Florida leads familiar faces looking to deny South Carolina three-peat
Moments after securing last year's national championship for South Carolina, the Gamecocks second title in a row, pitcher Michael Roth said, "The fans will be talking about a three-peat, but we're happy for a repeat. We'll talk about a three-peat come next year." Next year is here and so is talk of the Gamecocks joining USC (which won five titles in a row from 1970-74) as the only schools to win three straight national championships.
Standing in South Carolina's way are a slew of familiar faces, most notably fellow SEC power Florida, whom the Gamecocks vanquished in two games in last year's best-of-three finals. In all, nearly 300 college baseball teams are competing in Division I this season, all aiming for one of the coveted eight spots in the College World Series. Not to discourage anyone, but when it comes to selecting the top teams in the nation it helps to round up the usual suspects. Five of the following eight teams made it last year to the CWS in Omaha, Neb., and all of them have been there within the past four years.
The Gators could put last year's disappointing Championship Series loss to South Carolina behind them, secure in the knowledge that this year's team should be even better. Depth and experience are a tough combination to beat. The weekend rotation � righthanders Hudson Randall (11-3, 2.17 ERA, 73 Ks in 124 IP) and Karsten Whitson (8-1, 2.40 ERA, 92 Ks in 97 IP) and lefty Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.62 ERA, 72 Ks in 80 IP) � return and lefty Steven Rodriguez (4-2, 1.91 ERA, 2 SV, 44 Ks in 38 IP) is back to anchor the bullpen. Only two starters are missing from the everyday lineup, which is led by catcher Mike Zunino (.371, 19 HR, 67 RBIs, 7 SB), the SEC Player of the Year. Outfielders Preston Tucker (.308, 15 HR, 74 RBIs) and Daniel Pigott (.331, 5 HR, 40 RBIs, 15 SB) and shortstop Nolan Fontana (.289, 5 HR, 49 RBIs) were the other top run producers.
The Cardinal assembled some of the nation's top recruiting classes in recent years and the expectation last season was to reach the CWS. Stanford fell just short, but this is another team with experience and depth, although more offensive production would be welcomed. Seven returning starters in the field are led by third baseman Stephen Piscotty (.364, 3 HR, 40 RBIs), first baseman Brian Ragira (.329, 4 HR, 46 RBIs) and outfielders Tyler Gaffney (.327, 3 HR, 35 RBIs, 7 SB) and Austin Wilson (.311, 5 HR, 30 RBIs). The pitching staff is anchored by the nation's top-rated pitcher, junior righty Mark Appel (6-7, 3.02 ERA, 86 Ks in 110 IP). Lefthander Brett Mooneyham is healthy again after missing last season because of an injury. He and A.J. Vanegas are expected to round out the weekend rotation.
The Owls have perhaps the nation's deepest pitching staff from top to bottom, led by righties Austin Kubitza (6-5, 2.34 ERA, 102 Ks in 100 IP) and Matthew Reckling (4-1, 3.10 ERA, 96 Ks in 78 IP) at the front of the rotation and John Simms (3-2, 3.32 ERA, 63 Ks in 62 IP) moving to the back of the bullpen. The offense will miss infielder Anthony Rendon, the 2010 National Player of the Year, but several run-producers return, led by outfielder Michael Ratterree (.327, 6 HR, 53 RBI, 6 SB), third baseman Shane Hoelscher (.281, 3 HR, 37 RBIs), catcher Craig Manuel (.309, 1 HR, 35 RBIs), shortstop Derek Hamilton (.248, 30 RBIs) and first baseman Ryan Lewis (.269, 1 HR, 28 RBIs).
The aforementioned Roth (14-3, 1.06 ERA, 112 Ks in 145 IP), who has won the clinching game in both the 2010 and '11 CWS finals, and righties Matt Price (7-3, 1.83 ERA, 75 Ks in 59 IP) and Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.69 ERA, 77 Ks in 85 IP) comprise a formidable starting rotation. The team will lean on them until an offense missing five starters from last year's team finds its groove. First baseman Christian Walker (.358, 10 HR, 62 RBIs) is the leading returner. Outfielder Evan Marzilli (.291, 3 HR, 31 RBIs) and DH Jake Williams (.268, 2 HR, 28 RBIs) also are back.
The Aggies may still have a bittersweet taste in their mouths from last season. They reached the CWS, but lost two straight games and went home almost before they had even unpacked. Two of the nation's top starting pitchers � righthanders Ross Stripling (14-2, 2.29 ERA, 113 Ks in 126 IP) and Michael Wacha (9-4, 2.29 ERA, 123 Ks in 139 IP) � return. And there is more offensive production back than nearly any other team in the nation, led by third baseman Matt Juengel (.308, 7 HR, 50 RBIs, 15 SB), first baseman Jacob House (.301, 3 HR, 52 RBIs) and outfielders Tyler Naquin (.381, 2 HR, 44 RBIs) and Brandon Wood (.264, 1 HR, 29 RBIs, 31 SB).
The Razorbacks feature one of the best Friday starters around with righty D.J. Baxendale (10-2, 1.58 ERA, 77 Ks in 85 IP), who doesn't overpower opponents but still finds a way to beat them. There are some quality arms behind him, namely starter Ryne Stanek (4-2, 3.94 ERA, 41 Ks in 64 IP) and closer Nolan Sanburn (2-4, 3.62 ERA, 8 SV, 35 SO in 32 IP).
Arkansas features more base-stealers than most clubs, but you have to get on base in order to steal one and last year the Razorbacks struggled with their hitting. First baseman Dominic Ficociello (.335, 4 HR, 50 RBIs, 5 SB) is the only returner who batted better than .300. Coach Dave Van Horn is counting on 3B Matt Reynolds (.243, 3 HR, 22 RBIs, 16 SB), 2B Bob Bigham (.291, 2 HR, 20 RBIs, 17 SB) and SS Tim Carver (.232, 1 HR, 13 RBIs, 24 SB) to boost their batting averages.
The Tar Heels have come to expect trips to the CWS -- last year's was their fifth in the past six years -- although they arrived a year ahead of time last season with a young team that was expected to need more seasoning. It didn't hurt that third baseman Colin Moran (.335, 9 HR, 71 RBIs) debuted as the National Freshman of the Year. Catcher Jacob Stallings (.292, 4 HR, 43 RBIs), shortstop Tommy Coyle (.311, 2 HR, 36 RBIs, 18 SB) and outfielder Chaz Frank (.278, 35 RBIs) provided a pretty good supporting cast. Other freshmen who emerged last year were lefty Kent Emanuel (9-1, 2.33 ERA, 89 Ks in 104 IP) and righties Andrew Smith (3-1, 2.77 ERA, 27 Ks in 26 IP) and Michael Morin (4-2, 4.64 ERA, 10 SV, 66 Ks in 64 IP). There is depth, balance and now experience here for another very successful season.
The Commodores made the school's first CWS appearance last season, riding the arms of starting pitchers and first-round draft picks Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin all the way to Omaha. If Vanderbilt is to return this year, the offense must provide the pitching staff with cover until newcomers on the mound gain experience. Vandy returns one of the nation's top offenses, led by first baseman Conrad Gregor (.353, 3 HR, 32 RBIs), shortstop Anthony Gomez (.336, 48 RBIs, 7 SB) and outfielders Mike Yastrzemski (.296, 3 HR, 42 RBIs, 23 SB), Tony Kemp (.329, 34 RBIs, 17 SB) and Connor Harrell (.289, 9 HR, 36 RBIs, 7 SB).