Through two games at Shea Field this weekend, the college baseball world has been flipped on its head. What everyone expected to be a walkthrough for the #4 Louisville Cardinals against Boston College is instead transforming into a wake-up call for both teams.
The Eagles are all of a sudden darlings of the ACC once again. After they beat NC State earlier this year, BC broke through in the national rankings for the first time in years, ranking #22 in at least one poll before tumbling out as quickly as they broke in. To those who follow baseball and have kept an eye to Chestnut Hill for a couple of years, this weekend isn't so much surprising as it is at times an affirmation.
In turn, there's a sudden vulnerability about the Cardinals. There's disbelief among casual observers that this could be happening to them, let alone to a team like Boston College. This is an ultra-talented team, one with several players who will likely be drafted high and play soon in the Major Leagues. They're a great team, one that before the weekend were among the favorites to romp through Durham and pave their own way at home into Omaha, but the weekend's exposed some of their flaws, some that could potentially be fatal if they're not careful down the road.
Here's some of what we've learned:
This is really the first time Louisville's lost tight games they could've won.
Baseball's a game with a slim margin of error, right? Think about what Crash Davis said in Bull Durham about the difference between a .250 and a .300 hitter. One hit per week, a flare, a "groundball with eyes," a dying quail - whatever it is - and you go from being a punch-and-judy, number nine hitter to a perennial All-Star.
Well Saturday's game was a game where a bounce here or there was the difference in Louisville winning or not earlier in the game. The Cardinals sent Cody Ellis from second on a flare base hit by Devin Hairston in the sixth inning, but Logan Hoggarth threw him out at the plate. If the ball is off the line or if they hold Ellis, they potentially score a run there. That goes ditto for the seventh, where they had bases loaded with two outs and couldn't get a run across.
Why is that worth mentioning? Saturday's game was the first time Louisville lost a game this year when leading after six innings after winning their first 26. It was also their first low-scoring, tight game loss of the season since they entered the weekend having only scored two or less runs twice. They've doubled that in two games.
Even in losing two of three to Miami or Florida State, the Cardinals scored runs or were just plain blown out. This is the first time where the pitching remained elite - and they still lost.
All of that is also the subtext to a larger issue that the Cardinals are really fighting it on the road. They're 6-8 this season, but in weekend series, they've lost two out of three every single time. This is just the fourth time they've played three games away from home, where they're 24-1 on the season. Against Ole Miss, Miami, FSU, and BC, they're 3-8 with a run differential of -19.
The ACC is as tight as ever.
Boston College won two games against Louisville to improve to 7-11 in league play - and they're still a game out of the postseason because the two teams in front of them won. The bubble that I've been talking about for the entire season, which at one time featured five teams tied for fifth place is now resurfacing - at the very end of the ACC standings.
Four teams - Clemson, Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Duke - are all tied at 9-11 with four teams within a game of them in front. That means despite the Eagles sitting in what amounts to 13th place, they're not out of the race for the postseason by any stretch of the imagination. It also puts a premium on winning any game at any time.
What does that mean? It means any team is capable of going on a run to move up into a favorable position inside the playoff race. It also means anyone is capable of blowing a tire and crashing out of the race. Given what we know about the ACC getting eight or nine teams into the NCAA Tournament, that's also the difference between getting into the field of 64 and golfing for the summer.
It means that Boston College isn't anywhere near being eliminated from playoff contention, nor are they out of the hunt for the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, it underscores just how hard it is to get in.
The Eagles are become battle tested, which will help them down the stretch.
Throughout the middle part of the season, where BC really struggled with consistency at the plate and at times out of the bullpen, they've still managed to put together a respectable record in certain situations. With their wins this weekend, they improved to 6-6 against teams in the Top 25 and 4-2 in home games in the ACC. With Saturday's win, BC is now 7-3 in one-run ballgames.
That's going to make Boston College a very dangerous team to play against. Because the Eagles have such an elite starting pitching rotation, teams choosing to overlook them as a "last place team" are simply doing that - overlooking them. They're failing to identify the thin margin for error in the ACC, and they're also failing to recognize that while BC isn't as talented a team on an individual level, they play a team game very well with a ton of guts.
But there's a difference in being battle tested by losses and being battle tested in wins. The Eagles are a team cagey enough to win close games in late situations. For a team that's 21-14, they're 5-1 in games where they have to win in the ninth or extras, including 3-0 in extra frames.
For BC, the strategy becomes simple. Use elite starting pitching to keep the game close into situations where individual talent simply doesn't matter. For a game built on averages and statistics, baseball becomes a wild card in close games down to the end. It becomes a matter of simply pushing a run across, and BC is showing themselves adept in that regard. As the game gets down to the later innings, the battle of will can overcome the battle of skill.
Does that mean BC can bank on that every game? No. Their Saturday win was the first time they won a game trailing after six innings (they're now 1-11). But it shows that there is a formula for the Eagles to win games, and against even the best teams, that formula is capable of being played.
The Eagles have a chance to sweep a top five team on Sunday. How it plays out is going to be just as interesting as anything we may have learned to this point. First pitch is at noon.