2017 In Review: Annual Staff FavoritesAnalysis
Favorite Team To Cover: Oregon State. If you were looking for pomp and more from a team last season, the Beavers weren’t your team. They weren’t loud, but no team took care of business in more professional fashion than the Beavers. OSU had the nation’s premier pitching staff by a long shot, an opportunistic offense loaded with good role players and stars such as Nick Madrigal, Steven Kwan and KJ Harrison. Meanwhile, they played an elite brand of defense with the middle infield duo of Cadyn Grenier and Madrigal leading the charge. OSU was the poster team for precision.
While the Beavers didn’t win the national title, they went 56-6 overall, 27-3 in the Pac 12 and put on a show their first two games in Omaha against Cal State Fullerton and LSU. The Tigers eventually got the Beavers back by double-dipping them to advance to the championship series, but it was still a season to remember.
Oh, and by the way, there’s a good chance OSU could be even better this season. We’ll see if they have the trophy in hand.
Favorite Player To Cover: Brent Rooker, Mississippi State. For me, one of the biggest reasons I enjoy covering college baseball is seeing good players gravitate into premier players at the snap of a finger. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s a sight to see. That’s precisely what happened with Rooker last season. After having a solid 2016 campaign, Rooker was drafted by the Twins in the 38th round. He returned to college for another season. Rooker was ranked in the 100s in terms of college prospects to begin the season and was so special early in the season that he rose to 39th overall in our midseason prospect rankings. Rooker ended up going 35th overall to the Twins this past summer, but not before collecting the SEC Triple Crown and having one of the more special offensive campaigns in our sport’s history. Rooker even pitched in the SEC tournament, albeit not very well. But he was a highly productive hitter who I’d consider to be an absolute 80 in the makeup department. He was a true pleasure to cover last season.
Spoiler: Not Good. https://t.co/No4pQOTlFN
— Brent Rooker (@Brent_Rooker19) May 27, 2017
Favorite Regular Season Moment: Seeing LSU’s Alex Lange and Florida’s Alex Faedo battle it out in March. One thing I love about this game is seeing big-time pitchers and prospects duel it out. Well, in late March, both LSU and UF needed big-time starts from Lange and Faedo, respectively, in their three-game set in Gainesville, Fla. Lange was coming off a rough outing against Georgia, while Faedo was coming off a tough start on the road against Auburn. Both were phenomenal on a Friday night in interior Florida.
Lange didn’t allow a run until the sixth inning and struck out seven, walking just one and allowing six hits in eight innings. He also escaped a couple of bases loaded, no out, jams. Meanwhile, Faedo was at his absolute best, striking out seven, not walking anyone and allowing seven hits in seven shutout innings. Both pitchers showed electric fastballs into the mid-90s, along with premium secondary stuff.
You can read my column from that game, here.
Favorite Postseason Moment: For me, it was seeing Sam Houston State in a super regional and seeing all the little stories that popped up along the way. In case you didn’t see my story on SHSU head coach Matt Deggs, he was once one of the hottest assistants in our sport, only to eventually be fired by Texas A&M because of severe alcoholism. Deggs eventually found his way back to the game via UL Lafayette before getting the head job with the Bearkats. This past season, Deggs led the Bearkats to the Southland Conference crown before defying all odds by beating national seed Texas Tech in the Lubbock Regional title game.
Sam Houston State’s season came to an end against Florida State in the super regional round, but Deggs made more headlines with a passionate postgame press conference. In addition to taking the Bearkats to new heights, he also serves as an inspiration to many battling substance abuse.
You can read more on Deggs, here.
Favorite Prospect: Brady Singer, Florida. As you can probably tell from my bit on Rooker, I very much value makeup. And boy, does Singer have a lot of hard-nosed makeup. Singer has a mean streak and made headlines during the postseason when he was caught cursing loudly on television as the Gators went into yet another rain delay. Some people viewed it as immature. I viewed it as Singer being an ultimate competitor. Though there are some concerns from some scouts about his history and mechanics, he’s my favorite prospect with his approach and absolute filth of a fastball and slider combination. There’s no one more dominant than Singer when he’s clicking on all cylinders.
Favorite Game/Series To Cover: TCU vs. Texas A&M, Shriner’s College Classic. In what has developed into one of the nation’s premier rivalries, the Horned Frogs and Aggies, fresh off back-to-back super regional appearances against each other (both with the Frogs being victorious), met in March in front of almost 22,000 fans at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
It was yet another classic between the two teams. The Aggies jumped on prized Frogs lefthander Nick Lodolo for five runs in the first inning before extending their lead and entering the bottom of the ninth with a 10-5 advantage. The game seemed to be over until the Frogs put together a ferocious rally and tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. The two teams put up zeroes until the 15th when TCU’s Ryan Merrill smacked a walk-off RBI double to win and cause the Aggies yet more heartache.
It was one of those games where you hated to see either team lose. It’s also memorable for me because I walked in my front door from the game in extreme North Houston at around 4 a.m., only to head back to the ballpark later that morning.
Side note: The bout between the Frogs and Aggies in Omaha lacked any sort of drama what so ever, which was surprising.
Bold 2018 Prediction: Arkansas will win its first national title. You’ll see in a couple of weeks why some might not call that too bold, but the Hogs don’t have a national title in the program’s history and should have a great chance to accomplish that goal in 2018. The Hogs will have a deadly weekend rotation with Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell leading the charge, while I fully expect electric outfielder Dominic Fletcher to be the table setter for Dave Van Horn’s club.
Favorite Team To Cover: I’m going with Louisville. I covered the Cardinals a number of times over the course of the season, including at their super regional triumph against Kentucky. The likable personalities of stars like Drew Ellis, Brendan McKay, Devin Hairston, Kade McClure and Logan Taylor really shined through in that super regional weekend. This was a very special group of players, even though they fell short of their goal to win the College World Series.
Favorite Player To Cover: Nick Madrigal, Oregon State. The captain of the 2017 All-Fitt team; back in June I called him “the All-Fitt prototype — a dynamic little guy, like a modern-day Tony Kemp. … the 5-foot-8 Madrigal gets bonus points for standing eye-to-eye with me while also being one of the most exciting players in college baseball. He has game-changing speed, incredible bat-handling skills and uncanny instincts — he’s just a treat to watch every single time he takes the field.”
Favorite Regular Season Moment: April 21: Clemson beats Wake Forest 7-6 on a walk-off walk. Here’s what I wrote that night:
It was one of those special nights for college baseball at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, when the stars align and a big Top 25 showdown provides all of the intensity, drama, momentum swings and energy a fan could want. There were multiple plays at the plate, a little bit of zaniness on the basepaths, a pair of riveting comebacks and a walk-off victory for the home team — on a bases-loaded walk against one of the nation’s most overpowering closers.
After watching an early 4-0 lead slip away, No. 3 Clemson rallied from a two-run deficit in the ninth to win its series opener against No. 18 Wake Forest, 7-6. It was extremely entertaining theater, and it left the Tigers feeling exhilarated.
“What an incredible ballgame,” Clemson coach Monte Lee said. “One of the most exciting games that I think I’ve been a part of. I mean really, I was thinking as that game was going on and as that was happening in the ninth inning, I don’t recall being a part of a game more exciting than that one — it doesn’t get any better than that.”
HONORABLE MENTION: Cal Stevenson’s thrilling walk-off homer for Arizona against Washington on May 5.
Favorite Postseason Moment: I was on hand for Davidson’s upset of No. 2 national seed North Carolina in the opening round of the Chapel Hill regional, and it was quite a moment. It was the first NCAA tournament win in Davidson baseball’s 115-year history, in its first-ever NCAA tournament game. It came against one of the nation’s best teams, and also one of the country’s most talented pitchers (first-round pick J.B. Bukauskas). And it was particularly emotional given how meaningful it was for Wildcats coach Dick Cooke, who was nearly killed when his vehicle was struck by a drunk driver in 2012.
It turned out, that game was just the start of an improbable and thrilling run for the Wildcats, who toppled UNC again to win the Chapel Hill Regional and went on to give Texas A&M all it could handle in a compelling super regional.
Favorite Prospect: Alex Faedo, Florida. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe Faedo slipped out of the top 15 picks in the draft, because he’s been regarded as an elite prospect since he was a freshman, and he was a beast in the postseason who carried his team to the national title. After shining against Wake Forest in the super regional, Faedo posted a pair of 11-strikeout games against TCU in the College World Series. With a fastball that touches the mid-90s regularly and a very good power slider, Faedo is going to shoot to the big leagues in a hurry.
Favorite Game/Series To Cover: See Clemson/Wake Forest answer above.
Bold 2018 Prediction: West Virginia will follow up its first regional trip in 21 years with its first-ever super regional appearance.
Favorite Team To Cover:
Nobody seemed to have more of a soap operatic season than the Tigers did in 2017. They were a “can’t-miss” team for Omaha according to all of us college baseball pundits in the preseason, then limped out to a mediocre start with a 1-2 showing at the Houston College Classic and a 5-5 start in SEC play. Then, as if on cue, I showed up at their Saturday game at Arkansas when they were down 8-2 in the 8th inning and saw them rally for a 10-8 win. From there, their 20-11 start ended in a Championship series loss to Florida in Omaha. And with talents like Jared Poche, Alex Lange, Kramer Robertson, Cole Freeman and Greg Deichmann, these guys were great theater all season long.
Favorite Player To Cover:
– Parker Hanson, Minnesota-Crookston
I got to see the one-handed pitcher for the Golden Eagles pitch vs. Dickinson State in a game that started at 12:30am on March 5th at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the Vikings play their home games. It was a beauty to watch the sophomore flinger throw the ball, then seamlessly transfer his glove to his right hand and get into defensive position. Of course, it was very Jim Abbott-esque. The radio announcer for UMinn-Cookston told me that he had already been featured in Newsweek, the AP and plenty of different newspapers throughout the state and region. Hanson finished the season 4-3, 4.93 with 50 strikeouts, 27 walks in 69 innings pitched.
Favorite Regular Season Moment:
– Clay Fisher’s home run on the second pitch of the season.
Due to a rainy weekend forecast, the NCAA allowed three games to be played in Southern California on the Thursday before opening day. The first game took place 1.2 miles from my tent I live in under the 405 freeway as UC Santa Barbara played at LMU. Gaucho leadoff hitter Clay Fisher, on the second pitch of the college baseball season, sent a salvo over the Blue Monster in left field. Second pitch of 2017. First home run of 2017.
Favorite Postseason Moment:
– The fevered pitch of the Fullerton-Long Beach series.
Both head coaches have had their teams play in some raucous environments over the years – they’re not exactly wilting daisies when it comes to scheduling. But they both talked about how this three-game Super Regional at Blair Field was as loud and fevered for all 27 innings from first pitch to last out. Usually these kind of atmospheres are reserved for the LSUs, FSUs and MSUs of the world, not out on the West Coast.
– Chad Spanberger, Arkansas
#BergerBombs came a long way in 2017. The big lumberjack rose from relative anonymity in 2016, but came onto my radar by winning the California Collegiate League’s MVP of their July all-star game. He talked to me about improving with every pitch and be more discerning at the plate for 2017 on that July night in Compton. Lo and behold, Spanberger went on to be one of the best sluggers in the country, finishing 2017 10th in Division I with 20 home runs. He ended up being a sixth round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies. Can you imagine what this kid will do if he makes it to the bigs and gets to swing it in the thin air of Denver, Colorado?
Favorite Game/Series To Cover:
– Indiana at Hawaii.
Do I really need to explain why this was my favorite series to cover in 2017? It’s freaking Hawaii. That series also gave me one of my favorite pictures of the year when I was allowed into the Indiana dugout and took this pano of the Hoosiers right before the last out of one of their wins over the Rainbows…
Okay, okay, if there was a “runner-up” for game/series to cover it’d probably go to the Dairy Queen Classic in Minneapolis. It was 25 degrees outside the stadium, but a comfy 68 inside. My press credential meant I had free reign to all areas of the stadium and it really is an incredible piece of architecture, replete with numerous luxury suites and clubs throughout. It’s sort of like the JerryDome in Arlington, but without the grotesquely-huge Jumbotron that would only get in the way of fly balls. This coming season, the Dairy Queen Classic will feature a Big 10 vs. Pac 12 Challenge format with UCLA, Arizona and Washington taking on Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois. You know I’ll be there for that one.
Bold 2018 Prediction:
– Back to the non-national seeds winning the crown.
Even though Florida won the national title in 2017, non-national seeds have still won the national title in 11 of the past 14 seasons. Last year was actually an anomaly as six of the teams that advanced to Omaha were No. 1 seeds. But remember 2016? That’s when just two of the teams in Omaha were national seeds, and both Miami and Florida went out in two games. Coastal Carolina and Arizona made it to the Championship series after spending the Regionals and Super Regionals on the road. If things are cyclical as they say, look for the national seeds to have a struggle once again in 2018.
Favorite Team To Cover: LSU made it to the CWS finals and along the way turned plenty of heads in the process. With veterans like Alex Lange, Jared Poche and Kramer Robertson, the Tigers were as good in the interview room as they were on the diamond. Add in the raucous atmosphere at Alex Box and any trip to Baton Rouge generated storyline after storyline.
Favorite Player To Cover: Brent Rooker captured the imagination of college baseball fans like few sluggers ever do. The senior developed a cult following as he put up video game statistics and had opposing coaches contemplating if it would be easier just to put him on – even with the bases empty of perhaps even if they are full.
Favorite Regular Season Moment: First year coach Nick Mingione surprised everyone as Kentucky contended in the SEC and earned a regional host spot. Some coaches preach that they need time to get their players and institute their own system. Mingione was able to accelerate that timeline and perhaps not coincidentally, we have three more first year coaches in the SEC in 2018.
Favorite Postseason Moment: Florida had been to the CWS so many times and was often favored to win the entire thing. Up until last year, they had not been able to complete the mission. Last June, Kevin O’Sullivan’s club shed the gator off the back with a national title.
Favorite Prospect: A freshman from Minnesota, Matt Wallner burst onto the scene at Southern Miss and immediately created a buzz. The tall, rangy outfielder hit for average but his power potential is what grabbed the most notice. For good measure, Wallner also threw heat out of the bullpen as Scott Berry’s club hosted a regional.
Favorite Game/Series To Cover: The Hattiesburg Regional had three local teams in Southern Miss, Mississippi State and South Alabama along with Illinois-Chicago. Rain played havoc to the schedule and South Alabama shocked Mississippi State in the opening game. After losing the opener, Mississippi State pieced together their pitching to roll through the losers’ bracket to knock off the homestanding Golden Eagles twice on the final day.
Bold 2018 Prediction: Oregon State may not go 56-6 but even with the target on its back it will have another incredible season and win the 2018 College World Series.
Favorite Team To Cover: Air Force: When you talk to Falcons head coach Mike Kazlausky, you forget about conference standings and RPIs and remember that baseball is a game. Kazlausky doesn’t talk about preparing his players for wins and losses. His primary objective is to get his players ready for war — and not the contrived, tired notion that athletic competitions are life-and-death battles, but actual military combat. Air Force had a talented lineup led by Tyler Jones and Adam Groesbeck that could score runs with anyone, but a pitching staff that never found a lead it couldn’t give away, making for consistently interesting games. But most importantly was what was done off the field by the Air Force players.
“It’s a really cool experience knowing that what we do is a lot different than what you do at other schools,” Jones said. “Baseball is like our fun time at school. It really makes you appreciate baseball.”
Favorite Player To Cover: Darren McCaughan: This is such a tough category to choose because watching players grow up over three-to-five year spans makes a lot of them stand out for their growth. Guys like middle infielders Danny Sheehan and Phil Caulfield, Irvine slugger Keston Hiura, West Coast righthanders Griffin Canning, Colton Hock, Ryan Lillie and Fresno lefty Ricky Tyler Thomas all were in consideration, but McCaughan stands out because of his All-American results without the typical mid-90s fastball and MLB ready offspeed offerings. The righthander just made hitters look silly at times and was always available and fun to chat with before or after games.
Favorite Regular Season Moment: Cory Abbott perfect game: Abbott went from a reliable reliever to a mediocre Sunday starter to unhittable ace all in one season after making a tweak to his slider to become a better two-strike pitch He earned the WCC Pitcher of the Year award after going 8-0, 0.27 in WCC play and it started with an epic day in March against a high-powered BYU offense was incredible to see. Abbott struck out 13 while not allowing a baserunner and throwing 79 of 106 pitches for strikes
Favorite Postseason Moment: Texas/Long Beach State plays at the plate: In three matchups in the Long Beach Regional, the Longhorns and Dirtbags had multiple game-changing plays at the plate. In the first matchup, Long Beach’s Jarren Duran was cut down at home trying to score a walk-off inside-the-park homer in extra innings when third baseman Ryan Reynolds bare-handed a short hop and fired home. It was an unreal game-saving play from a freshman. Two days later when the team’s met again, Dirtbags catcher David Banuelos made the unbelievable play with a perfect foot block to stop a momentum-changing run from scoring. Texas’ Michael Cantu thought he tagged home plate, but only got Banuelos’ shin and shoe top and the umpire made an impeccable call ruling Cantu out.
Favorite Prospect: There were several big-name players from the Team USA Collegiate National Team that trained in Southern California last summer that I could include, including the electric Alex Faedo and Honey Badger Jeren Kendall. But Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame do-it-all Hunter Greene is just a special talent. Power for days in the batter’s box and on the mound where he can get up to triple digits. But the Reds’ top prospect also has 80 grade makeup. He helped his sister battle through childhood cancer and that opened his eyes to those in need, so he’s often working to help those ill or less fortunate.
Favorite Game/Series To Cover: Electricity at Blair Field: The atmosphere for the Long Beach Regional and Super Regional was the best I’ve seen while covering the West Coast. Occupancy was at 88% for the two weekends and the crowds were living on every pitch. But the first time ever super regional matchup pitting rivals Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton with a chance to go to Omaha was special. It made for a fun weekend full of intensity and passion. That the series ended with the tying run at third base made it even more dramatic.
Bold 2018 Prediction: Chad Bible is Named Mountain West Player of the Year: Bible played through cancer with San Diego State this year. Who is to say he doesn’t follow up with a Player of the Year type of season? He is cancer free and could be a big contributor in the Aztecs’ lineup.