2011 College Baseball Surprises

April 7, 2011
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Both The Good & The Bad…

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We are roughly at the midway point in the 2011 college baseball season. Probably the biggest conversation coming into the season was the new bat standards and how they would affect the college game.

It’s no surprise that offense has been down, while pitching numbers have been better so far this season. However, nobody predicted James Madison would erupt for 91 runs with those new bats in a four-game sweep of Bucknell to open the season. Jake Lowery and David Herbek have combined to lead not only the Dukes, but also the nation with 14 and 12 home runs, respectively, while also sitting among the nation’s Division One leaders in sever other offensive categories.

Following is a look at some other surprises, both good and bad, to this point in the season.

Pleasant Surprises…

Danny Hultzen is 6-0 with a 1.36 ERA in 2011

Virginia was supposed to be good this year, but Brian O’Connor’s Cavaliers have been flat-out great so far. UVA debuted at #15 in our Preseason Composite National Rankings, but is 29-2 overall and 11-1 in ACC play heading into this weekend’s showdown with Georgia Tech. The Cavs lost just one game in the month of March-their series finale against Florida State. They’ve done anything but mash the ball out of the yard en-route to their 29 victories. Keith Werman has nearly twice as many sac bunts (13) as his team has home runs (7), while they still average 7.3 runs a game with a .300 team batting average. Danny Hultzen (6-0, 1.36 ERA) is second in the nation with 78 strikeouts for a pitching staff that’s so deep that midweek starter Will Roberts, who pitched a perfect game last week, is riding a 21-inning scoreless streak. Virginia has a 1.93 team ERA with 333 strikeouts and just 64 walks this season.

Fresno State was a team that many thought deserved an NCAA bid in 2010, but the Bulldogs (38-25) just missed the field of 64 after Hawaii ended their reign of four straight WAC Tournament titles. Offense wasn’t a problem for Mike Batesole’s squad, but the pitching staff ended the season with a 6.05 ERA. Things have been much different for the 2011 edition of the Bulldogs (20-3). Greg Gonzalez (6-0, 1.36 ERA) fronts a pitching staff that sports a 2.50 ERA. The senior led the staff with 73 strikeouts last year, but he already has 52 Ks with just 9 BB in 46 1/3 IP in 2011. Charlie Robertson has slammed the door at the end of games with 9

Fresno State's Charlie Robertson is among the DI leaders with 9 saves.

saves in 10 appearances. He is yet to surrender an earned run in 16 1/3 IP this year. Like everyone, Fresno State’s offense is still adjusting to the new bats. Most notably Jordan Ribera, who hit .343 and led the nation with 27 home runs last year. He is batting just .244 with one HR and 7 RBIs in 23 starts in ’11. Dusty Robinson has picked-up the slack though, with a .321 BA, 6 HR and 19 RBIs.

Georgia was just 16-37 last year with a dismal 5-23 record in the SEC. Outfielder Zach Cone (.363, 10 HR, 53 RBIs) was practically the entire offense for Dave Perno’s Bulldogs, while the pitching staff had a bloated 8.51 ERA with no complete games. The Bulldogs (15-14, 6-3) are one win from matching last year’s overall win total, while a series win over LSU and a sweep of Mississippi State has already exceeded last year’s conference win total. Georgia also boasts wins over UCLA, Florida State and South Carolina. There’s still work to be done, but where UGA is now is a far cry from a season that started by being swept in a 3-game series at Stetson.

Cal State Bakersfield is well on its way to eclipsing last year’s win total. The Roadrunners are off and running to a 20-7 start after finishing with a 26-30 record in 2010. Bill Kernan’s squad hasn’t shied away from tough competition either. The DI independent has wins over top 10 opponents Arizona State and defending national champion South Carolina along with series wins over Washington and Ohio State. Ryan McIntyre (.363, 10

Tommy Hoenshell has helped spearhead Bakersfield's pitching staff.

doubles, 4 triples, .966 OPS) leads an offense that has five regulars hitting above .300, but it’s pitching that’s really fueled Bakersfield so far. Tommy Hoenshell (5-3, 1.97 ERA) has two complete games and leads the nation with 64.0 IP, Jonathon Montoya (5-1, 3.06 ERA) is tied for the DI lead with four complete games and closer Martin Medina (1-1, 2.45 ERA, 5 saves) has 19 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings to date.

Cal may or may not be reinstated beyond this season, but the Golden Bears are doing everything they can to make 2011 memorable. Dave Esquer has his team off to a 19-7 record, including 5-1 in the Pac-10, in what could be the program’s swan song. The pitching was expected to be good in 2011, but so far it’s been flat-out great. Justin Jones and Erik Johnson are each 4-1 with respective 2.47 and 2.08 ERAs, while Kevin Miller (3-2, 0.63 ERA, 1 save) has been nearly lights-out in a swing role. The senior has made three relief appearances and five starts, with a team-high 53 strikeouts and just 7 BB in 43.0 IP. Cal has a balanced offensive attack. Six regulars are batting between .317 and Austin Booker’s team-best .346, while eight players have accounted for the team’s 12 home runs.

Central Florida’s sites have been set on Omaha since Terry Rooney left his job as an LSU assistant to take over in Orlando. Now in his third year, Rooney has a team that’s starting to make some noise. The Knights (20-9) opened Conference USA with the program’s first ever series win over Rice only to be swept last weekend by Southern Mississippi.  However, UCF responded by toppling Florida 4-3 Tuesday night in Gainesville. D.J. Hicks (.347, 6 HR,

UCF's D.J. Hicks is among the top overall Conference USA hitters this season.

1.008 OPS) leads an offense that has seven starters batting above .300. Freshman Ben Lively (5-0, 1.88 ERA) has been UCF’s top weekend starter, while relievers Nick Cicio (1.08 ERA) and Joe Rogers (2.04 ERA) have each made 11 appearances out of the Knight’s bullpen, combining for 8 saves and 42 Ks with 5 BB in 44.0 IP.

Stetson (22-7) is another Florida school that’s exceeded most expectations so far. The Hatters need just five wins to match the win total of last year’s team that finished 27-31. Head coach Pete Dunn’s 32nd edition of the Hatters is also just five wins away from matching its 14 Atlantic Sun Conference win total from 2010. Robert Crews (.378, 3 HR), Nick Rickles (.345, 10 doubles, 3 HR, 28 RBIs) and Mark Jones (.343) have provided the bulk of the offense, while relievers Robbie Powell (4-0, 1.05 ERA) and Jake Boyd (2-0, 2.45 ERA) have combined for 8 saves in 31 appearances. The pitching staff has notched 232 strikeouts with 94 walks so far this season.

Head-scratching Surprises…

Connecticut was the darling of the north heading into the 2011 season. The Huskies brought back most of their line-up and pitching from last year’s team that won a school record 48 games and hosted an NCAA Regional. Most is the key word. UConn struggled to an 8-9-1 start to the new campaign without table setter Pierre LePage (.327, 63 R, 29 SB) and top run producer Mike Olt (.318, 23 HR, 76 RBIs), who were both drafted last June. The Huskies (15-10-1) have won seven of their last eight and look like they are back on the right track after sweeping St. John’s last weekend. Ace pitcher Matt Barnes (5-2, 1.00 ERA, 2 CG) has been as dominant as advertised. After starting the season in the Saturday starting role, he’s now the Friday night man. The UConn staff currently sports a 2.78 ERA, which should go a long way toward curing what ails Jim Penders‘ team now that Big East play is here.

UCLA road its pitching and a scrappy offense to a national runner-up finish in Omaha last year. The Bruins might have to lean on the arms of Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole even more this year. UCLA hit .304 as a team and averaged 6.8 runs a game last year, but those numbers are down to .244 and 4.0 through 24 games this year. John Savage’s Bruins (14-10) weren’t a team built on power to begin with (Dean Espy’s 9 HR led the club last year), but they have just four home runs to date in ’11. Seven different Bruin regulars batted .308 or better last year, but Cody Keefer’s .293 currently leads the team. Bauer (5-1, 1.46 ERA), who leads the nation with 82 Ks, and Cole (3-2, 2.06 ERA, 57 K) and the staff have been overpowering, with a 2.06 staff ERA and 259 strikeouts vs. just 74 walks in 218 2/3 innings this season. But consider this: After a 22-game win streak to start the season, UCLA didn’t lose its first game until April 2 last year. They lost 17 times in 68 games last year, but they have already lost 10 games this season.

San Diego has been to the NCAA Tournament in four of the last five seasons, but the Toreros will have a tough time getting back this year. San Diego (7-19) is off to one of the worst starts in Rich Hill’s 13-year tenure. USD currently sports a .256 team batting average, .325 on-base percentage and 4.82 ERA. The holes in the weekend pitching rotation left by Kyle Blair (8-4, 2.84 ERA) and Sammy Solis (9-2, 3.42 ERA) have been tough to fill on the mound, while the bats of Chris Engall (.416) and James Meador (.391) have left a big offensive void as well. To its credit, San Diego has played a tough schedule, with losses to the likes of Vanderbilt, Oklahoma, Cal, Coastal Carolina, and Fresno State.

New Mexico had its best season in nearly 50 years in 2010, but things have been different this year. After earning the program’s first NCAA bid since 1962, the 2011 Lobos are off to a 9-20 start, including eight straight losses to start the campaign. However, Ray Birmingham’s squad returned just one position starter and six pitchers from last year’s team that went 38-22. Birmingham’s teams have always been offensive minded, but it’s hitting a whopping 80 points below last year’s .346 team batting average, while reaching base at a .342 clip (down nearly 70 points). The lack of offense, combined with a 6.05 staff ERA has been a recipe for  misfortune so far. Give Birmingham credit though. He knew what kind of turnover he would be facing this year, but still scheduled the likes of Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Arizona, and Oklahoma. The first of two conference series against TCU is this weekend.

Oregon is off to just a 14-12 start after an NCAA berth in just the second year of existence in the program’s return. The 40-24 record and that postseason appearance brought high expectations and a top 10 ranking coming into 2011. Like UCLA, George Horton’s offense is know for its small ball approach, but the Ducks are waddling to the tune of a dismal .229 team batting average and a .310 slugging percentage. Aaron Jones (.310) and Danny Pulfer (.301) are the only Ducks batting above .300, while K.C. Serna, who hit a team-best .348 in ’10, is struggling at .194 this season. Oregon scored just three runs in last week’s sweep at the hands of Arizona State to open Pac-10 play, making this weekend’s home series against Washington huge.

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