College baseball: Conference races to watch in the second half of the season
With the 2017 College World Series just two months away, postseason talks are starting to heat up. But before those final eight teams battle in Omaha — and even before the 64-team field is set for full championship play — there are conference titles to be handed out.
Automatic bids and bragging rights are both on the line. Here are the top conference races to watch in the second half of the season:
Atlantic Coast Conference
Who's in the hunt: Louisville (28-4; 12-3), Clemson (29-5; 13-2), North Carolina (27-6; 12-3), Wake Forest (25-10; 9-6)
Outlook: The theme in the ACC is pitching, as Louisville, UNC and Clemson all rank in the nation's top 10 in ERA. Louisville hasn't lost a series all year and is dominant at home (21-1). The Cardinals' pitching staff holds a 2.48 ERA (second in the nation) led by the arms of Brendan McKay (4-2), Nick Bennett (3-0) and Kade McClure (3-1). They'll be tested late in the season on the road, where the Cardinals are just 4-3, with trips to Notre Dame and Clemson on the docket. ... The Tigers' offense has taken a dip by about a run per game from last year but its pitching has provided increased balance this season, making for a must-watch matchup with Louisville in May. ... UNC is averaging 17 — yes, 17 — runs per game in its last four outings.
Players to watch: Louisville's McKay isn't just a threat on the mound. The junior also plays first base and is batting .400 with six home runs and a .680 slugging percentage. ... North Carolina ace J.B. Bukauskas is fourth in the nation in strikeouts (75) and is 5-0 in eight starts. ... Opposing pitchers are working around Clemson slugger Seth Beer, who leads the nation in walks after hitting 18 home runs last year. The lefty outfielder still has nine bombs so far this year, and if Chase Pinder (.310) and Reed Rohlman (.361) can continue to get on base in front of him, this will be one scary lineup come the summer.
Key remaining series: Clemson at UNC (April 28-30); Louisville at Clemson (May 12-14); Wake Forest at Florida State (May 12-14)
Big 12 Conference
Who's in the hunt: TCU (27-5; 8-1), Texas Tech (29-7; 6-3), Oklahoma (27-9; 5-4), West Virginia (19-12; 6-3)
Outlook: TCU, the consensus No. 1 team heading into the year, hit a rough patch with a 3-4 stretch in mid-March. But the Horned Frogs have bounced back with a 13-game winning streak ahead of a challenging final stretch of the regular season. TCU's biggest strength is experience, having returned eight of its nine regulars in the lineup and the entire starting rotation. ... Texas Tech picked up back-to-back big nonconference wins in early March, taking down LSU and Arizona. The road hasn't been quite as smooth in conference play so far, as the Red Raiders dropped its series with Oklahoma two weeks ago and fell short of a sweep vs. Baylor last week after coughing up a five-run lead in the ninth inning. ... Oklahoma hasn't won more than two consecutive games in conference play after a blistering start to the season.
Players to watch: TCU starting pitcher Jared Janczak is 6-0 with a 1.63 ERA in 55 innings. Backing him up out of the bullpen, Durbin Feltman has grown into a reliable closer with eight saves and just two earned runs allowed this season. ... Texas Tech's Steven Gingery is 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA. In his last two outings, he's pitched 11.1 innings with 13 strikeouts and just one earned run. ... Steele Walker is Oklahoma's biggest power threat with five homers, 10 doubles and a .346 batting average.
Key remaining series: TCU at Texas Tech (April 28-30); Texas Tech at West Virginia (May 5-7); TCU at Oklahoma (May 12-14)
Big West Conference
Who's in the hunt: Cal State Fullerton (21-10; 5-1), Long Beach State (20-11; 5-1)
Outlook: Coastal Carolina's run to a national title in 2016 proved that non-Power 5 programs are to be wreckoned with in the postseason. The Big West has two contenders looking to play the role of Cinderella this year. Cal State Fullerton rolled along to a 16-5 start to the season. Then came an 0-5 stretch, including a three-game sweep to Long Beach State in what was considered nonconference action. The Titans have since put its slump in the rearview mirror and have come out hitting in Big West play, averaging 9.5 runs per game over its last six contests. ... Long Beach State's head-to-head sweep was powered by situational hitting and a shutdown bullpen. In the opening game, the Dirtbags scored three in the eighth to pull out a 6-4 victory. In the final game, Long Beach State walked off in a 1-0 extra inning battle that marked its first sweep over Cal State Fullerton since 2002. These two rivals meet again to close out the season, this time with their conference records on the line.
Players to watch: Freshman infielder Sahid Valenzuela has been a catalyst in Cal State Fullerton's recent offensive fireworks. He's 9-for-15 with five runs in the past three games and is batting .364 for the season. ... Long Beach State's Darren McCaughan threw eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out 13 in his most recent start against UC Riverside. He's one of two Dirtbags with eight starts this season.
Key remaining series: Long Beach State at Cal State Fullerton (May 25-27)
Who's in the hunt: Oregon State (28-1; 12-0), Arizona (23-8, 7-5), Stanford (17-10, 4-5)
Outlook: In a conference without a postseason tournament, it's hard to see anyone catching Oregon State for the crown. The Beavers have already swept Arizona and Stanford and have held opponents to four runs or less in five straight outings. But a flurry of roadtrips await in the second half. Will that provide some drama out west? ... Arizona, last year's CWS runner-up, is fourth in the nation with a .329 batting average and has scored at least nine runs 14 times. Its pitching staff, however, has a 3.97 team ERA. ... Stanford has struggled to find consistency all season long but appears to be on the right track. The Cardinal have won four of their past five games since its three-game sweep to Oregon State. It wouldn't be surprising to see Stanford make a run in coach Mark Marquess' 41st and final season at the helm.
Players to watch: There are five pitchers in the nation who still have an ERA of less than 1.00. Two of them are Beavers. Oregon State ace Luke Heimlich is 5-0 with a 0.77 ERA in 58.2 innings pitched. Shutdown reliever Jake Mulholland adds to the nation's top staff with a 0.59 ERA in 30.2 innings. ... Arizona's combo of JJ Matijevic and Jared Oliva have combined for 47 extra base hits and 76 RBIs this season.
Key remaining series: Oregon State at Washington (April 13-15); Arizona at Stanford (April 27-29)
Who's in the hunt: LSU (23-11; 7-5), Kentucky (23-11; 8-4), Auburn (25-10; 8-4), Florida (22-11; 6-6), South Carolina (21-11; 7-5), Arkansas (26-8; 8-4), Mississippi State (23-12; 8-4)
Outlook: What a wild SEC tournament this will be. Eleven teams already have 20 victories, 10 of which are within two games of each other in the standings. With so many contenders, let's go division-by-division:
East: Kentucky lost its first SEC series of the season last week against Mississippi State, giving up 10 runs twice. ... South Carolina took one on the chin to North Carolina on Tuesday in a 20-5 blowout. The Gamecocks still have showdowns with MSU, Florida and Kentucky to look forward to. ... The Gators' pitching staff keeps them in games with a 3.07 ERA but its offense (.246 team batting average) ranks in the lower third of Division I.
West: Arkansas has bashed 45 home runs so far, good for 10th in the nation. The Razorbacks dropped two of three to LSU last week. ... Auburn just lost two of three to Texas A&M while averaging just two runs per game. ... Mississippi State is tearing the cover off the ball with 25 runs in its past three games. MSU defeated UK twice last week. ... LSU lost six of nine entering last week but bounced back to take a series against Arkansas, including a four-hit shutout in Sunday's rubber game.
Players to watch: Pitchers can't get MSU's Brent Rooker out right now. The slugger clubbed three home runs in a game vs. Kentucky and hit .625 with six homers for the week en route to being named SEC player of the week for the second straight time. ... Alex Faedo is the big name in the Gators rotation but Brady Singer has been even more impressive this season at 4-1 with a 1.60 ERA and 47 strikeouts. ... LSU's Jared Poche' became a household name when he nearly tossed consecutive no-hitters to begin the year. He's continued to cruise at a 6-1 record and a 2.32 ERA.
Key remaining series: Mississippi State at South Carolina (April 14-16); Arkansas at Auburn (April 21-23); Auburn at LSU (May 11-13); Kentucky at Florida (May 18-20)