<
>

Ranking the conference races

After a while, this can begin to feel like a windows-down victory lap through the South.

By "this," I mean the duty of reporting on and discussing the most intriguing teams and series in this space each week. We try to be organic, but it's pretty simple: If you're looking for high-quality college baseball, it's difficult to take your eyes off the SEC. She sashays by every week, giving you South Carolina-Arkansas or Florida-Vanderbilt, and what are you supposed to do?

According to the latest USA Today coaches' poll, the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 each have three teams ranked in the top 10 -- Cal State Fullerton, at No. 4, is the odd team out -- and the SEC has the next two, No. 11 South Carolina and No. 12 Arkansas. If you go four more spots, the league smiles and serves you two more of its teams -- No. 16 Ole Miss and No. 17 Mississippi State.

The point: When the SEC accounts for seven of the top 17 teams in the country, there is a bounty of intrigue every weekend, and I just can't resist. If the SEC gods give me Kentucky at LSU, I'm going to make it one of our highlighted series of the week. I just am (see below!).

But I realize that good ball is being played in other parts of the country, and it doesn't deserve to be treated like a cheap bucket of BP balls. So when I say that we are ranking the top five conference races by level of intrigue and leaving the SEC out, know that we could have left a plate for the Southern boys to eat, too.

Here are my top five conference races to watch in April and May.

1. Atlantic 10

A little curveball for ya. No, the A-10 won't be confused with a power conference, but don't say it's not interesting.

Saint Louis (19-10, 5-1) and George Washington (11-17, 5-1) are tied for the conference lead, and then there are 11 teams within three games of those two.

As a whole, the Billikens don't do anything spectacularly well, which may be a sign that this isn't sustainable against elite teams, but hey, we're not saying they are Omaha-bound. They are a little light in pitching, although senior right-hander Alex Alemann has put up a 2.49 ERA in 47 innings (seven starts) and 6-foot-4, 240-pound freshman righty Matt Eckelman has made 10 appearances, including one start, posting a 1.37 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings.

Saint Louis goes to Indianapolis this weekend to play a three-game series with the Butler Bulldogs, who are one game out of first place in the A-10.

2. Atlantic Coast Conference

If the SEC is the country's top league, the ACC isn't far behind.

Florida State (25-4, 8-4) is crushing people and leads the Atlantic Division. Coming for Mike Martin and his Seminoles are the Clemson Tigers, who hung in a tough series at North Carolina last weekend (taking a game from the Tar Heels) and are two games back, and the NC State Wolfpack, who are three games behind FSU and have underperformed a bit compared to their talent. But the Wolfpack hold one advantage: They have Carlos Rodon starting on Friday night and no other team does.

The Coastal Division is the better race, with North Carolina (26-2, 9-2) playing as well as any team in the country -- the Tar Heels rank second in the nation in ERA (1.70) and first in runs scored per game (8.9, as of April 1) -- and Virginia is only a half-game back of UNC. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who seemingly never tire of scoring runs, lurk 1.5 games behind the Heels. That's before mentioning Virginia Tech, 2.5 games behind UNC, with the Tar Heels and Cavaliers both visiting Blacksburg in future weekends.

Predicting postseason success in baseball is a fool's business, because teams rise and retreat on the whims of their arms, but you could say today that North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State and Georgia Tech look like College World Series-caliber teams.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if NC State gets sent off to some SEC-hosted regional and wins it. Then the only thing between NC State and Omaha would be a three-game series, with Rodon going in Game 1. Does that send a couple of cold shivers down the spines of coaches around the country? You bet.

3. West Coast Conference

I'm throwing one up for the West Coast here.

If you've been slacking on your WCC baseball reading lately, let me help you: Pepperdine (16-11, 6-3) leads the conference and has San Diego and Portland just behind it. Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount and San Francisco are all a game back of the Waves.

Who's for real here? Pepperdine and San Diego are definite NCAA regional teams, and both have the talent to make a run. The rest of the league will be making its pitch to the selection committee over the final six weeks of the regular season, but for conference race purposes, we have the Waves at the Toreros in two weeks, and Scott Frazier pitching to Kris Bryant is good enough for me.

Speaking of Frazier, when I spoke to Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez a couple of weeks ago, he was very pleased with the mental development of Frazier -- how he understands now that commanding his fastball is the key that will unlock his pro future, along with an ability to throw a breaking ball and third pitch for strikes.

But so far this season, Frazier has struggled a bit. He has a 5.44 ERA in 48 innings, and while his 19 walks aren't bad relative to his 43 strikeouts, you would like to see Frazier be a bit stingier. If he's inconsistent in his command, he's likely headed for the bullpen in pro ball (where he could be a late-inning force).

4. Pac-12

This race isn't the most intriguing in terms of depth, but it has me hooked because three of the best teams in the entire country could be involved, with a fourth fitting NC State's "Better Beware of These Dudes" profile.

George Horton's Oregon Ducks (22-6, 8-1) rank 15th in the country in ERA and currently lead the race by 1.5 games over Oregon State. For Oregon, all the games that matter in this race are still ahead: at Cal in two weeks, home against UCLA the next week, and home against Stanford following that. Then, of course, is the biggie -- the Ducks host the Beavers in the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

The Bruins are only two games back of Oregon, and the Bears are sneaking up at three games back. Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA give the Pac-12 the same feel as the ACC up top: We could say right now that those teams are good enough to get to Omaha.

The wild card in all of this is Stanford, 3.5 games back of the Ducks. The Cardinal can go arm-for-arm with many good teams, but they have huge issues scoring runs, ranking 251st in Division I at 3.9 runs per game. The problem has been exacerbated by the absence of their best hitter, Austin Wilson, who has played in only one game so far this season due to a stress reaction in his elbow.

But ... Mark Appel. Yes, when you have Appel -- the best pitcher in the country and possibly the No. 1 overall pick in June -- you have a chance. It's like NC State with Rodon -- get the Cardinal into a three-game series, and there's a better than 50-50 chance they win Game 1.

5. Big 12

I'm unusually infatuated with this conference, even if it has flopped to some degree.

Oklahoma (25-5, 5-1) leads the league, and the Sooners have been spectacular. They are one of the few teams who have an arm, right-hander Jonathan Gray, who can legitimately matchup with Appel's ability.

There is a clear talent gap between Oklahoma and everyone else, although Oklahoma State and Baylor are just 1.5 games back in the race, Kansas State, Kansas and West Virginia each trail by two games, and Texas Tech is just 2.5 games back.

Sure, it would have been a much better league if TCU was playing like we thought it could before the season, but even though the Horned Frogs sit in last place in the league, they are only 3.5 games out of first. The offensively feeble Texas Longhorns are three games back of the Sooners and are always a threat, because even if the results waver, you know the level of talent that Augie Garrido rolls through Austin each spring.

Maybe somebody challenges Oklahoma, or maybe every other team is playing for next-best. But there's a ton of potential for volatility here, which is terrible for the collective blood pressure of coaching staffs but great for us.

Wildcats go to Baton Rouge

OK, our SEC hiatus is over. No. 9 Kentucky visits No. 2 LSU in what I'd argue is the best series of a pretty good weekend and the best matchup of Friday night starters.

If you gave LSU coach Paul Mainieri a small vial of truth serum, he'd probably tell you that Aaron Nola has been better than he anticipated on Friday nights. He has a 2.74 ERA in 46 innings with 55 strikeouts and only seven walks.

"We always expected he'd be very good," Mainieri says. "He's been up to 95 mph, his curveball has improved, he has a good changeup, he's a good athlete, he pounds the zone. He's a bona fide No. 1 starter."

Nola will face A.J. Reed, the do-it-all star for Kentucky, who has a 2.57 ERA in 42 innings and is also hitting .333 with seven homers.

Beavers visit Jackie Robinson Stadium

If the matchup between No. 6 Oregon State at No. 7 Oregon later in the spring is the main course we're all looking forward to, then OSU at No. 10 UCLA this weekend is an appetizer out of Mario Batali's kitchen.

UCLA coach John Savage is a pitching guy, so it's not surprising to see five Bruins with an ERA of 3.50 or better (minimum 15 innings), and junior Adam Plutko is at the back end of that list with a 3.45 ERA. We knew coming into this season that UCLA would be loaded with arms, but the real stars of the staff haven't been the guys who were the focus of attention in the preseason.

When I talked to Savage a couple of weeks back, he was really excited about freshman James Kaprielian and said he would be the Bruins' closer, but he's had some arm issues and has thrown only seven innings so far this season. Stepping into Kaprielian's role has been sophomore David Berg, who leads UCLA with 16 appearances and has a 1.30 ERA in 27 2/3 innings, with 30 strikeouts to only four walks.

Can UCLA score runs against Oregon State? Offensive production is the only thing keeping the Bruins from being an Omaha favorite, because they are going to pitch.

Red River Rivalry, baseball edition

Here's your chance, Longhorns, to jump up in the Big 12 race and put yourself in position to go on a run -- No. 13 Oklahoma comes to Austin this weekend.

I'd love to know what Garrido truthfully thinks of his team, because we can't understand how difficult it has been for Texas at the dish. The Horns have only three regulars hitting .300 or better; they've hit only seven home runs, and their team on-base percentage of .351 ranks 164th in the country. It's been quite the grind for Texas, a club that is plenty talented on the mound -- its 2.77 ERA is among the 25 best in the nation.

The good news for Texas is that the Big 12, while fun to follow, isn't particularly loaded. If the Longhorns can take a couple of games from Oklahoma, their final five weekends of the regular season shape up like this: at Kansas, vs. West Virginia, at Baylor, vs. Kansas State, at TCU.
An easy stretch? No. But it's a stretch that your average Texas club would be able to manage, putting itself in position for a solid regional bid.

The Gators storm Starkville

Despite all the injuries and inconsistent performance, I still believe in Florida's talent. A couple weeks ago, we noted that Florida was entering the gauntlet of its season.

Since then, it won one game at Vanderbilt -- not something Florida considered a great achievement, I'm sure, but it'll work in the context of a full SEC schedule -- and then took two of three at home against Ole Miss, a great series victory for the Gators.

Now comes the next big weekend, at trip to play No. 17 Mississippi State. The best news for the Gators is what right-hander Jonathon Crawford did Saturday against the Rebels. Crawford entered the season as Florida's Friday night starter and a probable first-round pick but struggled early with his velocity and command.

After the Gators dropped Friday's game against Ole Miss, Crawford threw a two-hit shutout on Saturday with eight strikeouts, the first time all season he's looked the part of a big-name starter in the SEC. Can he maintain his velocity and control the sink on his fastball from weekend to weekend? That's the remaining hurdle for him.

If Crawford does, he changes everything for Florida, and then we can lump the Gators in with Stanford and NC State as a team talented enough to win a regional on the road. And if you're good enough to win a regional, then you're good enough to get to Omaha, because funky things happen when seasons are whittled down to three games in a super regional.

Prospect Watch: Bobby Wahl, RHP, Ole Miss

If you happen to be in the Oxford, Miss., area this weekend, go check out Wahl on Friday night. He's pitching against No. 3 Vanderbilt in a start that is big for the Rebels but also crucial for Wahl's draft stock.

The right-hander's results have been good this season -- 1.80 ERA in 45 innings with 37 strikeouts -- but he needs to show a little more than just a firm fastball to put himself in the mix of first-round college starters. Wahl's 19 walks are a few too many for a guy with his talent, and if there's something that could push Wahl from the rotation to the back end of a bullpen in pro ball, fastball command would likely be it.

But it's too early for that kind of talk. Beginning with the Commodores this weekend, Wahl has plenty of outings remaining this season to build his case as a first-round starting pitcher in June.

Today in Omaha: High of 62 degrees, abundant sunshine, 72 days until CWS Game 1 (as of April 4).