BIG GAME HUNTING FOR WEEK 1 IN COLLEGE BASEBALL
It’s college baseball’s opening weekend 2018 and there are no shortage of big series that will test the mettle of everyone involved. Here is a look at the top three series that fans might want to keep an eye on as the contenders and pretenders begin to take shape.
CAL STATE FULLERTON TITANS at STANFORD CARDINAL
Friday 6 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. (All times Pacific)
These two traditional West Coast powers opened the 2017 season in Fullerton, where the Titans won two of three versus the Cardinal. Nearly four months later, they met again in the Stanford Regional, with head coach Rick Vanderhook’s club taking a 4-1 decision before ending legendary Cardinal head coach Mark Marquess’ coaching tenure with a 4-2 triumph. From there the Titans proceeded to win the Long Beach Super Regional prior to dropping their two outings in the College World Series.
The head coaching reigns in Stanford (ranked as high as No. 9 in the preseason by Baseball America) have been passed to David Esquer, a former assistant under Marquess who returns to the Silicon Valley campus after leading Cal’s program for the past 18 years. Esquer inherits a Cardinal program that has not been a perennial national contender of late but has all the pieces in place to return to that lofty spot, thanks to one of the country’s best weekend rotations. Junior lefthander Kris Bubic (7-2, 2.79 ERA) emerged as an ace last season by pounding the strike zone before being named Pitcher of the Year in the Cape Cod League. Righthander Tristan Beck returns after missing 2017 due to a stress fracture in his back, while sophomore lefthander Erik Miller (5-2, 3.65 ERA) is coming off a strong freshman campaign.
The offense is more of a question mark for the Cardinal. The team’s top returning hitter is junior shortstop Nico Hoerner (.307), who drove in 33 runs in 2017 and provides leadership in all phases of the game. Sophomore designated hitter Daniel Bakst (.311, 3 HR, 38 RBIs) and junior Brandon Wulff (.231, 6 HR, 23 RBIs) will need to build on last year’s power production.
Meanwhile, the Titans (ranked as high as No. 11 in the preseason by the NCBWA) are coming off their second College World Series appearance in the last three years. Vanderhook continues to get the most out of his team by fielding hard-nosed, blue-collar players who employ the team concept as well as anyone at the Division 1 level. Fullerton will be younger this year and has a variety of holes to fill due to departures of several players but returns sophomore Sahid Valenzuela (.314/.366/.377), who ranked second on the team in hitting last year and is projected to move to the left side of the infield after playing second base as a freshman in 2017. Junior right fielder Ruben Cardenas has recovered from a stress fracture in his back that limited him to 16 games last year but has tremendous upside, particularly from a power standpoint.
Fullerton also will be strong on the mound once again. Junior righthander Colton Eastman (2-0, 2.14 ERA) heads a weekend rotation that should include a pair of newcomers in hard-throwing Anthony Quezada, a junior righthander from Cypress (Calif.) Junior College, and freshman righty Tanner Bibee from nearby Mission Viejo. Junior righthander Brett Conine (0-1, 1.39 ERA) is one of the nation’s top closers after saving 15 games last spring.
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS at SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI GOLDEN EAGLES
Available tickets have been nonexistent for this rematch of last year’s Hattiesburg Regional. The Golden Eagles hosted their first regional in 14 years and second overall when they entertained the Bulldogs, South Alabama and UIC at Pete Taylor Park. After defeating UIC and South Alabama during its first two outings of the rainy weekend, Southern Miss fell twice to its in-state rivals, 8-1 and 8-6, on the final day, allowing Mississippi State to advance to the Baton Rouge Super Regional.
Southern Miss (ranked as high as No. 21 in the preseason by Baseball America) has earned trips to a regional in each of the past two seasons after missing out on NCAA tournament appearances for four straight years. Head coach Scott Berry has reestablished Southern Miss as a power in Conference USA and has a veteran team group of position players that should compete into June. Minnesota native Matt Wallner (.336/.463/.655) emerged as one of the top two-way threats in college baseball last year as a freshman. He contributed throughout the campaign at the plate by hitting 14 doubles with 19 homers and 63 RBIs and also touched the upper 90s as a reliever before being shut down work for the final two months from his mound due to a sore hip. Senior outfielders Mason Irby (.338/.433/.449) and Daniel Keating (.261/.368/.522) contributed 40 and 31 RBIs, respectively, while senior shortstop LeeMarcus Boyd (.289/.345/.434) drove in 42 and junior first baseman Hunter Slater (.312/.446/.477) had four homers and 42 RBIs. One story to watch on opening weekend is the performance of junior third baseman Luke Reynolds, a potent hitter who sat out last season after transferring from Mississippi State.
Pitching, as always, will be a key, particularly after the Eagles lost some significant innings from a year ago. Senior righthander Colt Smith (6-2, 3.36 ERA) should be the Friday night starter after emerging last spring following his transfer from Northwest (Miss.) Junior College. Juniors J.C. Keys (3-3, 5.56 ERA) and Stevie Powers (3-0, 5.13 ERA) are expected to get first crack at starting on Saturday and Sunday. Junior Nick Sandlin (10-2, 2.38 ERA) is coming off an exceptional season when he had eight saves and 80 strikeouts in 57 innings.
The Bulldogs (ranked as high as No. 12 in the preseason by D1 Baseball) showed plenty of fight under first-year head coach Andy Cannizaro during the 2017 campaign. Mississippi State overcame the loss of eight pitchers during the season to injuries and a dismissal but still went 40-27 overall and 17-13 in the SEC. This season the Bulldogs will be counting on a handful of returners to take their game to a higher level, including junior center fielder Jake Mangum (.324, 26 RBIs), who is among the top candidates to earn SEC Player of the Year honors. Junior Luke Alexander (.222, 5 HR, 21 RBIs) moves back to shortstop after playing third base last year and will team with junior second baseman Hunter Stovall (.288/.345/.375). A pair of freshmen, third baseman Justin Foscue and Tanner Allen, will be counted on to provide some offense early in their collegiate careers.
On the mound, lefthander Konnor Pilkington (8-5, 3.08 ERA), lefthander Ethan Small and J.P. France are expected to fill the weekend rotation roles. Pilkington pitched on Fridays last year and had 108 strikeouts while compiling 108 innings of work and limiting opponents to a .199 batting average. Small was redshirted last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and France is a graduate transfer from Tulane. Junior Spencer Price (4-1, 2.91 ERA) and sophomore Riley Self (5-2, 3.72 ERA) solidify the end of the bullpen after saving 14 and eight games, respectively, last year.
Friday 4 p.m., Saturday noon, Sunday 1 p.m. (All times Central)
These two private academic-oriented schools have met on occasion in football but never are those gridiron matchups as intriguing as this series on thediamond. Vanderbilt (ranked as high as No. 6 in the preseason by Collegiate Baseball) is somewhat of an unknown heading into the 2018 campaign due to the inconsistency shown by its current junior class and the lack of experience among a freshman class that is widely considered to be the best in college baseball. Duke (ranked as high as No. 25 in the preseason by Baseball America) has been building momentum for the past couple of years and will field a veteran team that could emerge as a national contender despite being a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Vanderbilt gets the benefit of the doubt from most who cast votes in the numerous college baseball polls. After all, since head coach Tim Corbin took over in 2002, the Commodores have played in 13 regionals, advanced to three College World Series, and won the national championship in 2014. The school recently completed a $10 million expansion of Hawkins Field that upgrades the program’s coaching and player development facilities. Add in the fact that Corbin’s routinely brings in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes on an annual basis that has led to 13 first-round draft picks over the last 11 years and there is little wonder why the ‘Dores are deemed among the game’s premier programs.
Vanderbilt is coming a strong finish to the 2017 campaign. The ‘Dores caught fire in April and proceeded to win the Clemson Regional before falling to Oregon State in the Corvallis Super Regional. Junior first baseman Julian Infante (.315/.387/.518) will provide most of the pop once again after hitting 11 homers with 66 RBIs last year. Junior second baseman Ethan Paul (.251, 5 HR, 27 RBIs) and junior outfielder Alonzo Jones need to be more consistent, while sophomore catcher Ty Duvall will build on a freshman season in which he hit .375 in limited opportunities. Junior righthander Patrick Roby (10-4, 2.73 ERA) replaces first-round draft pick Kyle Wright as the Friday night starter.
The ‘Dores also have a deep class of freshmen that was deemed the country’s best after every recruit reached campus. Lefthander Jake Eder could contribute as a weekend starter at some point this year, while righthanders Tyler Brown and Mason Hickman and southpaws Hugh Fisher and Job Gobillot should see activity early in their careers. The new position players are led by catcher Phillip Clarke and third baseman Jayson Gonzalez, a pair that will see their names in the lineup frequently as the season progresses.
After building a consistent program at Appalachian State, head coach Chris Pollard has led Duke to four straight seasons with at least 30 wins since taking over the Blue Devils’ program six years ago. Included in that run is the team’s first trip to the NCAA tournament in 55 years, in 2016, and only their sixth since the program debuted in 1889. Last season the Blue Devils went 30-28 overall, including victories over Clemson and Virginia in the ACC Tournament, and 12-18 in the Coastal Division of the ACC while moving their home games to Durham Bulls Athletic Park, a Triple-A facility.
The Blue Devils are a chic pre-season pick tthanks to the return of 22 letterwinners, including eight starting position players. Junior outfielders Griffin Conine (.298/.546/.425) and Jimmy Herron (.326/.474/.412) swept Most Valuable Player honors in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game this past summer. The son of former big leaguer Jeff Conine, Griffin possesses outstanding power and should emerge as one of the ACC’s most prolific hitters after clubbing 13 home runs and 11 doubles and posting 56 RBIs last year. Herron, meanwhile, topped the team in batting average while hitting leadoff and added five homers, 17 doubles, 39 RBIs and 17 steals. Completing the garden is junior center fielder Kennie Taylor (.314/.496/.383), who scored 31 runs and drove in 22 last year, and junior shortstop Zack Kone (.291/.359/.345), who had 46 runs, 28 RBIs and 12 steals. Other returning starters include senior third baseman Jack Labosky (.275/.464/.399, 6 homers, 43 RBIs), senior second baseman Max Miller (.237/.299/.363), junior catcher Chris Proctor (.255/.309/.305) and senior designated hitter Michael Smiciklas (.302/.436/.385).
On the mound, Duke returns 68 percent of its innings pitched from last season, led by senior lefthander Mitch Stallings (4-3, 4.50 ERA) and senior righty Ryan Day (4-3, 3.30 ERA). Sophomore lefthanders Adam Laskey (4-5, 6.83 ERA) and Graeme Stinson (3-1, 6.67 ERA), senior southpaw Chris McGrath (1-2, 4.12 ERA), senior righty Jack Labosky (2-4, 4.50 ERA), and sophomore righthander Matt Mervis (2-2, 7.83 ERA) all logged more than 20 innings for Duke a season ago. Freshman righthanders Bryce Jarvis and Josh Nifong are among the newcomers who could see early activity.
Two other big series to watch are TCU at Grand Canyon and Louisiana-Lafayette at Texas. As for the tournament-type setups, Coastal Carolina is hosting its 19th annual Baseball at the Beach, which will include Oklahoma, Indiana, Kansas State, South Alabama and Virginia Tech.