A&M - OSU Preview

With the real March Madness in full swing, and the A&M basketball team facing do-or-die contests each time the ball is tipped, it seems somewhat crazy to imply that the A&M baseball team is facing a similar "must-win" situation with 10 weeks to go before their NCAA tournament.

As many will attest, however, Big 12 baseball can be a crazy thing.

The Aggies' realistic hopes at snagging a conference championship will be heavily impacted by this weekend's series, as they travel to Stillwater to face the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The three games away from Olsen are the first for A&M this year after going 16-4 in a 20-game homestand, and start a series of seven straight away from College Station.

The emphasis on this weekend stem from many different realities about the conference race. A&M and OSU were picked to finish 4th and 5th, respectively, in the preseason coaches' poll and represent an intriguing match-up on paper. With a "15-home, 12-away" conference schedule, holding serve on the road makes the Aggies an even more formidable threat to take the conference title, but that will be no small chore in Stillwater. The Cowboys have owned A&M there, with the Ags claiming their only series victory in 2002.

The series between the two clubs is as intense as any non-rivalry series gets in the conference, stemming from a number of incidents in the past decade, most notably the bench-clearing brawl in 2001 that still lingers in the minds of many fans. The ferocity is certainly accented by a pair of vocal fanbases and the nature of the recent contests, as the last seven and 14 of the last 16 have been decided by just one or two runs. The attitude in the series has survived despite both clubs changing head coaches in recent years.

Despite that regime change in Stillwater, and the installation of a noted collegiate pitching mind in Frank Anderson, the Cowboys' persona of an offensive minded club has not changed. Allie P. Reynolds Stadium has a reputation of playing as a small ballpark, but technically possesses the same dimensions as Olsen Field and features a ballclub that has torn up the offensive circuit there this year.

The Cowboys enter the weekend as the top hitting club in the Big 12, leading all teams in batting average (.342), home runs (29), RBI (173), and runs per game (10.05). Those numbers are very skewed by their recent midweek 22-8 and 34-1 annihilations of Arkansas Pine Bluff, where they had 54 hits in 91 at bats for a .593 team average. Taking those games from the equation moves their batting average back to .301 and runs per game at 7.81. Those numbers took a huge plunge in Big 12 play, as OSU hit just .211 and plated a total of 11 runs against Baylor last weekend.

The big power numbers are indicative of a free swinging club, and the stats bear that fact out. The Pokes are slugging a very impressive .583 on the year, but their strikeout to walk ratio is 1.49:1. Four everyday starters for OSU are batting above .350 for the year, including Donnie Webb (.429-1-15 overall, .091-0-1 Big 12), Matt Hague (.377-3-23, .333-1-2), Jordy Mercer (.368-4-25, .417-1-2), and Rebel Ridling (.368-5-20, .083-1-1). The longball shows frequently in the stat columns of OSU's best hitters, and their dependence upon it was a blessing and a curse in Waco last week. Two solo homers gave them a 6-5 win on Friday and accounted for most of their weekend runs (5 dingers), but also led to 22 strikeouts to just 10 walks.

Childress will counter the Poke offense with the two freshmen that have taken over the Aggie rotation. Both Brooks Raley (2-0, 2.11 ERA, 23 K, 7 BB in 21.1 IP, .171 BAA) and Barret Loux (1-0, 3.86 ERA, 20 K, 9 BB in 18.2 IP, .211 BAA) are strikeout pitchers, but have been prone to the occasional "freshman mistake" of leaving pitches a bit too much over the plate and have been punished for them (4 HR between them). The two will start Friday and Saturday, respectively, and the Sunday starter has yet to be named.

The Cowboy pitching staff has been less stellar than the offense, racking up middle of the conference pack statistics such as ERA (4.13, 7th), strikeouts (136, 7th), and opponent batting average (.266, 8th). Despite the rather average overall numbers, Anderson will lead off the series with a pair of very good starters in Andrew Oliver (2-0, 1.40 ERA, 28 K, 9 BB in 25.2 IP) and Tyler Lyons (2-2, 3.24 ERA, 24 K, 7 BB in 25 IP). Tyler Blandford (2-1, 7.00 ERA, 16 K, 7 BB in 18 IP) will toe the rubber on Sunday.

Keys to Victory

Throw Strikes/Keep the Ball Down – As noted, the free-swinging Cowboys are more than capable of punishing teams who give them too much of the plate. Staying out of situations where a fastball is predictable, and keeping them from sitting dead-red on those, is important for the Aggie success. Elevating the ball may also have disastrous consequences in any count, and again the Cowboy hitters will be ready to pounce on any mistake pitches. Walks can only complicate these issues, and mistake-free pitching is on the order for a successful weekend.

Move it on Over – OSU's opponents have not aggressively run on the Cowboys (just 11 attempts), but have been fairly successful (54.55%) in doing so. A&M's team speed an aggressive style should lead to an even higher success rate, and moving runners around the basepaths should give A&M additional opportunities to score key runs.

Killer Instinct – This has been an Achilles heel for A&M against the Cowboys over the last few seasons, as the Aggies have brought leads to the late innings many times but fallen short in the end. Given the opportunity to put the Cowboys away, whether that be for a single game or the series, this team must find the ability to finish the job that some of the previous clubs have not.

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