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College : : Story
The true national title chasers
Published: Tuesday, April 26, 2011

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We’ve got a little more than two months before a national champion is crowned at the College World Series. But with only a few weeks left until the end of regular season, it’s never too early to start looking at teams with national title pedigrees.

South Carolina, Virginia and Vanderbilt, which have topped the rankings for several weeks now, are no brainers in the national title discussion. But there are some other teams to watch that also have the personnel and qualities of national title clubs.

Let’s cut to the chase.

South Carolina is the nation’s top-ranked team for a reason. The Gamecocks don’t have a great offensive lineup, but have a lineup that’s good enough to win a national title. Sophomore first baseman Christian Walker has been fantastic this season, hitting .371 with eight home runs and 41 RBIs. Overall, the offense isn’t a huge concern, though the injuries to outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr., Evan Marzilli and Adam Matthews are concerns heading down the stretch. All three need to be healthy for the Gamecocks to reach their goals. Pitching-wise, the Gamecocks are in fantastic shape. Michael Roth is a premier ace, Colby Holmes has risen to the occasion and Forrest Koumas is doing a great job in the rotation. The Gamecocks have other solid arms, including one of the nation’s best closers in Matt Price. This team has all the pieces needed to win a national title, granted they can get healthy.

Virginia will move ahead of the Gamecocks in the pecking order if the Gamecocks can’t get healthy before the postseason arrives. The Cavaliers have been amazingly consistent this season with an overall record of 40-4. There’s a reason for that. They’ve been hot at the plate and on the mound. Offensively, the Cavaliers are hitting .312 and catcher John Hicks has risen to the occasion this season with a .359 average, four home runs and 39 RBIs. Others also are doing a nice job. The pitching staff is anchored by one of the nation’s best in top prospect left-hander Danny Hultzen, and right-hander Tyler Wilson has been solid in the No. 2 role. However, the only real concern about this team is the No. 3 spot the rest of the season. Cody Winiarski was lifted from the rotation for Will Roberts. And Roberts is coming off a so-so outing against N.C. State. Branden Kline gives the Cavaliers a premier ace reliever, so their hopes come down to solidifying the No. 3 rotation spot.

Vanderbilt is a team that some still believe is the top team in the land despite not being in the top spot. And honestly, that’s not a far-fetched opinion. Though the Commodores lost the series to South Carolina earlier this season, they’ve established themselves as a national title contender. The Commodores have a solid offense, hitting .312 with hard-hitting Aaron Westlake leading the way. And the pitching staff, particularly the weekend rotation, is in good shape. Sonny Gray gives the Commodores a purely elite arm at the front end of the rotation, while Grayson Garvin has been fantastic and Taylor Hill has a 3.38 ERA in 10 starts. The only concern about the Commodores is – despite great statistics – they don’t have a reliever quite like Matt Price (South Carolina) and Branden Kline (Virginia). Navery Moore is fantastic, but Price and Klein certainly have the edge.

Florida is all about potential this spring. As a matter of fact, there’s not a more talented team in college baseball than the Gators. We think that’ll translate to a plethora of postseason success. The Gators have an adequate offense with Josh Adams and Mike Zunino leading the way. They also play fantastic defense with a .976 fielding percentage. But the pitching staff will determine where this team goes the rest of the season. The Gators have a 2.64 ERA and a pitching staff that one coach told me earlier this season “was the best he has ever seen in college baseball”. The Gators certainly have proven to be hittable the past month or so, but in terms of potential, there’s not a staff or team with more.

Texas A&M has pitching, pitching and more pitching. The Aggies have an incredible 2.15 staff ERA heading down the stretch. They also have the nation’s second-best (behind Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer) one-two punch on the weekend with right-handers John Stilson and Michael Wacha leading the charge. No. 3 starter Ross Stripling also is having a great year, while veteran Joaquin Hinojosa, the team’s closer, has brought some stability to the bullpen. The Aggies also have been fantastic in the field this season with a .980 average. But the one thing to watch with this team down the stretch is the offense. The Aggies have a .284 average and hit well against Oklahoma State last weekend. However, they’ve had a tendency to go into lulls at times this spring. Tyler Naquin and Krey Bratsen must finish the season on a high note for the Aggies to compete for the title.

Georgia Tech has earned a reputation of not being able to win big games in clutch situations, and there’s no doubt the Yellow Jackets understand where that label stems from. The question becomes, can the Jackets turn the tide this season? The Jackets certainly have a young club this spring, but it’s a team filled with hard-nosed youngsters. The Jackets are a legitimate national title contender for several reasons. The offense has big-time potential with freshman Kyle Wren and veteran Matt Skole leading the charge. The starting rotation also is a solid four-deep with Mark Pope, Jed Bradley, Buck Farmer and Matt Grimes leading the way. Few teams have a four-deep rotation of that caliber. The only concern with this club is the bullpen. The Yellow Jackets have an OK closer in Luke Bard, but the Jackets showed against Virginia that they’re hittable. GT is a major force if the bullpen is solid.

TCU is the surprise pick on my list of national title contenders. The Horned Frogs, other than a series loss to Cal State Fullerton, have been pretty consistent this season. They have a solid offense that is hitting .303 with Brance Rivera and Taylor Featherston leading the way. Jason Coats also has been much better the past month or so of the season, now up to .296 with his average. Pitching-wise, the Horned Frogs, if left-hander Matt Purke is healthy, are in fantastic shape in a postseason formation. Kyle Winkler and Steven Maxwell are solid starters, and Purke was even doing well despite a significant velocity drop. The Frogs also have an excellent No. 4 starter in freshman Andrew Mitchell. The bullpen is the only concern with this club. The Frogs have solid relievers in Trent Appleby and Stefan Crichton, but otherwise have had some consistency issues.

Cal State Fullerton has the most flaws of teams on this list, but it has the one thing that can lead to a national title – an excellent pitching staff. The Titans have a 2.57 ERA and possess an incredibly deep pitching staff, only rivaled by Florida. Noe Ramirez spearheads a solid weekend rotation, while reliever Nick Ramirez is one of the nation’s best stoppers. The concern with the Titans is getting healthy and stepping up at the plate. The Titans have several injuries right now, while the offense is hitting just .270 heading down the stretch. That figure must improve if the Titans plan on getting to Omaha and winning the national title.


BEST MIDWEEK MATCHUPS TO WATCH

1. No. 16 Oklahoma at No. 13 TCU
This is an important midweek bout for both teams for obvious reasons. The last time the two teams met the Sooners came away with a dominant win. Now, the Frogs hope to return the favor. The Horned Frogs have slowly climbed in the RPI the past few weeks, but took a slight step back Monday with a loss to Dallas Baptist. Still, both teams still have NCAA Regional hosting aspirations with TCU having an RPI of 25 and Oklahoma sitting at 22.

2. Georgia vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets have taken care of business in impression fashion in the first two meetings between the teams, but the Bulldogs hope to salvage a game of the three-game midweek series. The Jackets are in great shape to earn a national seed with an RPI of 7 and an overall record of 30-11 to go with a solid postseason resume. Georgia, meanwhile, still has some work to do. The Bulldogs have an RPI of 18, but are just 21-20 overall. They need to finish above .500 to make the postseason.

3. No. 10 Arizona State at Arizona
The Sun Devils took a step back from a national seed standpoint a few weeks ago with a series loss to Oregon State, but are back in good shape. They look to earn another solid midweek win to their resume with a bout against rival Arizona in a contest that doesn’t count in the Pac-10 standings. Arizona, meanwhile, needs some solid wins down the stretch and enters the contest 1-3 against the Sun Devils this season. A win over ASU could be a big confidence booster for ‘Zona.

4. No. 15 North Carolina at East Carolina
This is a huge contest for both teams. The Tar Heels were in fantastic shape for a national seed just a couple of weeks ago, but have since dropped series to N.C. State and Miami. Now, the Tar Heels hope to get back on track once and for all with a big midweek game against their in-state rivals. East Carolina, meanwhile, is playing its best brand of baseball so far this season, and hopes to bolster its postseason resume with a solid midweek win. ECU has an RPI of 20 with an overall record of 27-13.

5. UC Irvine at No. 23 UCLA
Could the Big West only be a one-bid league this season? There’s at least a chance that happens if UC Irvine doesn’t take care of business down the stretch. The Anteaters enter midweek action with an RPI of 61 and a weak postseason resume. The Anteaters are just 5-7 vs. RPI Top 100 teams. UCLA, meanwhile, took a small step back with a series loss to Stanford last weekend, and hopes to bounce back with an RPI of 54 entering a new week. Both teams could use a solid win.

6. Texas State at No. 6 Texas
There was a time when the Bobcats had an RPI in the top 25, but that now seems like ancient history. The Bobcats haven’t been as crisp the last month of the season, losing a series to Central Arkansas along the way. But they could receive an RPI boost in midweek action with a win over Texas, which enters the contest with an RPI of 28. The Longhorns won the last meeting against the Bobcats.

7. Alabama at No. 18 Southern Mississippi
The Crimson Tide and Golden Eagles played earlier this season with the Eagles taking home a victory. Now, the Crimson Tide hopes to hit the road and return the favor against USM. The Tide desperately needs to earn a solid win after losing yet another SEC series against Florida over the weekend, while the Golden Eagles need to play flawless down the stretch to have a chance at earning a national seed.

8. No. 3 Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky had a golden opportunity to take a huge step forward from a postseason standpoint over the weekend against Troy. The Hilltoppers, though, got swept by the Trojans and fell four games back of first place. They’re also in need a solid win with just an RPI of 65, overall record of 25-16 and an average resume. Vandy, meanwhile, is in great shape for a national seed and hopes to continue its successful ways.

9. No. 19 Troy and UAB
Even as the Sun Belt leader, the Trojans have an RPI of 33 and an overall record of 30-10. In other words, they’re likely entrenched as a No. 2 postseason seed. UAB, though, really could use a win over the Trojans to receive an RPI boost. The Blazers kept their postseason hopes alive and well last weekend with a solid home series win over Rice. The Blazers, though, still have work to do with an RPI of 55 and an overall record of 23-17. UAB coach Brian Shoop continues to do a great job.

10. Kansas State at Cal State Bakersfield
This could be a two-game midweek set that determines who’s sitting at home and who’s still playing in June. The Wildcats were a non-factor in the postseason picture just a couple of weeks ago, but have since jumped in the picture after sweeping Texas Tech. The Wildcats climbed to 31 in the RPI after winning the first game against the Roadrunners. The ‘Runners, meanwhile, suddenly have some work to do with an RPI of 63 and an overall record of 24-12.

11. Long Beach State at USC
Neither team will finish the season with an at-large bid barring a huge surprise, but it’s possible with an incredibly strong finish. The Dirtbags are coming off a tough series loss to UC Santa Barbara have just an RPI of 74 with a 19-18 overall record. USC, meanwhile, has won three-straight series over Stanford, Oregon and Washington, but still has an RPI of 96 with an 18-21 overall record. Both teams have zero room for error the rest of the spring.

12. Liberty at No. 1 South Carolina
The Flames are in familiar position this season. They have an OK resume, but are in a situation where they’re 22-18 with an RPI of 76. In other words, they’re likely not making the NCAA postseason unless they win the Big South tournament. The Flames, though, get a chance for a solid road RPI win when they face South Carolina in midweek action. The Gamecocks, meanwhile, move on with all three starting outfielders out of action because of injuries, including Adam Matthews, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Evan Marzilli.

13. Southeastern Louisiana at Louisiana-Lafayette
Both teams have some work to do down the stretch to make the NCAA postseason, and it makes this midweek bout have a bit more importance than usual. The Lions have a 26-15 overall record with an RPI of 45, but have a Southland Conference record that is holding them back. ULL, meanwhile, has an RPI of 56 with an overall record of 23-18. As with many teams this time of year, both clubs have little room for error down the stretch.

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 kendall@perfectgame.org



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