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Texas A&M Baseball

MCWS Preview: A&M, Florida, Kentucky & NC State meet in Bracket 2

June 13, 2024
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Who: Bracket 2 - #2 Kentucky, #3 Texas A&M, #10 NC State, Florida
Where: Charles Schwab Field — Omaha, Nebraska
When:

Saturday: Kentucky vs. NC State (1 p.m. CT), Texas A&M vs. Florida (6 p.m. CT)
Monday: Losers’ bracket (1 p.m. CT), Winners’ bracket (6 p.m. CT)
All Other Games: TBD

Scouting Texas A&M

This Texas A&M team took two huge body blows last weekend while defeating the Oregon Ducks. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. Braden Montgomery had surgery on Wednesday and is obviously not available. No. 2 starting pitcher Shane Sdao had to leave the game on Sunday with some type of elbow injury. While the long-term prognosis is optimistic at this point, he’ll be a spectator in Omaha. How possibly can the Aggies compete against elite competition at the Men’s College World Series without two critical contributors?

It won’t be easy, but there is a path to the national championship.

First, the Aggies must stay in the winners’ bracket. The pitching wasn’t very deep to begin with, and now one big gun isn’t unavailable. That means there’s no margin for error. Ryan Prager can’t pitch like he did last weekend. He must stay ahead in the count and keep big swingers off-balance. A&M pitching must avoid giving up home run balls. If they can keep the ball in the yard against Florida, the Aggies have a good chance to win the opener on Saturday.

The Aggies are by far the most patient team in the field, grinding out a nation-leading 396 walks on the season.

After Game 1, it’s all hands on deck. I don’t think Schlossnagle knows who he will start on Monday because I think his decision will be based on how efficient Prager and Evan Aschenbeck will be on Saturday. If A&M can avoid using Chris Cortez, the junior from Las Vegas will have a prominent role in Monday’s game. The question discussed all week on TexAgs is whether the coach starts Cortez or tries to squeeze out a few innings with someone like Brad Rudis or Weston Moss and then brings in Cortez for a long stint to hopefully close out the game.

I’m of the opinion that the Aggies must start the game with their best arm, and that is Cortez. It does little good to bring Cortez out of the bullpen if the team is already down 4-0. Charles Schwab Field is not a venue where you want to fall behind early and hope to catch up. That’s a tough task in a spacious field, especially with the caliber of competition in Omaha. Cortez has been a starter in the past, and his recent success has come from being able to control the strike zone with his slider and off-speed pitches, which makes his 100 mph fastball almost unhittable. His success didn’t evolve because he was in the bullpen. It just so happened that everything started to click with Max Weiner when he was in the bullpen, and A&M already had two established starters. Now, A&M has one established starter, and Cortez has the best stuff of the remaining options on the pitching staff. It would’ve been ideal if Sdao was still pitching and Schlossnagle could leave Cortez in the bullpen, but that’s not our reality right now. A&M is in Omaha and needs a quality second starter. Go with your best arm.

At the plate, the Maroon & White desperately need Gavin Grahovac and Jace LaViolette to have a huge weekend and beyond. LaViolette has been slowly coming out of his slump, and he’s been doing it with competitive at-bats drawing walks and hitting a few singles up the middle. He has not had that monster break-out game with big flies and multiple RBIs that take control of the contest. Yes, guys like Hayden Schott and Kaeden Kent were the big-run producers in College Station last weekend, but on this big stage and in that big park, LaViolette needs some big swings and big moments. He’s a difference maker, and this team needs a difference maker to step up in a big way. With Montgomery out, he’s the guy that can make it happen on the big stage in Omaha.

The other big storyline to watch is the ability (or inability) of opposing pitchers to throw strikes and avoid free passes. The Aggies are by far the most patient team in the field, grinding out a nation-leading 396 walks on the season. That’s 130 more base-on-balls than Florida’s 266 and 111 more than Kentucky. Walks certainly played a huge role in A&M’s nine-run seventh inning on Sunday to clinch the super regional over Oregon.

There’s good news for the Aggies on this front. The teams in Bracket 2 have struggled to throw strikes all year. Florida pitchers have walked a whopping 284 batters, while NC State has surrendered 279 free passes. On the other end of the spectrum, A&M is second only to Tennessee in the fewest walks allowed at 198. That’s a huge advantage for the Aggies if these seasonal trends continue at the MCWS.

Scouting Florida

A lot has been made about Florida’s up-and-down season. Some experts felt the 28-27 Gators were not deserving of an NCAA Tournament bid. However, Florida fought back in the losers’ bracket to beat Oklahoma State twice in the Stillwater Regional. Then, the Gators steamrolled Clemson with an offensive barrage, scoring 21 runs in two games to sweep the Tigers in the super regional round. Just like that, the once-forgotten Gators in midseason are now going back to Omaha.

Kevin O’Sullivan’s Gators came into the season with a top-five ranking and high expectations, but a series of injuries and inconsistent play from several young replacements led to a very disappointing 13-17 SEC record. Florida snuck into the NCAA Tournament as a lowly No. 3 seed. Well, some of those young players and unnoticed transfers like Ashton Wilson delivered in a big way once regional play began two weeks ago.

Of course, you can’t start any scouting report without mentioning one of the most decorated and dominant college players in recent memory — two-way star Jac Caglianone. The veteran had another monster year at the plate, hitting .411 with 33 homers. He wasn’t quite as successful on the mound this season, with a 4.71 ERA, 48 walks and an exceptionally high WHIP of 1.50. Still, he has the best overall pitching stats on a team that has been very inconsistent on the rubber. The national honors are rolling in this week for the junior earning numerous first-team All-American awards along with being named the Two-Way Player of the Year by Perfect Game.

Mitch Alcala/For The Oklahoman
Jac Caglianone leads Florida in ERA and batting average.

Despite all of the accolades, Caglianone’s pitching stats reflect the struggles Florida has experienced on the bump this year, and those struggles popped up again last weekend against Clemson despite winning the series. Game 1 starter Liam Peterson allowed three earned runs in just one inning of action before being pulled. Caglianone started Game 2 on Sunday and fared better but still surrendered four earned runs on five hits, two walks and a hit batter in 5.2 innings of work in what was eventually an 11-10 win in extra innings.

As of this writing, O’Sullivan has not announced a starting pitcher for the opener on Saturday against A&M. Frankly, it won’t be an easy decision. Does he go with the right-handed freshman young gun Liam Peterson, who emerged late in the season but got rocked against Clemson on the big stage? Or does he go with the veteran lefty Caglianone, who would be throwing on one day less rest than his usual routine? Peterson will be fresh, but he has never pitched in the MCWS and didn’t meet the moment last week. On the other hand, Caglianone started two games in Omaha last year, going 1-1 and won’t be intimidated by the environment. He also throws from the left side, which is a better match-up against an Aggie lineup loaded with lefties. This decision by O’Sullivan could have a big impact on Saturday’s game.

Brandon Neely has been an emerging presence out of the bullpen late in the season that corresponded to Florida’s late season surge. With that said, he struggled in Game 2 against Clemson, giving up the game-tying three-run home run in the ninth inning to send the game into extra innings.

This Gator pitching staff has been all over the place this season and in the postseason as well. There’s a reason why Florida has the highest team ERA (6.16) in the MCWS field this year. They also walked a lot of batters (284), 86 more free passes than the A&M pitching staff. Like I said in my Oregon preview last week, the walk totals here could be very important.

At the plate, Florida has been hit-and-miss as well. However, they’ve been more hit than miss in the postseason beating Clemson 10-7 and 11-10 last weekend in the super regionals. Of course, Caglianone hit two home runs in that two-game series. Wilson went from a little-used transfer earlier in the season to protecting Caglianone in the three-hole. He had three RBI on the weekend, and had a monster regional in Stillwater. Colby Shelton has launched 20 homers this season. Overall, this offense is explosive, hitting 131 homers this season, just one shy of A&M’s 132.

With that said, the team's batting average is the lowest of the eight teams at .272. If you remove Caglianone’s .411 average from the equation, the numbers are much lower. In fact, aside from Caglianone, there is no other Florida hitter with more than 11 starts hitting above .300. However, the Gators do have seven players with double-digit home runs. Much like A&M, Florida relies on the long ball. Yet, both teams will face each other in a very spacious Charles Schwab Field where long fly balls go to die.

Scouting Kentucky

I’ll go more in-depth on Kentucky’s scouting report if the Aggies face the Wildcats on Monday, but here’s a brief breakdown of what to expect from the team from Lexington.

The statistical numbers don’t pop out at you at first glance. Kentucky has a solid pitching staff with a very respectable team ERA of 4.95 with two above-average starters and a nice closer. Trey Pooser (3.46 ERA) and Mason Moore (4.93) are a combined 16-4 this season as the top two starters for the Wildcats, while top-end closer Johnny Hummel has eight saves and an impressive WHIP of 0.92.

Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky boasted a 22-8 record through Southeastern Conference play this season.

At the plate, Kentucky hits .290 as a team and has the fewest home run totals (84) of any team in Omaha. Yet, the Wildcats still found a way to score 8.0 runs a game, second most in Bracket 2. A big part of that offensive component is getting on base and stealing bases. Their season total of 118 thefts is 41 greater than the Aggies and 78 more than Florida. Catchers in this bracket better be prepared to limit those stolen bases.

The Wildcats aren’t bashers at the plate, and they don’t have that stud ace on the pitching staff, but they know how to win. You don’t go 22-8 in SEC play and make it to the Men’s College World Series as the No. 2 national seed without being an elite ball club. Kentucky may not be an elite power-hitting team with a dominant high strikeout pitching rotation, but they have very few weaknesses, and they win… Period.

Scouting NC State

The No. 10 seed Wolfpack took down super regional host Georgia to claim the last spot in Omaha on Monday. Aside from one bad outing from No. 2 starter Dominic Fritton in an 11-2 loss to Georgia in Game 2, the pitching staff has out-performed its ragged season totals. NC State has gotten two quality starts from their No. 1 starter Sam Highfill (7-2, 5.06 ERA) in NCAA Tournament play, and they’ve got excellent performances out of their top two relievers, Jacob Dudan (4.40 ERA, 6 saves) and Derrick Smith (4.50 ERA, 8 saves). While the Wolfpack’s team ERA of 6.09 is one of the highest in the MCWS field, there is hope for better pitching performances based on recent postseason performances. Still, there’s not much depth on the mound, and the performances have been inconsistent at times.

At the plate, NC State has three top-end power hitters. Aside from Florida’s Caglianone and Tennessee’s Christian Moore, Alec Makarewicz might be the most dynamic power slugger in the MCWS field, hitting .380 with 22 homers and 80 RBI. Garrett Pennington (18 HR) and Jacob Cozart (19 HR) have combined for 118 RBI which provides the Wolfpack a formidable offensive punch at the top of the lineup. However, the big offensive numbers drop significantly in the back half of the batting order.

The key for NC State is to get quality outings from Highfill in Game 1 and then get Fritton back on track in Game 2. If the starters can go deep into the fifth or sixth inning with the game’s outcome still in doubt, the Wolfpack can make some noise this weekend with a couple of nice closers in the bullpen.

Hitting Average Runs/game Slugging % Home Runs Walks
Texas A&M .300 8.8 .557 132 396
Florida .272 7.0 .512 131 266
Kentucky .287 8.0 .496 84 285
NC State .290 7.7 .495 99 324

 

Pitching ERA WHIP Walks Opp. Avg. Runs/game Fielding %
Texas A&M 3.94 1.26 198 .236 4.3 .978
Florida 6.16 1.56 284 .265 6.4 .981
Kentucky 4.95 1.37 253 .235 5.3 .980
NC State 6.09 1.53 279 .258 6.3 .976

 

What’s at stake this weekend

The Aggies are in Omaha playing for a national championship.

If they succeed, it would be A&M’s first national title in baseball. It would also be Jim Schlossnagle’s first national championship after a couple of close calls with TCU. A&M will eventually break through and win a natty.

The only question now is whether we’ll be partying in the streets at Northgate in 12 days or we'll wait a little longer — but that day is coming sooner or later under Schlossnagle. You can bank it.

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MCWS Preview: A&M, Florida, Kentucky & NC State meet in Bracket 2

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