College : : Story
Saturday, June 25, 2011

Long road to Omaha achieved

Patrick Ebert        

You may remember a story I wrote prior to the beginning of the college baseball season in which I compiled a wish-list of stops. It was my 'bucket list' of sorts – my imaginary road-trip that would enable me to see the best teams and players on the long road to Omaha – the pinnacle of collegiate greatness.

This road-trip remained a figment of my imagination…that is until Friday as I did, finally,
make it to the College World Series that I have always yearned to attend. Toss the Perfect Game National onto that list – and thanks to my recent addition to the Perfect Game family on a full-time basis – and both dreams have been fulfilled.

In fact, both aspirations were accomplished in just over one week's time. Mind you, it didn't take me the 20,000 miles I noted in the aforementioned story (at least not literally), but on many levels my journeys far surpassed any amount of travel put on the road.

Since 1979, I have resided in Southeastern
Wisconsin. My wife, who was born in Milwaukee, has never lived anywhere outside of the state. I had been at my previous place of employment (where I met my wife) for over 14 years. And to make matters more challenging, insofar as my baseball aspirations, my previous employment’s busy season was May-September therefore making any of my dreams to experience the College World Series, or the National Showcase, impossible.

This year is very different, but not without sacrifice.

In my acceptance of a full-time position with Perfect Game, my wife and I made the extremely difficult decision to remove our family from our roots and move to
Iowa. Neither she nor I (nor our Wisconsin family for that matter) ever thought we’d leave the state lines. To put it mildly, the emotional side of our decision has been very tough.

Regardless, the allure of baseball was far too powerful. And, it helps that each and every person affiliated with Perfect Game lives and
breathes baseball, which makes it very easy for someone like me. I like to think that alone is what drew them to me, and vice versa. The passion for the game is something that can only be shared, and not explained in words, among those that share this common bond.

Which made the ability to finally attend the College World Series even more fulfilling.

Aces trumped in Omaha

The one day I took in the festivities at the College World Series was the last game prior to the finals, in which defending champion South Carolina and fellow SEC powerhouse Florida advanced.

I was treated to a pair of aces taking the mound in each of of the two games: Sonny Gray of Vanderbilt and Danny Hultzen of Virginia.

Both pitchers entered the day with a 12-3 record on the year, collectively posting a 1.77 ERA with 281 strikeouts in 234 innings of work, both among the national leaders in strikeouts behind UCLA's Trevor Bauer.

Hultzen went second overall to the Mariners in the draft just a couple of short weeks ago with Gray going 18
th to the Athletics.

And while both pitched well, at least as far as their raw stuff is concerned, two completely different reasons prevented either from having a positive impact on the final outcome of the games they played.

Gray's stuff certainly wasn't to blame for his final pitching line (7 innings, 12 hits, 6 ER, 8 K, 5 BB), as he was throwing his fastball in the 93-95 range with his usual low-80s hammer curve. However, his command wasn't as sharp as it has been in the past, which may be easily chalked up to an already long season for the Commodores. One could argue that he shouldn't have been allowed to enter the seventh inning, much less the eighth, but it's hard to argue with the team's decision to stick with their ace of three years when facing elimination.

After the first, Gray didn't have a clean inning, and really had to bear down time after time to get out of jams. Similar to the final outcome of the second game of the day, he was fortunate to leave the game giving up as few runs as he did, as runners constantly reached early, and subsequently found themselves in scoring position.

Hultzen on the other hand was lights out, as he too sat 93-95 with impeccable command of his entire repertoire. The flu bug he entered the game battling got the best of him, and limited his outing to only three innings (striking out 8 of the 10 batters he faced), departing well before Virginia's marathon 13-inning contest against South Carolina came to a close.

While sitting alongside Perfect Game's college baseball expert, Kendall Rogers, who told me he felt Hultzen's outing was arguably the most dominant he has seen all season long, most of my focus was on the talent on the field, and not the game itself.

That means I'm not going to go in-depth on the final outcome of either game, particularly the late one, a classic yet unconventional nail biter between Virginia and South Carolina that lasted 13 innings.

In addition, since the 2011 draft has passed, as nice as it was to see Gray and Hultzen take the mound, most of my attention was on the players that currently have the greatest chance to make an early impression on both the 2012 and 2013 draft classes.

Everyone knows that Florida is loaded with talent, particularly for next year's draft.

SEC player of the year Mike Zunino had only 1 hit in this game, and struck out twice, but it's hard to argue with the overall season results. He slugged 18 home runs and 22 doubles on the season while hitting .366, and handled one of the finest pitching staffs in the nation admirably. He continues to show a very good approach at the plate, and has good bat speed to go along with a disciplined eye, but there are some holes in his swing.

Austin Maddox was part of the same recruiting class as Zunino, with a power/power profile who enjoyed a sensational freshman season for the Gators as the team's third baseman and cleanup hitter. This year didn't go as well at the plate for Maddox, who started the season at first base, but he was turned upon more frequently out of the bullpen. There he excelled serving as the team's de-facto closer late in the year and during this game. Maddox threw his fastball easily in the 93-95 range, and while he ran into some trouble in the 8
th, he shut things down in the 9th to carry the Gators to the finals.

Another two-way star, Brian Johnson, hasn't been turned to as a starter since suffering a concussion a few weeks ago, but has continued to serve in his role as the team's designated hitter. His future is brighter on the mound, but he has one of the best approaches at the plate in the college game, with a smooth left-handed swing that has led to some big hits down the stretch.

Not much gets by shortstop Nolan Fontana, who makes the position look easy with soft hands and a strong and accurate infield arm. He too employs a sound, patient approach, although he doesn't project to hit for much power at the next level despite going 2-for-3 in this contest.

Vanderbilt freshman Kevin Ziomek looks to continue a strong tradition of pitching, particularly among left-handers, for the Commodores. He struck out the only batter he faced, using a 90-92 fastball and sharp 77 mph curve. With the likely departure of Gray, Grayson Garvin and Taylor Hill from Vanderbilt's weekend rotation, Ziomek is poised to assume a crucial role, possibly as the team's Friday ace, next year.

Virginia's closer Branden Kline, who was tied for second in the nation with 18 saves, was asked to provide 5 exceptional innings opposite South Carolina closer Matt Price in the second game of Friday's action.

Projected to go in the top 2-3 rounds of next year's draft, Kline showed good command of a 90-91 fastball that touched 94 and a low-80s slider. He has a well-proportioned, athletic build with long, wiry strong arms, a high waist and a sturdy lower half. He relied more and more on his breaking ball in the later innings of his appearance, and continually did a good job getting out of jams to push the contest to 13 innings. Similar to Ziomek, with Hultzen and Tyler Wilson likely graduating to pro ball, I wouldn't be surprised to see Kline get a chance to be a weekend starter for the Cavaliers next spring.

South Carolina's Christian Walker and Evan Marzilli will continue to provide plenty of run production for the Gamecocks' offense after the expected departure of Jackie Bradley, Jr.

Walker shows a patient approach with an aggressive swing, with a similar physical profile to that of former Gamecock Steven Pearce.

Marzilli is more of a picture-perfect athlete with obvious strength and 5-tool potential. He isn't as refined at the plate as Walker, and is prone to strikeouts, but has an interesting blend of power and speed.

Virginia shortstop Chris Taylor has a tall, slender build with room for added strength. He shows good bat speed at the plate and good actions on the infield.

Track star Mitchell Shifflett caused Rogers and I to look up his Perfect Game profile, where we discovered he ran an eye-popping 6.11 60-yard dash at the 2009 National Showcase. The fact that he entered the game as a pinch runner and left the game when he was substituted for a pinch hitter before recording a plate appearance says enough about his need for improvement at the plate, but it's clear this kid can fly.

While I didn't touch upon every player that took the field today, I can't take in the College World Series and not mention Jackie Bradley, Jr.

He has been one of the most exciting players to watch at the college level over the past three seasons despite dealing with injuries this past year. While he didn't do much on this day, at least at the plate, his tools are obvious. However, as I have contended before, he needs to learn to play within his potential at the plate. Too often he swings for the fences, and while he shows natural power potential, even to the opposite field, he is at his best working the count, going with pitches and getting on base. His defense alone is going to be an attribute at the professional level, and if he is able to make the necessary adjustments offensively, he could be a star.

Perfect Game's presence

Every time any notable baseball event occurs outside of the realm of Perfect Game, it is rewarding to look at the players that take the field and see if they have crossed paths with ours. Whether it be the College World Series, the upcoming Futures Game or any player from any game at both the minor league and major league levels, the number of players that has previously attended a Perfect Game event continues to grow exponentially.

This year the number of former Perfect Game players that took the field on Friday in Omaha was particularly impressive.

Of the 33 players on South Carolina's roster, 30 had previously attended a Perfect Game event.

30 Perfect Game alumni also grace Virginia's 34 player roster.

Only one member of both Florida's 34-man roster and Vanderbilt's 35 did not previously attend a Perfect Game event, leading to 127 total players out of 136 of the four remaining teams during my one-day stay in Omaha.

Reaching farther to all eight teams that made it to the College World Series, 87 percent of the total player pool are Perfect Game alumni, and more than 70 of those players had attended the National Showcase.

Seven of those players (Jack Armstrong, Sonny Gray, Conrad Gregor, Austin Maddox, Scott Silverstein, Karsten Whitson and Mike Zunino) had participated in the Aflac All-American Classic, now known as the Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings.

Similar to my comment above about those that share a unique and common bond through baseball, none of these points are brought up in an attempt to put a feather in our own cap, but as a way to express an honest sense of pride to know how many talented young ballplayers we have been associated with over the years.

I genuinely look forward to be a part of that while watching the waves of the future progress.

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