Texas A&M (20-14; 5-7) at Vanderbilt (26-8; 6-6)
Another weekend, another setback for the Fightin' Texas Aggie Baseball squad. For the third time in four SEC series, A&M dropped 2 of 3 games against a team that was certainly beatable. In fact, Alabama committed 8 errors over the 3 games on the weekend - including 4 on Sunday - yet the Aggies failed to take advantage. The scary part is that the schedule only gets more challenging from here, and if A&M wants any chance of making the postseason it is going to take winning almost all of the upcoming series.
That tough stretch begins this weekend in Nashville, with the Aggies squaring off with a Top-10 team in the Vanderbilt Commodores. This will be the first ever series between the Ags and 'Dores, with the 2 teams splitting a pair of games in last year's SEC Tournament. A&M notched a big 5-0 win in the first matchup to boost their tournament resume, but Vandy returned the favor with a shutout of their own and eliminated A&M with Tyler Beede allowing just 2 hits to the Aggies. This season, Vanderbilt has lost just 2 games outside of conference play but they - like most everyone else in the SEC - have been unable to consistently pick up series wins in SEC play. The 'Dores have split their first 4 SEC series so far, with wins over LSU and Kentucky at home and losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee on the road. It is a massive challenge for an A&M team that has struggled to find any consistency at the plate or on the mound, but the Aggies absolutely must avoid being swept if they want to keep their quickly fading postseason chances alive.
Friday (6:30pm CT)
RHP Jason Jester (2-2, 4.20, 1.93, 15 K, 8 BB)
RHP Tyler Beede (5-3, 2.81, 0.96, 52 K, 16 BB)
Well, I certainly didn't see this one coming. A&M head coach Rob Childress decided that the Aggies need to shake things up, and he is definitely rolling the dice in moving struggling closer Jason Jester into the Friday starting role. It will be the first start of Jester's A&M career, and it comes immediately following another rough outing from the bullpen in the 3rd game against Alabama. Jester came in to pitch the 9th inning with the game tied at 4 and promptly allowed a pair of 1-out singles followed by a double and a sacrifice fly. Jester's WHIP of 1.93 is downright brutal - he's allowed 21 hits and walked 8 batters in just 15 innings of work. It's not unheard of for someone struggling as a closer to be able to move into a starting role and have success, and the Aggies badly need to get at least a win out of this series if not more.
Beede is widely considered to be one of the top MLB prospects in the country, and holding opponents to a batting average of just .175 so far in 2014 seems to support that notion. Beede does, however, sport the highest ERA of Vandy's starters, having allowed 15 earned runs on 30 hits. Beede notched his 5th win of the season last weekend on the road in Knoxville, going 8 innings against the Vols and allowing 4 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks with 6 strikeouts. That was a much-needed bounce back for the junior, who had lost each of his first 3 SEC starts (LSU, Mississippi State, and Kentucky), although he allowed only 14 combined hits in those 3 starts.
Saturday (2:00pm CT)
RHP Daniel Mengden (2-4, 3.32, 1.11, 65 K, 17 BB)
LHP Jared Miller (6-1, 2.01, 1.01, 33 K, 17 BB)
After 3 consecutive starts in which he allowed the opponent to score in the 1st inning, Mengden finally held Alabama scoreless in the first frame last Friday evening. The Tide would get on the board in the 3rd, however, with a 2-out RBI single. A&M fought back and drew level in the 4th, but Alabama would answer back immediately in the top half of the 5th with 2 runs, which would prove to be all they would need to start the series with a win. Mengden walked a batter to start the 5th, and then the Aggies were unable to successfully field consecutive bunts which loaded the bases with no outs. The damage could have actually been much worse, as both runs scored on sacrifice flies, but it was enough to allow the Bama pitching staff to take care of business against the A&M lineup. Daniel finished with 8 innings of work, allowing 4 runs on 7 hits and 2 walks with 9 strikeouts. It will be interesting to see if moving to Saturday has any affect on Mengden in Nashville this weekend.
Miller is a 6'7, 240lb junior from Avon, Indiana who moved into the starting rotation in 2014 after spending last season as a bullpen option for the 'Dores. Miller has made the transition extremely well, sporting a 6-1 record and allowing just 10 earned runs in over 44 innings of work. His batting average against (.176) is just a point higher than Beede's, and he has held opponents without a run in 3 of his 8 starts. Similar to A&M's Grayson Long, however, Miller was not able to get out of the 4th inning in 2 of his last 3 starts. Last week, Tennessee put up 7 runs - although just 2 earned - on 6 hits and 2 walks against Miller last Saturday, and he also walked 2 batters in just 3 innings. Control was his issue in his start 2 weeks prior at Mississippi State, issuing 5 walks and allowing 4 hits which resulted in 4 runs - 3 earned - against the Bulldogs. Those were sandwiched around a nice outing against Kentucky, however, in which Miller allowed 3 earned runs on 3 hits and 3 walks in 6 innings of work.
Sunday (1:00pm CT)
RHP Grayson Long (3-1, 2.49, 1.26, 30 K, 14 BB)
RHP Tyler Ferguson (5-1, 2.25, 0.91, 34 K, 12 BB)
It was another rough outing in the second game of the Saturday doubleheader for Grayson Long, who failed to get out of the 4th inning for a second consecutive week. This time, Long was pulled in favor of Parker Ray after walking the leadoff batter to start the 4th. The Aggie sophomore got hit hard by the Tide, allowing 4 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks while striking out 2. Grayson had been A&M's best starter for most of the early part of the season, but he has had a tough go of things these last few weeks in conference play. It isn't going to get any easier for him this weekend, facing a Vandy team that has pounded out 79 doubles this season.
Ferguson is a sophomore from Fresno, California who has done a very nice job of rounding out the weekend rotation for Vanderbilt. Like the Beede and Miller, Ferguson is holding opponents to a batting average under .200 (.186 in fact), and he's allowed only 11 earned runs in 44 innings pitched. Ferguson got roughed up a bit by the Vols last Sunday, taking his first loss of the season after allowing 7 runs - 5 earned - on 6 hits and 2 walks in 4.1 innings of work. His previous 2 starts were much better, though, going 6 innings in each and allowing just 1 earned run and 8 hits combined in starts against Kentucky and Mississippi State.
What to Watch
When you look at the Commodores, their pitching staff is undoubtedly the first thing that jumps out at you. However, a quick look at the doubles column will impress as well. Vanderbilt has hit a whopping 79 doubles so far this season, easily the most in the SEC (Kentucky is 2nd with 66; A&M, for reference, has 53) and good for 4th in the country. The 'Dores as a team are just ahead of the Aggies in a number of statistical categories, but you'll also note that they have far more steals than A&M does. Their lineup features 4 regular starters with a batting average over .300, and all 4 of those are slugging over .400 as well. Let's see how the stats compare.
As mentioned, this is a Vanderbilt team that can beat you without having to score more than 3 or 4 runs thanks to their excellent pitching staff. They have the 3rd best team ERA in the conference, behind LSU and South Carolina, and they lead the conference in strikeouts (A&M is second in that statistic, actually). Keep an eye on junior RHP Brian Miller (0-0, 0.55, 0.67) and true freshman RHP Hayden Stone (1-0, 0.66, 0.80) as two of the primary options out of the bullpen for Vandy, and sophomore RHP Carson Fulmer (0-1, 1.88, 1.00) is their closer with 9 saves on the season.
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Commodores will feature this weekend.
Although none of the Vandy hitters necessarily blow you away in terms of statistics, they have a number of guys who can do damage throughout their lineup. Junior SS Vince Conde has reached base in 19 of his last 20 games; he leads the Commodores in batting average in SEC play (.500) and has knocked in 13 runs while scoring 6. Sophomore 2B Dansby Swanson has been a doubles machine this season, leading the team in 2-base hits (15), total bases (69), and slugging percentage (.523). Cleanup hitter and true freshman Bryan Reynolds has done a great job of knocking in runs, tied for the team lead (24) with Conde in that category.
This is an extremely challenging opponent for an A&M team that has not played well on the road this season at all. The rotation shakeup could pay dividends for Childress and Co., but I am certainly skeptical given what we've seen from Jester so far this season.
The offense and pitching are just too inconsistent right now for the Aggies to go toe-to-toe with a very talented team like Vanderbilt. It would do wonders for getting the season back on track if A&M could somehow steal a series win in Nashville, but even just winning a game wouldn't be a terrible result.
I just don't see it happening, though. Vandy wants to bounce back after dropping last weekend's series in Knoxville, and I think the 'Dores will cruise to a weekend sweep of the Aggies.