After the Aggies dropped 2 consecutive weekend series to Arkansas and LSU, there were a number of questions as to how the team would respond. A&M promptly followed those with a sweep of Tennessee in Knoxville, and things were looking up again as the Aggies got set to close the season against a pair of teams under .500 in SEC play. With the worst offensive team in the conference coming to Olsen Field for the first of the final 2 weekends of the year and A&M likely needing just 3 wins in the last 6 SEC games to lock up a national seed, Aggie fans were feeling quite confident. And then it all went wrong.
Pitching Collapse Dooms Aggies
There's no sense in sugar coating things at this point. Calling what has happened to the A&M pitching staff anything less than a collapse doesn't do justice to what happened at Olsen Field over the weekend. Prior to this series against South Carolina, the most runs that A&M had given up over a 3-game weekend series in 2015 had been 23 against Arkansas, a team who is in the Top 5 in the SEC in terms of hitting. The Gamecocks came into the weekend at the bottom of the conference in just about all of the offensive statistics, yet the Aggies found a way to give up 31 runs in the series loss. In fact, South Carolina's batting average against A&M this weekend was nearly 100 points higher (.350) than it was coming into the weekend (.251). To drive home how bad South Carolina had been at the plate most of the season, even that strong of an offensive weekend couldn't get them out of last place in the SEC in batting average.
Friday's game featured another labored outing by Grayson Long, a trend which is suddenly getting very concerning as the season winds down and postseason play approaches. Long only lasted 5 and 1/3 innings against South Carolina, and had to throw 113 pitches just to get that far, and he allowed 4 runs (just 1 earned, though) on 2 hits and 5 walks with 2 strikeouts. The biggest issue for Grayson was the 5 walks he allowed - giving free base runners to a poor hitting team is not typically a recipe for success. A&M was down 6-3 going into the bottom of the 7th inning, but a 3-run blast by Mitchell Nau brought the Aggies level. Unfortunately, Mark Ecker's struggles from the bullpen continued as he gave up a 2-run blast to South Carolina's best hitter Kyle Martin in the 9th. Also of concern were 4 A&M errors in the game; the defense has been an issue for much of the year, with the Aggies having the 2nd most errors in the SEC, and that is showing no signs of improving heading into postseason play.
I'm still not entirely sure what to even say about Saturday's game. Pitching was mostly terrible all around. The two teams combined to hit 9 home runs. The final box score featured a total of 29 runs on 36 hits. A&M rallied from deficits of 5-0, 9-6, and 13-9 throughout the course of a 9-inning game. The Aggies actually were held scoreless in the first 3 innings before putting up 9 runs in the middle 3 innings and 6 runs in the final 3 innings, including 3 in the 9th for a walk-off win. Hunter Melton and Ryne Birk each hit a pair of home runs, and Blake Allemand delivered the first walk-off hit of his career with a 2-run double to complete the comeback.
The prevailing thought going into Sunday's game was that with both teams having depleted pitching staffs, the Aggies should absolutely have the advantage and be able to wrap up a series win. And yet... they didn't. Kyle Simonds lasted only one inning, allowing 3 runs (2 earned) on 4 hits and 25 pitches in the first inning to put A&M in an early 3-0 hole. Simonds went up against Gamecocks' slugger Martin with runners on the corners and no outs, and Simonds/Childress elected to pitch to Martin instead of intentionally walking him. Martin promptly destroyed a pitch for a 3-run blast onto the train tracks in right field. The Aggies started to chip away at the deficit with one run in each of the 3rd and 4th innings, but Carolina delivered what proved to be the knockout blow with 5 runs over the 5th and 6th innings. A&M again tried to rally with 4 runs in the bottom of the 6th, 3 of which came on a Logan Nottebrok 3-run blast. The Aggies also got one in the 8th, but Allemand struck out with runners on the corners and an opportunity to tie the game. Ryne Birk led off the 9th with a single, but Childress elected to bunt Mitchell Nau to move Birk to 2nd base and Logan Taylor and Nick Banks were unable to bring him home.
A&M came into the weekend series sitting comfortably at #2 in the RPI, but when all was said and done the Aggies found themselves all the way down at #8. A team that appeared to be a virtual lock for a national seed a month ago, A&M might just be sweating things out on selection day. Let's take a quick look at how that might shape up...
The Aggies have obviously done more than enough to be one of the Top 16 teams in the country and host a regional at Olsen Field, but suddenly A&M is going to have to fight to keep themselves in the picture for a national (Top 8) seed and the accompanying right to host a super regional. The remaining schedule for A&M features a Tuesday game at Sam Houston State and then 3 games against Ole Miss (28-24, 14-13, RPI #33) on the road in Oxford.
I tend to agree with most of the national experts who believe that A&M needs to win 2 of 3 games against the Rebels next weekend in order to lock up a national seed. The Aggies probably also need to make sure not to lose to the Bearkats on Tuesday, as that would most definitely make the Ole Miss series a must-win. Should A&M drop 2 of 3 games in Oxford, they would finish the season having lost 4 of their last 5 series, something that will be very concerning for the NCAA Tournament committee. Probably only a run all the way to the SEC Tournament Championship could remedy that kind of collapse heading into the postseason.
Heading into the last weekend of regular season play, it's probably safe to say that LSU, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Florida State, and Illinois have done enough to secure national seeds. The ACC will certainly get 2 national seeds, so one of Louisville or Miami is very likely to receive one as well. That leaves 2 remaining national seeds among the likes of A&M, Dallas Baptist, TCU, Florida, or one of Louisville or Miami. The prevailing thought for most of the regular season has been that the SEC would earn 3 national seeds, but should A&M finish the season having lost 4 of 5 series to end the year, that 3rd national seed could very easily go Florida (who just got a huge series win over Vanderbilt), TCU or DBU, or one of the other 2 ACC teams.
It's always a bit of a challenge to predict exactly what the NCAA Tournament committee is going to do from one season to the next, so if the Aggies are smart they won't want to leave anything up to chance. Taking care of business against Ole Miss should do the trick, but given the suddenly very concerning pitching issues for A&M that will likely be much easier said than done. Word on the street is that Tyler Stubblefield - who tore his ACL fielding a ground ball shortly before the season began - may be close to being an option out of the bullpen for Coach Childress, which would be a massive boost, but that's not something they should rely on being a sure-fire option.