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The first College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park is set to begin later this week and all eight teams vying for the national title most certainly are battle tested.
Perhaps no group is more tested than South Carolina.
The Gamecocks reached the CWS last season and fought their way to the school's first national title. And this season, they've overcome some setbacks in the injury department to get back to Omaha.
While the Gamecocks are the most tested team in the field of eight, Vanderbilt, the team making its first appearance in Omaha, is the CWS favorite with the perfect balance of solid offense and pitching.
In terms of hot teams, Texas A&M is the one to watch. The Aggies have played exceptionally well the past three weeks, especially in the field and at the plate, while the pitching staff has been solid outside of one spot in the starting rotation.
It's time to begin our in-depth College World Series coverage.
1. C Mike Zunino, Florida -- The outstanding sophomore has had an incredible campaign for the Gators and hopes to continue his consistent ways in Omaha. Zunino is hitting .376 with 22 doubles, 18 home runs and 66 RBIs. He also has a .686 slugging percentage and a solid .444 OBP. Additionally, Zunino has induced 29 walks this season.
2. 1B Aaron Westlake, Vanderbilt -- The Commodores have had a solid season at the plate and the hard-hitting first baseman with excellent raw power leads the way. Westlake is hitting .353 with 17 doubles, a triple 17 home runs and 54 RBIs. He's also slugging .651 and has a fantastic .474 OBP. It's also worth noting Westlake has induced 47 walks this spring.
3. OF Tyler Naquin, Texas A&M -- Naquin certainly doesn't have the same type of power as other guys on this list, but he's easily the most consistent hitter of the bunch. The versatile outfielder is hitting .390 with 23 doubles, seven triples, two home runs and 44 RBIs. He also has recorded 101 singles and has a .556 slugging percentage with a .460 OBP. Naquin has struck out 33 times and walked on 29 occasions this season.
4. 1B Christian Walker, South Carolina -- The Gamecocks are absolutely in business when Walker and others are hitting with consistency. Walker is having another great year, hitting a team-high .359 with 18 doubles, a triple, 10 home runs and 60 RBIs. He's also slugging .560 and has a .442 OBP. Also worth noting, Walker has walked 34 times and struck out on just 28 occasions.
5. 3B Colin Moran, North Carolina -- His batting average has declined a bit since earlier in the season, but the talented freshman still is fantastic and enters the weekend with solid numbers. He's hitting .335 with 20 doubles, two triples, nine home runs and 69 RBIs. He also has a solid .443 OBP. The Tar Heels need Moran and others to rise to the occasion this weekend.
1. LHP Danny Hultzen, Virginia -- The outstanding left-handed pitcher was one of the top picks in the MLB draft for a reason. He is having a phenomenal junior campaign. Hultzen is 12-3 with a 1.49 ERA in 108 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 151 and walked 20 and teams are hitting him at a .188 clip. Additionally, Hultzen has allowed just three home runs the the entire season.
2. RHP Taylor Jungmann, Texas -- Jungmann has suffered two-straight losses at the hands of Kent State and Arizona State, but there's no doubt he's still one of the nation's top three pitchers. The fantastic right-hander and first-round pick to the Brewers is 13-2 with a 1.38 ERA in 136 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 123 and walked 32 and teams are hitting him at a .164 clip. Jungmann has tossed five complete games and allowed four home runs.
3. RHP Sonny Gray, Vanderbilt -- The Commodores have a fantastic one-two punch with Gray and Grayson Garvin leading the way. Gray, though, is the headliner. The righty is 12-3 with a 1.97 ERA in 114 1/3 innings. He also has struck out 119 and walked 41 and teams are hitting him at a .191 clip. It's also worth noting Gray has tossed three complete games and only has allowed four home runs this season.
4. LHP Michael Roth, South Carolina -- Roth won't matchup with many of these guys in the velocity department, but he's still one of the nation's elite arms. He is having a sensational campaign for the Gamecocks. He's 13-3 with a 1.02 ERA in 123 innings. He also has struck out 95 and walked 32 and teams only are hitting him at an incredibly low .213 clip. Roth has thrown just one complete game this season and has allowed two home runs.
5. RHP Patrick Johnson, North Carolina -- The talented senior right-handed pitcher has been one of the best stories in college baseball this season. He's 13-1 with a 2.27 ERA in 107 innings. He has struck out 120 and walked 30 and teams are hitting him at a .208 clip. Johnson has tossed one complete game and allowed just three home runs this spring.
1. RHP Matt Price, South Carolina -- There's not anyone the Gamecocks would like to see more on the mound to finish games. The hard-nosed righty has recorded 18 saves in 31 appearances this season and has a 2.16 ERA in 50 innings. He also has struck out 67 and walked 15 and teams are hitting him at a .205 clip.
2. RHP Corey Knebel, Texas -- The Longhorns appeared to be in trouble after losing closer Chance Ruffin last season, but Knebel has been an outstanding replacement, perhaps even a slight upgrade. Knebel has recorded 19 saves in 37 appearances and has a 1.15 ERA in 54 2/3 innings. He has struck out 60 and walked 12 and teams are hitting him at a .148 clip. The 'Horns feel good when Knebel takes the mound.
3. RHP Branden Kline, Virginia -- The Cavaliers have had a fantastic campaign and Kline finishing games is a big reason for that. The talented right-hander has recorded 17 saves in 30 appearances and has a 2.15 ERA in 37 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 49 and walked 18 and teams are hitting him at just a .213 clip.
4. RHP John Taylor, South Carolina -- Price is so valuable for his ability to close games in impressive fashion. But Taylor also is having a fantastic campaign. He has appeared in 45 games and has a fabulous 1.27 ERA in 63 2/3 innings. He also has struck out 62 and walked 24 and teams are hitting him at a .182 clip. The Gamecocks have the ability to bring Taylor in the game at anytime.
5. LHP Nick Maronde, Florida -- The Gators have the nation's deepest pitching staff with Maronde and others leading the way. Maronde has recorded two saves in 33 appearances and has a 2.03 ERA in 40 innings. He has struck out 51 and walked just seven and teams are hitting him at a .183 clip.
The Commodores are known for their excellent starting rotation and fantastic offensive lineup. The 'Dores enter the College World Series hitting a field-high .319, while opposing teams are hitting .216 against their pitchers. First baseman Aaron Westlake leads the Commodores with a .353 average, 17 doubles, 17 home runs and 54 RBIs, while third baseman Jason Esposito is hitting .357 with 22 doubles, a triple, nine home runs and 59 RBIs. There are plenty of other talented hitters to watch in Omaha, including . Conrad Gregor (.350/3/30) ,Riley Reynolds (.346/0/18), Anthony Gomez (.343/0/45), Tony Kemp (.325/0/32), Curt Casali (.306/6/51) and Mike Yastrzemski (.300/3/42). The 'Dores are incredibly difficult to beat if their offense is on fire.
The number of quality pitchers the Gators can throw at teams is almost mind-boggling. The Gators might not have the best ERA in the field of eight teams, but they have the best pitching staff with the most depth. The Gators have a solid weekend rotation with Hudson Randall (2.29, 110 IP), Karsten Whitson (2.45, 88 IP) and Brian Johnson (3.66, 78 2/3 IP). That, of course, is assuming Johnson will be ready to pitch this weekend, which should be the case. The Gators also have a plethora of talented relievers in Nick Maronde, Greg Larson, Tommy Toledo, Anthony DeSclafani, Steve Rodriguez and closer Austin Maddox, who hopes to return from an ankle injury this weekend. The Gators have the arms to cause plenty of headaches for offensive lineups the next two weeks.
Every team in this College World Series field of eight is at least solid in the field, but the Longhorns are a slight step above the rest. The Longhorns have a solid backstop in catcher Jacob Felts, first baseman Tant Shepherd has been fantastic defensively, third baseman Erich Weiss has been solid and middle infielders Brandon Loy and Jordan Etier, particularly Loy, are fantastic with great range. The UT outfield also is in good shape with Mark Payton leading the way. The Longhorns make few defensive mistakes and enter the CWS with a solid .982 fielding percentage.
Texas coach Augie Garrido has the most history of any coaches in this year's College World Series, but South Carolina coach Ray Tanner is doing the best coaching job this season. The Gamecocks suffered a setback last summer with the departures of starting pitchers Sam Dyson and Blake Cooper, and other offensive cogs. The Gamecocks also suffered setbacks this season with injuries to Jackie Bradley Jr., Adam Matthews and Brady Thomas. However, they've continued to experience a high level of success. We've said this for much of the season, but while Tanner's coaching job with the Gamecocks last season was impressive, his performance this season certainly bests that.
We're always hesitant to go with first-year Omaha teams in this category, but the Commodores are an exception to the rule. They have a wealth of experience and talent. They also have a fantastic offense that enters the CWS hitting at a solid .319 clip. Additionally, the Commodores have a solid starting rotation and enter the tourney with a 2.38 ERA. Additionally, the Commodores have plenty of solid bullpen arms with Navery Moore, Kevin Ziomek, Mark Lamm, Jack Armstrong and Will Clinard leading the charge. The 'Dores must avoid being star-struck in Omaha this weekend. Should they do that, they're in great shape having played the best brand of baseball the past couple of weeks.
The NCAA Selection Committee might've done A&M coach Rob Childress a favor when they snubbed the Aggies out of a national seed a few weeks ago. The Aggies, since that point, have played an outstanding brand of baseball outside of some starter issues as a result of John Stilson being out with an injury. In the last three weeks, the Aggies have won the Big 12 tournament, the College Station Regional and are coming off a Tallahassee Super Regional series win over Florida State. Also worth noting, the Aggies are hitting at a solid clip in the postseason, playing defense at a high level, and the starting rotation duo of Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling lead the way on the mound. A&M is an interesting team to watch in Omaha.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org