The World-Herald's Steven Pivovar picks five locks and five dark horses to make the College World Series in Omaha.
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Five CWS locks
Cal State Fullerton
The Titans were considered by many to be the best team in the West last season, but then UCLA upset them in the super regional on its way to a national championship. Fullerton’s bid to get back to Omaha for the first time in four years will be anchored by one of college baseball’s strongest rotations in Thomas Eshelman (12-3, 1.48 ERA last season), Justin Garza (12-0, 2.03) and Grahamm Wiest (9-3, 3.27). Freshman Phil Bickford, the No. 10 overall pick in last spring’s draft, makes for a nice midweek starter. Coach Rick Vanderhook needs to replace four starters in the lineup, but shortstop Matt Chapman and outfielder J.D. Davis provide stability. Vanderhook must sort through things in the bullpen to find a closer, but has a dependable set-up guy in left-hander Tyler Peitzmeier of Yutan, Neb.
Pat Casey got the Beavers back to Omaha last June and returns a veteran team that should have its nose in the title hunt this spring. Left fielder Michael Conforto has established himself as one of college baseball’s elite power hitters, while right fielder Dylan Davis gives Casey’s lineup a proven run-producer with above-average pop. Casey must retool the heart of the defense with the departures of shortstop Tyler Smith and catcher Jake Rodriguez, but appears to have capable replacements. Adam Moore, a Freshman All-American last season who tied for the nation’s lead with 14 wins, and Ben Wetzler, who was picked fifth in the draft after a 10-win season but decided to return to school, anchor the starting staff. Scott Schultz, who saved 10 games last season, opens as the closer. But Casey could call on Davis, who can flirt with triple digits on the radar gun, to get outs at the back end.
Plenty of experienced hands from the Seminoles’ 2012 CWS team will lead the assault to get back to Omaha in 2014. Mike Compton, who won 12 games in 2012 but missed last season with an injury, rejoins Luke Weaver and Brandon Leibrandt to give Mike Martin an experienced and talented rotation. Martin will turn closing duties over to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who should anchor a deep and proven bullpen. Winston, a switch-hitter, also will get chances offensively as part of a veteran lineup that averaged almost seven runs per game last season. First baseman John Nogowski and center fielder DJ Stewart are the marquee pieces, but the order is filled with guys capable of getting on base and pressuring the opposition.
Anyone thinking the Hoosiers’ appearance in Omaha last June was some kind of fluke obviously hasn’t been paying attention to what Tracy Smith has been building in Bloomington. He returns one of college baseball’s elite offenses, which brings back all of its key components with the exception of shortstop Michael Basil. Catcher Kyle Schwarber and first baseman Sam Travis give Indiana plenty of pop, and third baseman Dustin DeMuth might be most productive hitter in the lineup. Replacing Big Ten pitcher of the year Aaron Slegers is a tall order — hey, the guy is 6-foot-10 — but every other key contributor returns. Ryan Halstead set a school record for saves last season, and while senior Joey DeNato might lack electric stuff, he brings the kind of dogged determination that has made him Indiana’s No. 1 starter since his freshman season.
The Cavaliers won 50 games last season but stumbled in super-regional play against Mississippi State. That adds a dash of motivation for a veteran lineup that will try to get Virginia back to Omaha for the first time since 2011. One of Brian O’Connor’s biggest challenges is replacing closer Kyle Crockett, but the staff is deep and talented. Left-handers Brandon Waddell and Nathan Kirby will give the Cavaliers a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. It’s on offense where Virginia really has a chance to be special. The Cavaliers return almost everyone from a lineup ranked in the nation’s top 10 in scoring, doubles, triples, slugging percentage and walks. They also have a couple talented newcomers in Daniel Pinero and catcher Matt Thaiss who will push for playing time.
Five CWS dark horses
The Wildcats had never played in the NCAA tournament until Brad Hill got them there in 2009. They made the super regional for the first time in 2013. Taking the next step — getting to Omaha — appears largely dependent on Hill finding a way to get more out of his starting rotation. Kansas State lacks an ace and will continue to lean heavily on a bullpen that features Jake Matthys, who won nine games last season and saved nine more. He’s surrounded by capable arms. Offensively, six regulars return from a lineup that ranked second in the nation in hitting. Second baseman Ross Kivett, the Big 12’s player of the year in 2013, is a high-energy player, while first baseman Shane Conlon will be counted on to provide power with the loss of Jared King and Jon Davis, who combined for 12 of Kansas State’s 29 homers last season.
It’s been a tough couple of seasons for Augie Garrido, whose legendary status might have helped him avoid a pink slip after back-to-back disappointing campaigns. Hopes for a turnaround will rest on a pitching staff stocked with proven performers. Texas finished seventh nationally in ERA in 2013 and returns its top three starters in Dillon Peters, Parker French and Nathan Thornhill. Pressing for a spot in the weekend rotation is Lukas Schiraldi, the pitcher of the year last summer in the Cape Cod League and son of former Longhorn star Calvin Schiraldi. Garrido must replace closer Corey Knebel, but that role could be filled by John Curtiss, who missed last season after undergoing elbow surgery. The big question is whether newcomers from a recruiting class ranked second nationally can breathe some life into an offense that ranked 275th last season (3.8 runs per game).
George Horton has done a commendable job in resurrecting the program, winning 180 games in five seasons. But the Ducks lured Horton from Cal State Fullerton to get them to Omaha, and he hasn’t quite been able to do that yet. Horton has built a program that features elite pitching and outstanding defense, ingredients that could allow the Ducks to excel if they can get to TD Ameritrade Park. Oregon returns its weekend rotation of Tommy Thorpe, Cole Irvin and Jake Reed, who combined for 25 victories last season. Garrett Cleavinger won nine games and saved two more as a freshman and should nicely fill the closer role vacated by Jimmie Sherfy. Like his former boss Garrido, Horton has to find a way to get more from an offense that ranked 227th in batting average and 188th in scoring. Despite those rankings, Oregon won 48 games because it excels at manufacturing runs for a pitching staff capable of protecting the slimmest of leads.
The days when the Hurricanes could book their reservations in Omaha before the season are long gone, but this could be the year Miami finds its way back to the College World Series. Jim Morris could have his best team since the 2008 squad that ended its season in Omaha. Miami’s hopes rest heavily on its skill on the hill: The Hurricanes return four proven starters in Brian Radziewski, Chris Diaz, Andrew Suarez and Javi Salas. Freshman Cooper Hammond will get first crack at taking over the closer spot, but the rest of the bullpen appears solid. The Hurricanes will be counting on newcomers from a recruiting class ranked sixth to put some pop into the offense. Catcher Zack Collins and outfielder Willie Abreu are freshmen worth watching.
Rob Childress got 34 wins and a regional trip out of a young team that depended heavily on freshmen and sophomores. The experience they gained will benefit them as the Aggies bid to get back to Omaha for the first time since 2011. Childress has one of college baseball’s top closers in senior Jason Jester, who set a school record with 14 saves last season. Daniel Mengden, Parker Ray and Grayson Long give the rotation a chance to be dominant, and the bullpen has plenty of capable arms to set up Jester. Childress has some question marks in the lineup, but first baseman Cole Lankford and shortstop Logan Taylor are capable of emerging as big-time contributors.