season, we were pitching at a pretty high level and just doing enough. The last little streak here, we’ve made some phenomenal defensive plays and swung the bat at the right times. It hasn’t really all come together, but based on the parity that’s in college baseball now, I guess it’s come together good enough.”
Three Memphis hitters who have taken the biggest steps forward from a year ago are Tucker Tubbs, Darien Tubbs and Zach Schritenthal, all of whom hit .244 or worse last year, and all of whom are hitting .311 or better this year. Darien Tubbs and Schritenthal were pressed into duty as freshmen last year, and Schoenrock said both got “overwhelmed” a little bit. Tubbs has gotten stronger physically and is now able to drive the ball better, after being mostly a slap-and-bunt player last year. He’s also a very good defensive center fielder and a nice table-setter atop the lineup. Schritenthal recently moved up in the lineup to the No. 2 hole, where he is a good fit thanks to his nice lefthanded swing and ability to spray the ball around the field. He doesn’t have huge tools, but he’s a steady, heady player who does a lot to help the team win.
Tubbs is a senior with loads of experience who has blossomed into a dangerous run producer as a senior. He leads the team with five homers and 30 RBIs, joining leading hitter Kane Barrow (.386/.402/.553) to make a formidable duo in the heart of the order. Barrow was a standout junior-college player who had a solid first season at Memphis in 2014, but he has gotten much better in his second year at the D-I level.
And Memphis has performed at a high level mostly without their most talented player, toolsy outfielder Jake Little, who has been limited to 22 at-bats by a severely pulled hamstring. His absence allowed sophomore Chris Carrier to get more at-bats, and Carrier has put his intriguing raw power to use, hitting four homers and driving in 17. Schoenrock said Little is close to returning, at least in a DH capacity, and figures to get some at-bats this weekend against Cincinnati. He figures to give Memphis another jolt down the stretch as he gets healthier.
But Memphis has gotten contributions from many different players and does not rely too heavily on any single individual. Maybe the Tigers aren’t flashy, but they do a lot of things well, and they have made it clear that they are a force to be reckoned with in the ultra-competitive AAC.