The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi baseball team will take to the diamond this weekend at Whataburger Field and facing a tough four-game slate with nationally-ranked UCLA and Oklahoma coming to town along with perennial national power Mississippi State in the annual Whataburger College Classic. The Islanders face UCLA Friday at 6 p.m., Oklahoma on Saturday at 1 p.m., before closing out the weekend with a doubleheader versus the Bulldogs on Sunday with first game at 3 p.m.
"Not to take away from any of the teams from the past, but I think this is the most talented group that has come to Corpus Christi," said Islander head coach Scott Malone, whose team is 7-4. "UCLA is unbeaten and ranked, Oklahoma is playing well and ranked, and Mississippi is a perennial power. It will be a great challenge to see where we match up against some of the traditional powers."
UCLA enters the tournament with a perfect 10-0 record, which is the Bruins best start dating back to 1955. They are ranked No. 15 in the most recent Baseball America poll and No. 10 in the Collegiate Baseball poll. The Bruins have a strong offense with six players hitting over .400 and a team average .372. Third baseman Dean Espy leads the way with a .440 average. On the mound, UCLA is led by Gerrit Cole. Cole, who has been invited to the Team USA camp, leads the Bruins with a 3-0 mark. He has a 2.50 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only two walks in 18 innings.
The Sooners - the Islanders Saturday opponent - earned their eighth-straight win on Wednesday downing Houston Baptist 9-1. They are currently rated as high as 16th in the nation in the Collegiate Baseball poll and are 25th in most recent Baseball America poll. Garrett Buechele leads the Sooners with a .453 average with five home runs and 19 runs batted in. Former Calallen star Ryan Duke is the closer for Oklahoma and was an All-American a season ago. He is on the watch list for Stopper of the Year and has six saves in six appearances. Duke has a 1.42 ERA and given up only five hits. Another former Wildcat, Jordan John, is on the roster but has not played this season and will not see action this year.
Mississippi State improved to 9-3 on the season and won its fifth-straight game over Western Kentucky on Wednesday. Offensively, the Bulldogs are led by Connor Powers. The senior has a .383 average, seven home runs and 28 runs batted in. He followed the Islanders' Trey Hernandez as the Collegiate Baseball Newspapers National Player of the Week. A freshman leads the pitching staff for MSU. Chris Stratton is 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 16 innings.
The Islanders enter the weekend as the top hitting team in the Southland Conference with a .336 cumulative average. Chris Vergne and Omar Garcia lead the way hitting .486 and .457, respectively. Hernandez leads the Southland with five home runs and 21 runs batted in with a .381 average. He has a .786 slugging percentage. Weston Montgomery has a team-best, eight-game hitting streak, while Cory Ege's streak is at seven games. Ege is hitting .362 and Montgomery .341.
Roy Ferdin, who is 1-0 with a 3.86 ERA, will start Friday. The lefty is limiting hitters to a .271 average at the plate. Ian Campbell is 1-1 on the season and will take to the mound on Saturday. Sunday's starter has not been determined.
"The level of pitching we will see this weekend is as good as we will see all years," said Malone. "We have been a strong offensive team this year and we will have to find a way to continue to drive in runs to be successful. The hitters will be under a lot of pressure.
"We will need stability from our pitching staff and stay away from the big inning."