Baseball slides safely into Top 25 ranks

The Sam Houston State University Bearkats baseball team has cracked Baseball America’s Top 25, sliding in at No. 22 according to the College Top 25 updated March 12.

Heading into Tuesday night’s matchup against the talented University of Texas Longhorns, the Kats held a 16-4 record, including a thrilling walk-off win against the No. 12 Vanderbilt Commodores at the College Classic Tournament and a victory over the Baylor University Bears that snapped BU’s five-game winning streak.

SHSU has made easy work of most opponents this season, picking up series sweeps against Cincinnati, Prairie View A&M (where the Bearkats outscored the Panthers 22-1 in two games) and the Lamar Cardinals to open conference play. When the standings were released March 12, the Kats were on a five-game winning streak where they dominated opponents—outscoring teams 38-5 during that stretch.

Half of SHSU’s four losses have come against very tough, nationally ranked SEC opponents. The Bearkats participated in the 18th annual Shriner’s College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston March 2-4 and landed the toughest three-game schedule of any team in the field. The Bearkats played the only three teams in the tournament (aside from themselves) that played in an NCAA Super Regional in 2017. After an exciting 6-5 extra-inning victory over Vanderbilt, SHSU fell to then-No.7 Kentucky (now No. 4) 7-2 and No. 21 Mississippi State 4-1.

It is no secret that SHSU deserves the ranking it received from Baseball America. The only question, perhaps, is what took that recognition so long. The Bearkats were likely plagued by their poor performance at last year’s Super Regional, where an unfortunate combination of weather delays and pitching fatigue resulted in SHSU being swept by the powerhouse Florida State University Seminoles. That showing along with the arguably “weak” strength of schedule in 2018 compared to high-ranking SEC, ACC and Pac-12 teams likely prompted Baseball America’s delay in ranking the Bearkats until they felt SHSU proved itself this season. Now that it has, there are two questions on the table.

How does SHSU remain in the Top 25?

This is the easier of the two questions. It may seem obvious, but the answer is to keep the loss total as low as possible. Currently at the top of the standings are the Oregon State University Beavers of the Pac-12, who one year ago finished with an outstanding 56-6 record and have already jumped out to an 18-1 record to begin 2018; SHSU ended 2017 with a 44-23 record. Looking at other Top 5 schools like No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 Kentucky and No. 5 Clemson, finishing 2018 with less than 20 losses (ideally 15 or 16) would be monumental for the Bearkats to secure a higher spot in the rankings.

The biggest threat to the Kats is themselves; SHSU needs to close out games. The offense needs to never let up and pitchers need to be on their game in the late innings. Ideally, the Kats would never see a lead at the end of seven innings slip out of their grasp the rest of the year. They have shown resilience early in the season, and now is the time for stamina and relentlessness to take over.

The other key to victory is that SHSU needs to win the games they are supposed to win. One of the many aspects of baseball that makes the sport great is the ability for any team to rise up on any given day and beat another team. There is no shortage of talent in college baseball, but the Kats need to put down opponents—especially conference opponents—that simply do not match up with SHSU’s winning talent. Picking up victories in games that should easily be won makes it much easier to rally together in tougher matchups down the road.

How high can SHSU climb in the rankings?

With head coach Matt Deggs at the helm, the diverse offensive approaches SHSU takes with its lineup anchored by junior infielder Andrew Fregia and junior outfielder Hunter Hearn, and a core of starting pitchers led by sophomore Hayden Wesneski starting to find their groove, it is very possible that the Bearkats can ride their “Pac Baseball” mentality up the Top 25. Questions remain, though, about how far they can get.

The current Top 7 seems pretty stable. Those teams may shake things up with each other throughout the season as the SEC teams battle each other, but overall those spots will be tough to overtake. Oregon State, Florida, Stanford, Kentucky, Clemson, Florida State and Arkansas are big name baseball schools that are used to sinking its teeth into the top ranks. The 8-10 spots are appealing, though, to teams sitting near the bottom of the Top 25. Texas Tech, Texas Christian University and Texas A&M currently occupy those positions.

All three of those teams dropped from the previous week’s rankings. Texas Tech fell three spots from No. 5 to No. 8, TCU dropped a couple spots down from No. 7, and the Aggies fell from No. 9 to No. 10. The biggest surprise is seeing the No. 9 TCU Horned Frogs who have an 8-4 record still in the Top 10. Baseball America’s Week in a Sentence about them reads “The Horned Frogs have yet to go on any prolonged streaks and had a mixed Dodger Stadium Classic, but they’ve generally handled themselves well against a tough slate of opponents.”

If a program like that can hang around No. 9, it provides some motivation for lower-ranked programs like Southern Mississippi (Conference USA), UCLA, LSU (who has a surprising six losses on the year), and SHSU to battle it out for a Top 10 spot. Realistically, the Bearkats could be in a field of seven to nine teams that will end up contending for three Top 10 spots. It is an uphill battle to say the least, but if the team can dig its heels in and not look down, it is a battle that can be won come the NCAA Regionals June 1.

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