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College | Story | 12/28/2018

Year in Review: College

Mike Rooney        
Photo: Adley Rutschman, Kevin Abel (Oregon State Athletics)

Year in Review: PG Events High School MLB Draft
Final 2018 College Top 25 | Top 100 College Prospects

College baseball continued its recent momentum with an outstanding 2018. Here are the stories things that caught our attention the most over the last 12 months.

From college to the show

Derek Johnson’s meteoric rise from Vanderbilt pitching coach to Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator to Brewers’ big league pitching coach symbolized a career path baseball hadn’t seen before. To top that off, the Brewers’ 2018 overachievement on the mound led to Johnson being stolen away by the Reds in the offseason.

That Johnson seems to have blazed a new trail as this winter, the Minnesota Twins hired Arkansas’ Wes Johnson (no relation) to be their big league pitching coach. This Johnson is known for his modern and data-centric approach to pitching. His track record at both Dallas Baptist and Arkansas was exemplary. There is no denying that this hire represents a show of great respect for the level of instruction taking place in college baseball.

No contact equals no-nos

As a lack of contact permeates baseball at all levels, one of the net results in college baseball was a record-shattering 23 no-hitters thrown in 2018. The previous season record was 19 which was done in 1973. That was also the final season in which wood bats were used in college baseball.

The MLB Draft

This year’s high school class was loaded with high-upside talent. Yet when push came to shove in the MLB First-Year Player Draft, the first five players selected were college players. Casey Mize (Auburn), Joey Bart (Georgia Tech), Alec Bohm (Wichita State), Nick Madrigal (Oregon State) and Jonathan India (Florida) were all players who improved their draft stock significantly through their college experience.

First round Heisman surprise

Kyler Murray was the surprise of this year’s first round, going ninth overall to the Oakland Athletics. The surprise was not related to Murray’s considerable talent but mostly because of his side gig as the starting quarterback at Oklahoma. Murray and Oakland came to terms that allowed for him to play one more season of college football. Fast-forward six months and Kyler Murray was named the Heisman Trophy winner. The only complication to Murray’s magical year would be the recent rumors that he may end being a first round pick in football also. Stay tuned…

High picks coming to school

High school players taken in the first two rounds always sign; that’s the way it works. In fact, in the previous six drafts (2012-2017) a total of just three high school players taken among the first 41 picks overall had chosen Division I baseball over starting their professional careers immediately. Those players were Matt Krook (Oregon) and Phil Bickford (Cal State Fullerton then College of Southern Nevada) in 2012 and Nick Lodolo (TCU) in 2016.

Well, the 2018 draft was extremely unusual in that we had three more players make that choice. Matt McLain (UCLA) was taken 25th overall by the Dbacks, JT Ginn (Mississippi State) was taken 30th overall by the Dodgers and Gunnar Hoglund (Ole Miss) was taken 36th overall by the Pirates. It is certainly exciting for college baseball when players of this caliber make it to campus.

Historic two-year run by the Beavers

The 2016 Oregon State Beavers were narrowly and controversially left out of the NCAA Tournament. While that was a hard pill to swallow, the Beavers proceeded to take their frustrations out on the rest of college baseball over the next two seasons.

Pat Casey’s program went a ridiculous 111-18-1 (.854 winning percentage) over those two seasons and the 2017 squad entered the College World Series with an astounding 54-4 record. And this two-year run includes star Nick Madrigal missing 26 games to injury in 2018.

While these two teams had no real weaknesses it was the lineup that was truly historic in nature. It started with the three first round picks: Nick Madrigal (4th overall, White Sox), Trevor Larnach (20th overall, Twins) and Cadyn Grenier (37th overall, Orioles). And if we can assume that Adley Rutschman will end up being a first round pick (he is currently projected to be the first pick overall in 2019), then that will make four first round picks in one college lineup. That is unprecedented.

One could argue that this was the greatest two-year run in the history of modern-day college baseball. 11.7 scholarships, common start date, all-time parity in the sport … none of it seemed to matter. The Beavers’ 2017 unit may have been the better squad but it was the 2018 team that provided the mic drop: a National Championship.

The Super-est round of Supers

2018 marked the 20th year of the Super Regional era for college baseball and it may have been the best Super Regional round ever. Six of the eight “Supers” went the full three games. All four of the Saturday through Monday series extended to the Monday game.

Sunday night in particular made for thrilling television as many viewers switched back and forth between the epic finish to the Fullerton Super Regional (which Washington eventually won) and the 11-inning final game of the Nashville Super Regional. That battle between eventual winner Mississippi State and host Vanderbilt was one of the best Super Regionals of all time as the series included walk-off victories in both Games 1 and 2, and then appropriately went to extra innings in the deciding Game 3.

Loss of a legend

Augie Garrido passed away on March 15, 2018. This was a massive loss for college baseball as Garrido was one of the true legends of the game. Garrido finished his career with 1,975 victories and a miraculous five national titles. Garrido built the iconic Cal State Fullerton program from scratch and then went on to restore Texas to national prominence. With a bigger-than-life personality, Garrido was a coaching genius whose impact on college baseball will be felt for years to come.

Pair of legends ride off into the sunset

Pat Casey won his third national title in 2018 and then announced his retirement later in the summer. One could argue that Casey’s run at Oregon State, with three national championships in the last 13 sesaons, is the most impressive building of a collegiate program in any sport. He created a national power in a northern state with a small population and he did it in a sport that clearly favors schools in warm weather regions. Casey does have an out whereby he could resume his old post following the 2019 season so we will have to wait and see there.

Meanwhile, Mike Martin of Florida State passed Augie Garrido as the all-time winningest coach in Division I college baseball history with win number 1,976 on May 5 of 2018. Martin finished the year with 1,987 victories and announced his intention to retire following the 2019 season. Martin has led the Seminoles to 39 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and Florida State leads the nation with 41 straight Regional appearances. Martin has led his alma mater to the College World Series on 16 different occasions but 2019 will be his last shot at his first national championship.

Miracle on dirt

Mississippi State’s 2018 season was one of the most improbable journeys in the history of college baseball. The Bulldogs’ list of obstacles began in the fall of 2017 when they had no field to practice on as Dudy Noble Field underwent its massive renovation.

Fast-forward to the actual season and things could not have started worse for this team. First, they were routed (outscored 23-6) on opening weekend in a three-game road sweep at the hands of Southern Mississippi. The following Tuesday second-year head coach Andy Cannizaro was asked to step down following the discovery of off-the-field indiscretions.

Veteran college baseball skipper Gary Henderson moved from the pitching coach role to take over as interim head coach and things seemed to be headed in a good direction following a 3-0 showing at the Shriners College Classic in Houston.

And then the SEC happened. Henderson’s team was swept at home by Vanderbilt to begin conference play and that led to a disheartening 2-7 start in the SEC.

Just when you thought the swale of accumulated adversity was too much for these Bulldogs to overcome, and this was a theme that permeated this entire season, this team found a way. In this instance, Mississippi State won a critical home series over then No. 3 ranked archrival Ole Miss. Of course, this was a dramatic finish as well with Luke Alexander’s 11th inning two-run walk-off homer being the difference maker in the Sunday game.

On April 18 this team’s record stood at 19-19 following a mid-week loss to a 13-25 Memphis team. A home series versus eventual national runner-up Arkansas looked like an unlikely place to “get healthy.” So, of course, the Bulldogs swept Arkansas in a very closely played series and kept themselves within striking distance of the postseason.

Fast-forward to the final weekend of the regular season and Hail State held a 28-24 overall record with a pedestrian 12-15 clip in SEC play. An NCAA Tournament appearance looked unlikely but even a berth in the SEC Tournament in Hoover teetered in the balance. This pessimism was born of the fact that the consensus No. 1 ranked Florida Gators were coming to Starkville to finish conference play.

As only this team could do, the Bulldogs swept Florida. Keep in mind that this was a Gator team that hadn’t lost a weekend series the entire season.

The miraculous sweep of Florida propelled Henderson’s team to a Regional berth and the Bulldogs were sent to Tallahassee as the No. 3 seed. It was a nice prize for a team that had battled through so much difficulty. But it appeared to be a short-lived parade as Oklahoma throttled Mississippi State by a score of 20-10 in the Regional opener.

In their elimination game versus host Florida State yet another miracle occurred. In a game that included a two-plus hour rain delay, the Bulldogs were down to their last strike in the ninth inning as they trailed the Seminoles 2-0. Outfielder Elijah MacNamee proceeded to hit a three-run walk-off home run to end Florida State’s season.

MacNamee’s home run seemed to create a momentum that would not be denied as this team won four straight to capture the Tallahassee Regional championship. The Bulldogs then proceeded to win the Nashville Super Regional in an epic series that included walk-off victories in Games 1 and 2 followed by an 11-inning affair for Game 3. So this incredible 2018 Mississippi State baseball team would end their season in the promised land: Omaha, Nebraska.

While this season highlighted an incredibly resilient group of players, we would be remiss to not mention an incredible display of leadership by this coaching staff. Gary Henderson, Jake Gautreau, Mike Brown and A.J. Gaura advanced this team through the most discouraging of storms. It was quite simply one of the great coaching jobs in the history of college baseball.

New faces in cool places

This was yet another year where one could see the depth and breadth of college baseball across the country. Duke, whose 2016 Regional appearance was their first since 1961, took things to the next level by advancing to a Super Regional. Stetson, led by the nation’s best pitching staff, became the first Atlantic Sun program to host a Regional and the Hatters nearly earned a Top 8 seed. OVC power Tennessee Tech leaned on their dynamic offense to win the Oxford Regional. Minnesota hosted for the first time and the Washington Huskies advanced to Omaha for the first time in program history.

The greatest generation

2018 was also a year of transition in college baseball as Mike Gillespie, Jim Morris and Wayne Graham coached their final seasons of their Hall of Fame careers. In addition to those retirements, legendary sports psychologist Ken Ravizza passed away on July 8  of this year. While this is a huge loss, his book Heads Up Baseball has long been a staple for college baseball coaches and players and Ravizza’s legacy in the sport will live on through the thousands of lives his work touched.

The SEC lifts all boats

There are great players and coaches in every conference. But no league loves college baseball quite like the SEC. This was another banner year for Baseball here and this league continues to raise the bar in our sport.

Florida set the pace in 2018 by clinching the league title with one weekend left to play and the Gators were the top-ranked team nationally for the entire regular season. Kevin O’Sullivan’s squad was led by three first round picks in Jonathan India, Brady Singer, and Jackson Kowar. The Gators have earned nine Top 8 seeds in his 11 seasons and they have been to the College World Series an astounding seven times since 2010. Quite simply, Florida has been the most dominant program in college baseball during O’Sullivan’s tenure.

Arkansas came within one out of winning the national title yet the amazing Razorback fan base may have stolen the show from their outstanding team. Arkansas packed nearly 90,000 fans into Baum Stadium for the nine postseason games they hosted, including averaging over 11,000 fans per game during their Super Regional. And the Razorback faithful’s unforgettable showing in Omaha during the CWS Finals turned TD Ameritrade Park into a sea of Cardinal Red.

If you’re still not convinced, this league made another statement in Hoover at the SEC Baseball Tournament. In the championship game Ole Miss defeated LSU in front of 14,126 animated fans. Nobody does it better.

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