Ten Questions On The Eve Of The College Baseball Season
By Collegebaseball360.com Editor Sean Stires
A new college baseball season is about to begin. It’s a season that is started a week earlier than it was originally slated to begin, and one school (James Madison) has already canceled its season opener, because (spoiler) it snows in roughly two-thirds of the country in mid-February.
Anyway, from time to time different thoughts pop into my head and I have managed to corral a few of them here. So, here are Ten College Baseball Questions For 2010… (in no particular order)…
1. Can LSU Repeat? The odds say it’s not going to happen. Oregon State (2006-2007), LSU (1996-1997) and Stanford (1987-1988) are the only teams to win back-to-back crowns since Rod Dedeaux’s USC Trojans ended a streak of five straight titles from 1970-1974. Paul Mainieri’s Tigers have a lot of key elements returning, like Blake Dean’s bat and Anthony Ranaudo & Matty Ott’s arms, but the odds just aren’t in their favor. On the other hand…
2. Can Texas Be Stopped? The odds (along with a sick pitching staff and a lot of returning everyday players) would seem to be in Augie Garrido’s favor. The Longhorns return three starters, Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green and Chance Ruffin who could all be just about anyone’s number one starter. The trio combined to win 26 games last year. Cameron Rupp, Kevin Keyes and Omaha long ball ace Russell Moldenhauer are also back to lead the offense. With all that back the biggest question right now seem to be can they stay number one from now until season’s end?
3. Would An LSU vs. Texas Championship Re-Match Be Good For College Baseball? It would be good for TV ratings, but I don’t know that it would actually be good for the game as a whole. Does anyone who’s not a Yankees fan think that the cash cow’s 27th title is good for any other MLB team other than the one in the Bronx with the new stadium and overpriced (and often empty) seats? Texas and LSU at the College World Series is good for college baseball, because it gets casual fans a little more interested. But when it comes time for all the marbles David vs. Goliath is just more fun.
4. Speaking Of David…Who Will Be This Year’s Cinderella? Fresno State was the ultimate Cinderella two years ago, but Mike Batesole’s great-great-great grand children will be playing before we see that kind of run again. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be more Cinderellas. They’re quite common when it comes to the CWS. Fresno State, Southern Mississippi, Louisville, Southwest Missouri State, Notre Dame, and San Jose State all made it to Omaha in the last decade in what was either their first appearance or their first trip after a long CWS drought. The odds say there’ll be a Cinderella, but the waiting is the hardest (and most fun) part.
5. Will Bryce Brentz Win the NCAA’s Triple Crown? The Middle Tennessee State slugger just about did it last year. He led the nation with his .465 batting average, and he tied Alabama’s Kent Matthes for the home run title with 28. Brentz also topped the charts with his .930 slugging percentage, but he missed the Triple Crown with “just” 73 RBIs. That technically tied for 31st nationally, but Brentz was just 14 RBIs behind NCAA leader Paul Goldschmidt of Texas State. Logical thinking would say Brentz, now a junior, doesn’t have a chance, but logic never pitched to Brentz.
6. Can Arizona State Overcome The Loss Of Pat Murphy? Love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue with the success that Murphy had in his 15 years in the ASU dugout. But it’s not like ASU had never won prior to Murph’s arrival. He led his team to Omaha four times, but the program has 21 CWS appearances since 1964 thanks to Bob Winkles and Jim Brock. Now it’s Tim Esmay’s turn to guide the cruise ship Sun Devil. Esmay, a former Utah head coach, himself played for Brock in Omaha twice, and he was also on Murphy’s staff for the last five seasons. He also has a lot of experience sitting with him in the dugout. Ken Knutson is in his first year as an assistant on the ASU staff after 17 seasons as the Washington Huskies’ head coach. ASU’s line-up is loaded again, and there’s plenty of pitching too. For now anyway the good ship ASU doesn’t show any signs of running aground.
7. Is Virginia The Next National Power Or A One-Hit Wonder? The Cavaliers can hardly be considered a Cinderella. Yes, last year was their first-ever College World Series trip, but they are from the ACC and they won their conference tournament last year. Glass slippers aside, it would be easy to write-off UVA as a team that got hot and made a big run. However, last year’s CWS squad included 23 underclassmen and set 11 school records…and the most prominent components-like Danny Hultzen, Jarrett Parker and Kevin Arico to name a few-are all back this year. Who saw North Carolina coming prior four years ago? Mike Fox’s Tar Heels hadn’t been to Omaha since 1989 prior to 2006 & now they’ve gone four straight times. Cavalier head coach Brian O’Connor has now guided the Cavs to six straight NCAA berths, and he has been a guy whose destiny has always seemed to be Omaha. He grew-up in the shadow of Rosenblatt Stadium in Council Bluffs, NE, pitched in the ’91 CWS for Creighton, helped Notre Dame get to Omaha in 2002 as the Irish pitching coach, and finally took his own team to the promised land last year…not to mention the fact that his mug is one of the players on the famed “Road To Omaha” statue outside Rosenblatt. So, if you’re asked what lies in the shadow of the statue the safe answer might be “O’Connor’s Cavaliers”.
8. Is A Northern Team Ready To Make A Real National Statement? Michigan and Notre Dame flirted with it last decade. St. John’s has had its moments, and Ohio State and Minnesota have each had some success, but it all comes down to pitching. Or more specifically, pitching depth. The biggest difference in teams in the good southern teams and the good northern teams is pitching depth. There are guys coming out of the bullpen in the ACC and SEC who could be starters on most Big Ten and Big East teams. Just look at last year’s save numbers in those conferences: 157 in the SEC & 160 saves in the ACC compared to 110 and 121 in the Big Ten and Big East, respectively. But save totals don’t even tell half the story.
When it comes to playing in an NCAA Regional winning the first game is important, but for a northern team winning the first two games of a regional is critical. The team that starts 2-0 at a regional is at least one starting pitcher ahead of each opponent it plays the rest of the weekend. Look at Minnesota last year: They lost their regional opener to Baylor, then out-slugged Southern 11-8 and Baylor 15-12 atfter that before falling 10-3 to LSU. They played respectably, but they gave-up 10 runs a game over their last three contests, while LSU gave-up 3 runs with its third starter on the mound. Ohio State lost 24-8 to Georgia to its regional opener last year, then won 6-4 and 13-6 in elimination games before getting trounced 37-6 by Florida State in game four (game 3 for FSU). OSU’s starting pitcher gave-up 7 runs without getting an out in that game. But what about Michigan in 2007? The Wolverines won the first two games of their regional, lost game three, but then beat Vanderbilt in the deciding game four to advance to a Super Regional. In 2002 Notre Dame used just five pitchers while going 3-0 at their Regional en-route to being the only northern team to advance to Omaha since the ’80s. The Irish also used just two pitchers in their two Super Regional wins over Florida State the following week. It’s no coincidence that in recent years only teams from the south have come back to win a Regional after losing one of their first two games.
9. Is Conference USA The Most Underrated Baseball Conference In The Country? Quick question…what three conferences have sent at least one team to the College World Series in each of the last five seasons? If you said the SEC, Pac 10 and Conference USA you get the gold star for the day (but remember to raise your hand before blurting out the answer next time). Rice, Tulane and last year’s darling Southern Mississippi have all gone to Omaha in that stretch. Terry Rooney left LSU after a trip to the 2008 CWS in part because C-USA had earned a reputation as a three bid league. But Conference USA didn’t just get three bids last year. Rice, Southern Miss. and East Carolina all advanced to Super Regionals, and ECU and USM did it by beating South Carolina and Georgia Tech, respectively, in Regional action. USM then beat Florida on the road to advance to Omaha, Rice lost to eventual National Champ LSU in its Regional while ECU fell to a North Carolina team that made a fourth straight CWS appearance. C-USA has arrived, and based on the talent the aforementioned ’09 Super Regional teams have back, the conference doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
10. Will The Season Just Start Already? Really, aren’t you tired of waiting? Oops, that’s another question, we don’t have room for eleven. Is it here yet? That’s another questions too…