Talent Heavy Field Ready To Play On Big Stage …
It’s college baseball’s top event, so it stands to reason that some of the top players in the country should be on display when the 2011 College World Series starts this Saturday in Omaha. However, the wealth of talent seems like it’s bursting at the seams for the first CWS at TD Ameritrade Park.
How much talent? Consider this – the SEC, ACC, Big 12, and Pac-10 are the only conferences represented at the CWS this year. Each of those conferences present a Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year award every year. Of the possible 12 such honorees from the conferences, nine will be playing in Omaha this weekend.
Add to that the fact that 13 CWS players received NCBWA All-America recognition this week, two players were first-round picks in the 2011 MLB Draft.
Virginia pitcher Danny Hultzen is more than just your everyday pitcher. He’s also been one of the top two-way players in the country in his three years. This is his second go-round at the CWS, after helping the Cavs advance to Omaha as a freshman. Hulzten is an All-American and the ACC Pitcher of the Year in 2011. The Seattle Mariners made Hultzen (12-3, 1.49 ERA, .320 BA) the second overall pick in last week’s draft. His 151 strikeouts rank second in the nation. He’ll be on the mound when Virginia faces Cal in Sunday’s 2 p.m. ET game.
Hultzen’s teammate, Will Roberts, has emerged as a top pitcher in his own right. Roberts (11-1, 1.58 ERA) started the season pitching in midweek games, but he moved into the weekend rotation not long after firing a perfect game against George Washington on March 29. It’s just the eighth Division I nine-inning perfect game since 1957. CLICK HERE to listen to a podcast interview CB360 recorded right after that start. Roberts also was named an NCBWA second team All-American this week.
Like Hultzen, Texas pitcher Taylor Jungmann was pitching on the big stage in Omaha two years ago. Also like Hultzen, Jungmann (13-2, 1.38 ERA) was a high first-round draft pick last week when the Milwaukee Brewers nabbed him with the 12th overall selection. Jungmann made his mark at the CWS in 2009, going 3-0 with a complete game and 15 strikeouts in 15.1 innings to help the Longhorns reach the title series. The 2011 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year will be on the hill Saturday night looking to snap his personal two-game NCAA Tournament losing streak when Texas faces Florida. The three-time All-American lost in this year’s Austin Regional to Kent State and he fell to Arizona State in the Super Regional – for his only setbacks of the year.
While Jungmann and Texas are no strangers to Omaha, two significant Longhorns will make their Omaha debuts this weekend. Big 12 Freshman of the Year Erich Weiss and NCBWA First Team All-American Corey Knebel have figured prominently into their team’s success this season. Weiss leads the Longhorns in batting average (.358), RBIs (44), slugging percentage (.532), and on-base percentage (.495). The lanky 6-foot-3 third baseman is one of three Longhorns to start all 66 games this season. While Weiss is the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Knebel is the NCBWA’s National Freshman of the Year. The closer has 19 saves with a sparkling 1.15 ERA in 37 appearances. He earned his most-recent pair of saves with a total of 3.0 shutout innings in the Super Regional wins over the Sun Devils.
Texas A&M Big 12 Player of the Year Tyler Naquin gives the conference three top award winners at this year’s CWS. His .390 average and .460 OBP fit the bill for a leadoff batter, and the third team NCBWA All-American also leads the Aggies with his .556 slugging percentage, which is helped by 23 doubles and a whopping seven triples. While the big-armed right fielder has only six stolen bases, centerfielder Krey Bratsen has totaled 31 swipes along with a .335 avg. to help him earn Freshman All-America honors. Aggie pitchers Michael Wacha (8-3, 2.10 ERA) and Ross Stripling (14-2, 2.29 ERA, 4 CG, 4 SVs) are the real deal too.
Finding just one or two Vanderbilt players to highlight is hard to do, because the Commodore roster is brimming with top talent. Consider the fact that while Sonny Gray (12-3, 1.97 ERA) was tabbed by the Oakland A’s with the 18th overall pick in the MLB Draft, fellow junior Grayson Garvin (13-1, 2.36 ERA) was named the SEC Pitcher of the Year and is a second team All-American – not to mention being the 59th overall pick by Tampa Bay. The starting duo has the luxury of turning things over to NCBWA third team All-America closer Navery Moore (1.21 ERA, 11 SVs). Vandy also boasts SEC Freshman of the Year Tony Kemp (.325 BA, 16 SB, 56 Runs). The Commodores set an SEC record with 12 players selected in the 2011 draft. In addition to Gray, Garvin and Moore, Jason Esposito, Jack Armstrong, Aaron Westlake, Corey Williams, Taylor Hill, Mark Lamm, Curt Casali, Will Clinard, and Joe Loftus all had their names called during the three-day draft.
North Carolina has a top duo that combines youth and veteran presence. ACC Freshman of the Year Colin Moran leads the Tar Heels in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.335), RBIs (69), HR (9), slg.% (.551), and OBP (.443). His RBIs rank 14th in the nation and are the most of any player at the 2011 CWS. Moran’s older brother Brian was an All-American at UNC. Their uncle, B.J. Surhoff, played for 19 years in the Major Leagues after a great career at North Carolina. Like Moran, junior Levi Michael (.300, 5 HR, 48 RBIs) jumped into the middle of the Tar Heel order as a freshman. Michael was selected with the 30th overall pick to the Minnesota Twins last week.
South Carolina is back to defend its national championship, but its reigning CWS Most Outstanding Player, Jackie Bradley, Jr., has been out of action since injuring his wrist back on April 23. Despite the injury, Bradley still was tabbed with the 40th overall pick last week by the Boston Red Sox. He said this week that he hopes to contribute in some way for his team in Omaha. Michael Roth made only two 2010 starts for the Gamecocks, but they both were in Omaha. The first was a complete-game win over archrival Clemson to help SC reach the CWS Finals, and the second came four days later against UCLA in the Finals. Roth (13-2, 1.02 ERA) has been South Carolina’s ace this year. He and veteran closer Matt Price (5-3, 2.16 ERA, 18 SVs) recently were named NCBWA second team All-Americans. The Gamecocks return several other everyday players from the 2010 championship team, including team triple-crown leader Christian Walker (.359 BA, 10 HR, 60 RBIs), who is only a sophomore.
SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino (.376, 18 HR, 66 RBIs) leads Florida back to Omaha for a second straight year. The iron-man catcher boasts a gaudy .686 slugging percentage that ranks 15th in the nation and is the best of any player in the College World Series field. Zunino is an NCBWS second team All-American who is one of only two Gators (Preston Tucker-.314 BA, 14 HR, 68 RBIs) to play in all 67 of his team’s games in 2011. Sophomore Brian Johnson (.312 BA, 5 HR, 27 RBIs – 8-3, 3.66 ERA) joins Virginia’s Hultzen as another top two-way player – but Johnson has yet to play since May 28, when he was injured at the SEC Tournament after a fluke play saw him hit by a throw from home plate to second base. Freshman pitcher Karsten Whitsen (8-0, 2.45 ERA) joins the likes of 2010 CWS pitcher Gerrit Cole of UCLA and TCU’s Matt Purke to turn down first-round MLB Draft money in order to play college baseball. Whitsen was the ninth overall pick by San Diego in the 2010 draft. The decision to go to college worked out for Cole, who later became the number-one overall pick in the 2011 draft.
California doesn’t have one or two players with eye-popping numbers to watch like the rest of the teams in the field. With six straight NCAA Tourney wins, the Golden Bears are the only non No. 1 regional seed that advanced to Omaha this year. What they do have though is “mojo” and a group of players who have refused to see their season, let alone program, end. Tony Renda (.335, 3 HR, 42 RBIs) is the Pac-10 Player of the Year. He is one of four Cal players to start all 58 games this season. Roommate Chadd Krist (.304, 2 HR, 43 RBIs) joins Renda with the superstition of eating an apple before every game. Sophomore pitcher Justin Jones (9-6, 2.93 ERA) could be the Cal player to watch for a multitude of reasons. First, the lefty has a head of shaggy hair that would make Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl jealous. Second, he wore a sling in the dugout in the Super Regional clincher after holding his arm midway through his game-one start. And finally (and probably most importantly), the fact that Jones is even still at Cal is a story in itself. The 2010 Freshman All-American thought about transferring when Cal announced it was eliminating the baseball program on Sept. 28, 2010. However, his decision to stay, along with the performances of fellow starter Erik Johnson (7-4, 2.91 ERA, 100 Ks) and the rest of his teammates, have helped propel the Golden Bears to a place they haven’t been in nearly 20 years (in Omaha for the CWS).
These are just some of the top players we’ll see over the next couple of weeks. One of the best things about the College World Series is the players who will burst out of the shadows to become stars with the flick of a bat, the twirl of a seam and the blink of an eye. Don’t believe me? Just ask Michael Roth!
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