TCU, Florida, UCLA lead college baseball top 10 in season of change
Change will be evident from start to finish during the 2011 college baseball season, beginning with the bats. NCAA-mandated restrictions have removed the ping and the pop from them, to the point that coaches are predicting lower scores and shorter games as pitchers dominate the hitters. The road to the national championship still leads to Omaha, Neb., but it detours downtown, where TD Ameritrade Park, built at a cost of $128 million, has replaced historic Rosenblatt Stadium. Expect to see some familiar faces during opening ceremonies of the College World Series, however. Half of the teams in the top 10 here reached Omaha last year.
The Horned Frogs advanced to the CWS for the first time in school history last season and came within a game of playing for the national championship. What do they do for an encore? TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle's comments in June following a loss to UCLA that ended the Frogs' most memorable season included this: "We still have something to strive for, which is to win the whole thing." The pieces are in place to do just that. Seven starters return in the field as well as TCU's entire weekend rotation -- sophomore lefthander Matt Purke (16-0, 3.02 ERA, 142 SO in 116 IP), junior righthander Kyle Winkler (12-3, 3.39 ERA, 92 SO in 117 IP) and senior RHP Steven Maxwell (11-2, 2.70 ERA, 93 SO in 103 IP). Not bad, for starters. Four of the returning position players had at least 50 RBIs last year -- outfielders Jason Coats (.361, 13 HR, 69 RBIs) and Aaron Schultz (.293, 9 HR, 53 RBIs), shortstop Taylor Featherston (.338, 8 HR, 52 RBIs) and second baseman Jerome Pena (.313, 11 HR, 52 RBIs). TCU isn't expected to be challenged on the way to its sixth straight Mountain West Conference championship, which should serve as a springboard for hosting regionals and that return trip to Omaha. "Now we have a higher standard to live up to," said Schlossnagle, "and we plan on being back."
The Gators go TCU one better in the field with eight returning starters, including a foursome that earned freshmen All-American honors last season. Those four -- third baseman Austin Maddox (.333, 17 HR, 72 RBIs), catcher Mike Zunino (.267, 9 HR, 41 RBIs), first baseman Brian Johnson (.405, 4 HR, 21 RBIs) and shortstop Nolan Fontana (.,287, 3 HR, 23 RBIs) -- as well as junior OFs Preston Tucker (.331, 11 HR, 49 RBIs) and Tyler Thompson (.301, 6 HR, 28 RBIs) and senior 2B Josh Adams (.224, 9 HR, 42 RBIs) helped Florida to the CWS last year. The Gators feel like they have something to prove after going 0-for-Omaha, heading home after two straight losses. RHP Hudson Randall (8-4, 3.24 ERA, 69 SO in 97 IP) and LHP Brian Johnson (6-4, 4.03 ERA, 51 SO in 74 IP), sophomores who were freshmen All-Americans last season, and junior LHP Alex Panteliodis (11-3, 3.51 ERA, 82 SO in 100 IP) are backed by a deep bullpen. As if the starting staff wasn't strong enough, there was the welcome -- if unexpected -- addition of freshman RHP Karsten Whitson, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 draft who passed up $2 million from the Padres to come to school.
The Bruins reached the national championship series last season, just days after the death of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. He was a source of inspiration for the players, who wore his initials on their hats. Compare and contrast. On the eve of the 2011 season opener inspirational words were provided by . . . Charlie Sheen? The actor crossed paths with players at UCLA's field last week. "Stay off the crack. Drink chocolate milk. Enjoy every moment. That's all I got," Sheen said to laughter and applause in a greeting reported by TMZ.com. Anyway, UCLA is poised for another run at the title with junior RHPs Trevor Bauer (12-3, 3.02 ERA, 165 SO in 131 IP) and Gerrit Cole (11-4, 3.37 ERA, 153 SO in 123 IP), a pair of first-round talents who comprise the best 1-2 punch in the nation. Several of the top hitters in the lineup return, led by infielder Dean Espy (.345, 9 HR, 52 RBIs), 3B Cody Regis (.312, 9 HR, 47 RBIs), OF Beau Amaral (.354, 4 HR, 31 RBIs) and C Steve Rodriguez (.249, 8 HR, 37 RBI). No one is more eager for UCLA to return to Omaha than 2B Tyler Rahmatulla (.328, 7 HR, 45 RBIs), who missed the Series last season after breaking his hand during the dogpile that followed the Bruins' Super Regional win.
The Commodores were the No. 1 national seed four years ago. A lot of good that did them. They were upset in the regionals. Vanderbilt has a team that is similarly talented -- led by its frontline pitching -- and will be bidding to break through to make the school's first CWS appearance. Junior RHP Sonny Gray (10-5, 3.48 ERA, 113 SO in 109 IP) is the staff ace and a first-round talent who possesses a mid-90s fastball. RHP Jack Armstrong (7-4, 4.71 ERA, 50 SO in 78 IP) and LHP Grayson Garvin are two other talented juniors. Senior RHP Taylor Hill is a solid Tuesday starter if he doesn't make it into the weekend rotation. Vandy has six players in the starting lineup who had at least 30 RBIs last season, led by junior 3B Jason Esposito (.359, 12 HR, 64 RBIs), 1B Aaron Westlake (.308, 14 HR, 61 RBIs) and senior C Curt Casali (.309, 8 HR, 42 RBIs). More than a passing glance will be given to sophomore OF Mike Yastrzemski, whose grandfather Carl was a player of some renown for the Boston Red Sox.
Will restrictions on the bats play right into the Longhorns' hands? A good question. Head coach Augie Garrido is well known for embracing the more subtle aspects of the game, like bunting, and his squads are annually regarded for their defensive prowess. But they already play in a pitcher's park at Disch-Falk Field, so how much more advantageous could it be to have the likes of junior RHP Taylor Jungmann (8-3, 2.03 ERA, 129 SO in 120 IP) and senior RHP Cole Green (11-2, 2.74 ERA, 75 SO in 112 IP) on the mound? We'll see. Junior 3B Kevin Lusson (.263, 14 HR, 48 RBIs) and sophomore OF Cohl Walla (.316, 8 HR, 40 RBIs) and senior 1B Tant Shepherd (.337, 8 HR, 37 RBIs) are the most productive returners on offense. Texas lost to TCU in the Super Regionals a year ago, so Longhorns fans will be chomping at the bit for the team to return to Omaha for the second time in three years. Texas' six national championships are second only to USC's 12. But it's been six years since the Longhorns' last title, a drought of near-epic proportions for 'Horns fans.
The Titans can make runs the old fashioned way just like Texas. It's no wonder. Fullerton is where Garrido made his name. The Titans will have to be more resourceful after losing first-rounders Gary Brown and Christian Colon in the draft. Junior 1B/LHP Nick Ramirez (.346, 16 HR, 75 RBIs/1-3, 3.50 ERA, 11 saves, 38 SO in 44 IP) is perhaps the nation's top two-way player, although junior OF /LHP Tyler Pill (.354, 7 HR, 42 RBIs/4-4, 3.36 ERA, 58 SO in 62 IP) will have something to say about that. Sophomore OF Carlos Lopez (.354, 7 HR, 51 RBIs) is one of the most productive returners. Fullerton features a deep pitching staff, led by junior RHP Noe Ramirez (12-1, 2.54 ERA, 119 SO in 106 IP), who is among college baseball's elite starters. Fullerton suffered a fate similar to Texas last season, losing in the Super Regionals to UCLA, but the Titans have the talent to get back to Omaha.
The Gamecocks won the school's first national championship in baseball -- or any other men's sport, for that matter -- when they defeated UCLA last season. South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner had hardly hoisted the trophy overhead when he was asked about returning to defend the title. "Are you serious? Are you really serious?" said Tanner. "It's so hard to get in this position, especially with the landscape of college baseball right now." He will try with a South Carolina team that should be more productive offensively. Junior OF Jackie Bradley (.368, 13 HR, 60 RBIs), the CWS Most Outstanding Player, leads a core group of returners that includes 1B Christian Walker (.327, 9 HR, 51 RBIs) and 3B Adrian Morales (.273, 9 HR, 56 RBIs). The departure of starters Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson creates a void, although the staff demonstrated its depth last year in Omaha. Stepping up as starters will be a trio of LHPs -- sophomore Tyler Webb and juniors Nolan Belcher and Michael Roth. Roth was forever etched into Gamecocks lore with two tremendous CWS starts. Sophomore RHP Matt Price (2-1, 1.34 ERA, 10 saves, 83 SO in 56 IP) closes out games with the best of them.
The Sooners surprised a few observers by getting to the CWS last season, but returning this year wouldn't be a surprise considering how many players return. Oklahoma has seven starters coming back, including five who reached double figures in home runs -- 3B Garret Buechelle (.359, 17 HR, 65 RBIs), 1B Cameron Seitzer (.305, 16, 53 RBIs), 2B Max White (.293, 15 HR, 43 RBIs), C Tyler Ogle (.331, 11 HR, 46 RBIs) and OF Cody Reine (.340, 10 HR, 42 RBIs). They are experienced in the starting rotation with junior RHP Burch Smith (11-2, 2.50 ERA, 79 SO in 90 IP) and senior RHPs Bobby Shore (10-5, 4.12 ERA, 77 SO in 94 IP) and Michael Rocha (8-2, 3.53 ERA, 55 SO in 74 IP). The pitchers don't have the same stuff as some of the other top teams' starters. However, they are fortunate to have one of the better closers around in senior RHP Ryan Duke (3-2, 3.75 ERA, 12 saves, 39 SO in 36 IP).
The Cardinal had quite a run a decade ago with five straight appearances in the CWS. It appears to have reloaded again after securing two of the nation's best recruiting classes the past two years. This ranking is predicated on those players coming of age this season. An outstanding sophomore class is led by SS Kenny Diekroeger (.356, 5 HR, 41 RBIs), 3B Stephen Piscotty (.326, 4 HR, 36 RBIs) and OF Tyler Gaffney (.328, 3 HR, 24 RBIs), a two-sport star from San Diego who also is a running back on the Stanford football team. Junior LHP Brett Mooneyham (3-7, 5.07 ERA, 99 SO in 87 IP) -- a top pitching prospect -- and junior RHP Jordan Pries (4-4, 4.07 ERA, 65 SO in 97 IP) are the most experienced returners. Several younger pitchers will have a crack at the starting rotation, including sophomore RHP Dean McArdle.
Those who thought it was Duck season in the fall with the football team should be even more impressed with the rapid rise of the Oregon baseball program. Resurrected just two years ago after being dormant since 1981, the Ducks advanced to a regional final last season and appear ready to take another step forward this year. Coach George Horton draws on his Southern California experience -- he won a national championship at Fullerton in 2004 -- for success and still mines the area for talent. Five players return on offense who had at least 30 RBIs last season, led by junior SS K.C. Serna (.348, 5 HR, 37 RBIs) and junior 2B Danny Pulfer (.300, 3 HR, 38 RBIs). Junior LHP Tyler Anderson (7-5, 2.98 ERA, 105 SO in 103 IP) is the staff ace and junior RHP Madison Boer (3-1, 2.44 ERA, 5 saves, 48 SO in 52 IP) is as valuable as he is versatile.