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Bubble Watch: How Bubble Teams Performed in a Make-or-Break Weekend

With one week left in the regular season, stakes are high, tensions are higher, and the postseason is hurtling toward us at a breakneck pace.

Some teams have squarely solidified a bid in this year’s NCAA Tournament, regardless of how they perform until then. Others already view themselves as being eliminated from postseason contention. But some — those on the bubble — are still fighting to convince the selection committee that they deserve a chance to compete in the Field of 64 for a shot at a national title.

So, which teams rose to that challenge, and which fell flat? Answers below.

Rose to the Challenge: TCU

After a surprisingly effective start to the season, the Horned Frogs have slowly fallen off, entering the weekend with a losing record in Big 12 play. But still, TCU swept Kansas, upset then-No. 16 Oklahoma State, and stole games from both Texas and Texas Tech. Thus, rather than asking if the Horned Frogs have talent on the roster, the question quickly became whether they have enough talent to earn an at-large bid in this year’s tournament.

If this weekend is any indication, we have a resounding answer: Yes.

TCU scored first in all three games, never trailing the Baylor Bears at any point during the series. Third baseman Brayden Taylor led the offensive charge for the Horned Frogs, going 2-for-4 in game one, scoring one run and earning two RBI. But his standout performance came in game three, when the junior batted .800 with four hits, a double, and a home run; right fielder Austin Davis’ multi-XBH performance in that same game solidified the sweep. Admittedly, TCU’s first two wins were only by a combined five runs, and there is an argument to be made that a postseason-worthy team should appear more dominant when compared against a less-than-stellar Baylor squad. But at this point in the season, a win is a win, just as a sweep is a sweep, and the Horned Frogs’ offense appears to be returning to its early-season form.

Even more impressive than that, though, was the TCU pitching squad. All three starters picked up the win in their respective appearance, and none threw for less than five innings. Kole Klecker’s game-two performance deserves high praise for his great productivity, throwing only 89 pitches across 26 batters faced; preventing opposing offenses from drawing prolonged at-bats is a phenomenal skill to have in the postseason. Louis Rodriguez averaged nearly a strikeout per frame, giving up only one earned run in the process, and Sam Stoutenborough somehow drew 12 ground-outs from the Bears, emphasizing his recently-cultivated control and pitch placement. And the cherry on top? TCU relievers gave up only one earned run across the entire weekend.

If the Horned Frogs can carry this momentum through the remainder of the regular season and the Big 12 Tournament, then they have a chance to not only earn an at-large bid, but make an attempt at a successful postseason run. This weekend was a great first step in that direction.

Fell Flat: NC State

Entering the weekend with a 31-15 overall record, the Wolfpack stood in an interesting position entering the home stretch of the regular season. A losing record on the road and in the ACC certainly complicates things, though back-to-back series wins against The Citadel and Notre Dame showed signs of possible momentum swinging in NC State’s favor.

But after this weekend, all hope may be lost. Playing away games against an in-state rival is no easy task, but getting swept by the North Carolina Tar Heels was a worst-case-scenario result for the Wolfpack, giving up a cumulative 30 runs across three games.

To NC State’s credit, the team opened the series in bombastic fashion, plating five runs in the first inning of game one. Designated hitter Cannon Peebles, already leading the team in OPS, captained the charge by drilling a three-run bomb into right field, further solidifying the freshman’s long-term place in the lineup. But this offensive success was short-lived, and the Wolfpack recorded only one other multi-run inning — a two-run eighth frame in game two — for the remainder of the weekend. The team’s 13 multi-bag hits throughout the series leaves a glimmer of hope for at-the-plate success in the future, but at this point, that may be too little, too late.

The starting pitchers for NC State didn’t fare much better, with the opening trio — Whitaker, Willadsen, and Highfill — each giving up four earned runs and striking out only eight total batters. But the real concern comes from each man’s pitch counts, which had elevated beyond saving far too early into each appearance, sharply contrasting the defining characteristic of a successful postseason team: a deep bullpen with arms capable of going long stretches on the bump. Only two relievers recorded more than six outs, further increasing the worries that the NC State pitching roster may not be as high-caliber as many had initially hoped.

But in what might be the most worrisome takeaway of the weekend, the Wolfpack looked nervous on the field. The team, assumedly preoccupied with thoughts of the make-or-break gravity of this weekend’s series, seemingly allowed the pressure to get the best of them. One notable consequence was allowing a suicide squeeze bunt in the bottom of the ninth on Thursday, allowing North Carolina to walk off the Wolfpack with what was ultimately a preventable run. In each of the next two games, the Tar Heels scored six and 11 unanswered runs, respectively, before NC State finally fired back opening shots of its own.

To prove that they were an NCAA Tournament-worthy team, NC State needed to find its footing offensively and approach every inning with confidence and composure. This weekend, they did neither of those things.

Rose to the Challenge: Oklahoma

At this point in the season, Oklahoma truly is an enigma.

On one hand, a team that can both sweep the Texas Longhorns in Austin and split a series with always-underrated Stanford is certainly deserving of some praise. But, at the same time, a sweep at the hands of Kansas State, alongside series losses to Baylor and West Virginia, would hurt the resume of any team.

So what are we to do with the Sooners in College Baseball Nation’s Projected Field of 64? Wait and see how they finish the regular season, of course. Seemingly aware that all eyes are on them, the Sooners finally floored the gas pedal — something fans and critics alike have been waiting for all season — determined to earn one of the coveted final spots in the NCAA Tournament. And, speaking transparently, a series sweep over Gonzaga in Washington is a great way to work toward that goal.

Truthfully, Oklahoma looked unstoppable for most of the weekend, winning the series by an 18-run differential. Even when the pitching and defense slipped in game two, allowing Gonzaga to score 12 runs, the Sooners never faltered, nearly doubling their opposition’s offensive success while giving their hurlers time to regroup and settle. In fact, this Oklahoma offense was so electric that they notched 44 hits across the three games, although only seven of these were for extra bases; instead, the Sooners showed great patience in their ability to string together smaller hits. This teamwork-oriented approach to the game, as opposed to each batter trying to ‘play the hero’ at the plate, can work wonders. And if it speaks to the chemistry of the team in the way that the statistics suggest, then this is absolutely an offense that opposing teams do not want to get hot just before the postseason.

Other squads have more to worry about than the Sooners’ offense, however. Friday starter Braxton Douthit continues to look more like an ace as the season progresses, throwing five innings of one-run baseball against Gonzaga while striking out five. His WHIP certainly leaves something to be desired, but considering he’s proven that he is capable of getting out of the self-created jams in which he finds himself, there’s no reason to believe that he will do anything other than continue improving. James Hitt looked just as impressive, moving to a still-perfect 5-0 record while posting an impressive 1.29 ERA against a team that, as noted above, drove in 12 runs just one night earlier. Throw Will Carsten into the mix, who earned his fourth save of the season with a four-out, no-hit closing appearance, and the Sooners seemingly (and deservedly) have confidence in their men on the bump.

With the offense and defense both looking leaps-and-bounds better in recent games, the Sooners may have a claim to an at-large bid in the coming weeks.

Fell Flat: Georgia

Less than a month ago, the Bulldogs seemed to be on the precipice of turning the corner, with a sweep over then-No. 5 Arkansas signaling cause for excitement. But this momentum quickly stalled, as the Bulldogs stole a series from Tennessee but dropped two of three to Ole Miss, and it became clear that any postseason berth would only follow if Georgia sealed the deal in its last two series of conference play.

So what did they do? Get swept by Mizzou, obviously.

Regardless of pitching woes, or offensive slumps, or fielding errors galore, it is essentially common knowledge that you can’t give up 32 runs in the SEC and still expect to win the series. So, when Kolten Smith — a Friday ace with a now-losing record, by the way — got pulled just one inning into his series-opening performance, Georgia fans knew they were going to be in for a long weekend. Combined, the Bulldogs’ starting pitchers gave up 12 earned runs, posting a 12.0 ERA in the process. It’s also telling that each game saw no fewer than five Georgia pitchers on the bump, signaling that consistency and longevity is still a hurdle which the bullpen has failed to overcome. But, to give credit where credit is due, it’s worth noting that the Bulldogs struck out 26 batters on the weekend, indicating some level of control and chemistry within the battery.

Offensively speaking, there is still room for improvement, but smaller victories at least make the weekend’s frustrations more palatable. For example, although Saturday starter Liam Sullivan gave up eight earned runs in his four innings of work, he did not receive the eventual loss for the night, demonstrating that the Bulldogs’ offense stayed invested in the game and did not allow an early deficit to prevent them from fighting until the end. Catcher Will David provided another bright spot in game two, batting 3-for-5 with two runs and two RBI. But on the other side of that same coin, it’s arguable that the Bulldogs’ offense just isn’t built for tense and high-pressure moments. The squad got walked off on Saturday before falling short by just one run on Sunday; a clutch performance from just one batter in the later innings of either of those games could have secured a win.

Georgia isn’t bad, by any means. As noted, the program has bright spots on its active roster, and a lot of the time, they’re a legitimately fun team to watch. But getting swept may have outright eliminated them from postseason consideration, unless they either dominate LSU next weekend — not impossible, but becoming an increasingly unlikely feat — or make a deep run in the SEC tournament, which is currently stacked with ten teams in the latest College Baseball Top 50.


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