2018 Rewind: Annual Staff Favorites

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The 2018 season was one to remember for many reasons, some great and some heartbreaking. We lost a legend in Augie Garrido, while Florida State’s Mike Martin earned the all-time wins record. Plenty of other story lines stand out as favorites of ours, too.

It’s time to take one final look back at the year that was 2018.

Kendall Rogers

Favorite Team To Cover: Mississippi State
It’s safe to say Mississippi State left it all on the field. The Bulldogs were left in a precarious position after the first weekend of the season when head coach Andy Cannizaro was forced to resign following some off the field issues. Cannizaro was one of the hottest names in the sport, so his dismissal was an absolute and surprise for the Bulldogs. With that said, interim head coach Gary Henderson and his staff did a tremendous job of picking up the pieces and turning a bad situation into a positive. The Bulldogs played well and emotional at the Shriners College Classic in March, while they essentially punched their ticket to the NCAA postseason by sweeping Florida the final weekend of the regular season. MSU used heroics via an Elijah MacNamee home run to beat Oklahoma in the Tallahassee Regional title game before beating Vanderbilt in a thrilling super regional series. MSU didn’t go all the way in Omaha, but what a postseason (and season) ride it was for a team once in an unfortunate situation. You can’t say enough about Gary Henderson, Jake Gautreau and others who were part of the coaching staff that held all the pieces together.

Favorite Player To Cover: Kody Clemens, Texas
Clemens had one of the more meteoric rises I’ve seen since I began covering college baseball. Just two seasons ago, Clemens, who always showed big-time potential, hit .241 with just five homers. But everything changed last season. Looking to build off a regional championship appearance in David Pierce’s first season, the Longhorns looked to Clemens to spark them last season. It worked. Clemens finished the season with incredible numbers, hitting .351 with 15 doubles, three triples, 24 home runs and 72 RBIs. He also had a 1.170 OPS while also drawing more than 40 walks. As good as Clemens was during the regular season, he also stepped up in the postseason. He hit a key home run in a regional game against rival Texas A&M to propel the Longhorns to victory, while also hitting a tide-turning home run in the super regional round against Tennessee Tech. For his contributions last season and more, Clemens was a Golden Spikes Finalist (Andrew Vaughn won the award) and signed after being selected in the third round by the Detroit Tigers. It was a season to remember for Clemens, and an honor to watch him show off his craft.

Favorite Regular Season Moment
In today’s world, you love seeing great things happen to fantastic people. Well, history was made this past season when Florida State’s Mike Martin earned the all-time wins record at Clemson. The Seminoles won Martin the record in a 13-inning affair and there was plenty of fanfare following the historic moment. Though Martin is still searching for his first national title, he’s had an amazing career and this was a moment to remember forever. Congrats, 11.

Favorite Postseason Moment: The Ninth Inning
Sorry in advance for picking this one, Arkansas fans. But you have to. Throughout my years of covering college baseball, I’ve seen some fun finishes at the CWS, and I’ve seen some absolute clunkers. Well, this year’s final few outs were the opposite of a clunker. Arkansas entered the ninth inning in total command of Oregon State and recorded the first out on a sacrifice bunt. Electric Nick Madrigal then grounded to firs for the second out of the inning before Cadyn Grenier had the first set of heroics. Grenier appeared to be the final out of the game as he popped up a ball in foul territory down the right-field line (it wasn’t an easy play). However, a couple of Hogs overran the ball and it dropped. I was sitting behind the OSU dugout amongst a throng of Arkansas and OSU fans. When the ball went up, the Hogs fans around me were in euphoria. People were high-fiving, kids were on dad’s shoulders and they could sense it. Then, it dropped. It was a weird feeling, and I couldn’t help but to feel bad for the few kids to my right. Grenier singled in the game-tying run before Trevor Larnach unloaded a ball that could’ve bounced to the Omaha World-Herald building if nothing stood in its way. It was annihilated. OSU won, and a day later, Kevin Abel became a CWS legend with a Herculean performance. As painful as that moment was for Arkansas, it was the most surreal ninth inning I’ve ever covered in a game. Runner-ups in this department include Jace Chamberlain’s heroics for Cal State Fullerton against Stanford and Elijah MacNamee’s bomb against Florida State to stay alive in the Tallahassee Regional.

Favorite Prospect: Brady Singer, Florida
Singer had a decorated career in a Florida uniform, and was one of my favorite prospects to cover over the past few seasons. Singer, a first-round pick to the Royals this past summer, helped lead the Gators to the program’s first national title two years ago with nasty stuff in Omaha, while also putting together a solid junior campaign last season on the way to yet another College World Series appearance. Singer tallied a 2.55 ERA in 113 innings, while also striking out 114 and walking 22. He had a wipeout slider to accompany his fastball, while also having a mean streak in his approach. He was the total package, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Gators can immediately replace him in 2019.

Favorite Game/Series To Cover
Since no single series stands out, I’m going to go with the SEC tournament. There are campaigns where the conference tourney in Hoover means very little. This wasn’t one of those years. Kentucky and Texas A&M entered the tourney in must-win situations. Basically, the two teams needed to win the first game of the tournament to stay alive in the postseason hunt. Committee chairman Ray Tanner later seemed to confirm that hunch. UK lost its opener and didn’t make the tournament, while A&M won the first game and put together an impressive run through the tourney to solidify its postseason berth. The tournament also featured a stellar matchup between A&M lefty John Doxakis (a likely top two-round pick in 2019) and Auburn’s Casey Mize. Doxakis out dueled the top overall pick and carried a no-hitter late into the game. The tourney also featured a fog delay between LSU and Florida that eventually postponed the game until the next morning and led to Tigers fans (aided by adult beverages) to form a conga line around the concourse. It was definitely what you’d call an interesting moment.

Bold 2019 Prediction
Michigan makes its first trip to the College World Series since 1984. And for a bonus prediction, legendary head coach Pat Casey announces this summer that he’s returning to Oregon State to coach the Beavers in 2020.

Aaron Fitt

Favorite Team To Cover: Clemson 
I wound up covering a lot of Clemson games in 2018, and I really enjoyed getting to know that likable group of guys a little bit. The 2018 Tigers were a loose, fun-loving bunch with huge personality. After one victory, the three players who showed up for the postgame press conference inexplicably decided to answer questions as each other — just because. And who could forget Jordan Greene’s “Most Legendary Blind Squirrel Ever” press conference after his walk-off homer against Florida State? Between Greene, Chris Williams, Patrick “The Chancellor” Cromwell, the classy and exceptional Seth Beer, the electric Ryley Gilliam, and plenty of others, this Clemson team was a treat to cover, even though it went out in a blaze of anti-glory in regionals, losing 19-6 to Vanderbilt and making my pick of Clemson to the CWS Finals look silly.

Favorite Player To Cover: Nick Madrigal, Oregon State
I’ve got to stay on brand here. Madrigal is the two-time captain of the All-Fitt Team, my annual list of players I’ve most enjoyed covering over the past season. After missing a good chunk of the season with a broken hamate bone, Madrigal returned to action better than ever, helping lead his Beavers back to Omaha, though he had a quiet CWS. I’ve often called Madrigal the All-Fitt prototype, as a little guy (5-foot-7) who is simply dazzling to watch, like Tony Kemp before him.

Favorite Regular Season Moment
May 5: I was on hand at Doug Kingsmore Stadium to watch Florida State coach Mike Martin become the winningest coach in college baseball history. It was a truly great extra-innings game capped by Steven Wells’ game-winning home run in the 13th, but the real highlight came afterward, when FSU players past and present celebrated the man they call Eleven. I wrote that night:

Well after the final out was recorded in Florida State’s riveting 13-inning, 3-2 win at Clemson, after the FSU players had surrounded Mike Martin and saluted him with a heartfelt round of applause, after countless congratulatory hugs were issued and countless photographs were taken to commemorate Martin’s brand-new status as the winningest coach in college baseball history — Martin greeted the awaiting media in a characteristically Mike Martin way.

“Appreciate y’all being here,” he said.

It was a typical expression of grace and humility and thoughtfulness from a man who literally doffs his cap and thanks the assembled media and the city of Omaha and the fans of college baseball at the end of any College World Series press conference that ends his team’s season. I’ve witnessed that scene in Omaha four times over the last decade, and it never fails to move me, because Martin means every word from the bottom of his heart. He’s eternally grateful for the opportunity to spend his life leading young men, teaching them how to become better baseball players, but far more importantly, to become better citizens, better human beings. He’s eternally grateful for anyone who cares about or promotes the game he loves. And he never fails to divert the spotlight away from himself, and onto his players.

Favorite Postseason Moment
Trevor Larnach’s game-winning homer against Arkansas in Game Two of the CWS Finals — just moments after Arkansas appeared to have the national championship wrapped up — was one of the most stunning sports moments I’ve ever witnessed. I was shooting photos on the first base side, preparing to document Arkansas’ victory, and the air had that feeling of imminent celebration, which I’ve felt so many times at the end of the CWS. After that pop-up dropped harmlessly to the ground between three Razorbacks, giving the Beavers a stay of execution, it still felt Arkansas had the game in hand — until Cadyn Grenier fought back to tie the game with an RBI single, and Larnach stuck a spike through Arkansas’ heart with that two-run homer to right field. It’s hard to describe the feeling in the ballpark at that moment — euphoria on the Oregon State side, of course, and utter disbelief on the Arkansas side. It all turned so fast. I’ll never forget it. My heart ached for the Arkansas players, but I also appreciated the theater of the whole thing — moments like that are why sports have captivated us all time after time.

Favorite Prospect: Casey Mize, Auburn
With apologies to Madrigal and the great Jonathan India of Florida, if I had the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft I would have taken the same guy the Tigers took: Auburn righthander Casey Mize. I saw Mize at his very best for five innings against LSU, during which he retired 12 straight hitters — nine via strikeouts. LSU wound up getting to him, but for those first five innings, Mize put on about as jaw-dropping a display of sheer talent as I’ve seen since Steven Strasburg. His fastball was 93-96 with command, and his cutter and split-finger were simply dastardly. He checks every box — he’s physical, athletic, has a complete four-pitch mix and impeccable control for a power pitcher. He’s a surefire big league star.

Favorite Game/Series To Cover
The Stanford-Oregon State series in May was fascinating. For the first two days, Oregon State was in full Beaver Buzzsaw mode, giving a glimpse of things to come in Omaha. But Sunday, Stanford showed all kinds of character by storming back from a 6-1 deficit to win in extra innings. It was the most compelling game I covered all year, full of twists and turns.

Bold 2018 Prediction
East Carolina will finally break down the door to Omaha for the first time in program history.

Eric Sorenson

Favorite Team To Cover: Minnesota
This was a team that came into the season with a veteran batting order that was lefty-heavy and formidable. But they also had a rather green pitching staff, so the prospects weren’t shining too bright. Yet, behind freshmen pitchers like Patrick Fredrickson and Max Meyer, the Gophers ended up winning 44 games and ranked No. 9 in the country at season’s end. I am fully convinced if they weren’t unfortunately matched up with Oregon State in the Super Regionals, it would’ve been the Gophers making their first trip to Omaha since 1977. 

Favorite Player To Cover: Carlos Cortes, South Carolina
Compactly built and full of power, this guy was a powder keg every time he stepped into the batter’s box. When I saw him play against LSU in the first two games of the weekend series where the Gamecocks outscored the Tigers 22 to 4, he seemed to hit the balls on the screws every time he swung the bat, including a screaming line-drive home run to right-center in game one. The only times he got out was when he slugged the ball right at somebody. I discovered that the opposing coaches just had to hold their breath every time Cortes stepped to the plate. And I had to have my camera ready. 

Favorite Regular Season Moment
Mike Martin becomes the winningest coach in college history. On Saturday, May 5th, Florida State guru Mike Martin got a scintillating, 13-inning 3-2 win at Clemson to earn win No. 1,976 in his career. Steven Wells hit a solo home run in that 13th frame to account for the winning run. That win helped coach Martin surpass the legendary Augie Garrido to become the winningest coach in our sport. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. 

Favorite Postseason Moment
Mississippi State’s Elijah MacNamee’s game-winning home run vs. Florida State in the Regional elimination game. As happy as I was for coach Martin in becoming the winningest coach, I was just as bummed to see his season end the way it did. And boy howdy, what a way for the Dogs to win an elimination game in the Regionals. With FSU up 2-0 and after a long rain delay, coach Martin chose to stick with starter Drew Parrish who got two out in the bottom of the ninth, but also gave up a pair of walks. Then, Mr. MacNamee stepped up to the plate for the Bulldogs and cranked out a three-run jog-off home run to keep MSU’s alive. From that home run onward, the Bulldogs were magical, making it to the final four in Omaha.

Favorite Prospect: Nick Madrigal, Oregon State
I am lucky enough to annually be able to attend the Area Code Games each year in Long Beach and in 2014 I got to see a very slightly-built but athletic Nick Madrigal play in the ACG in the summer prior to his senior year of high school. He turned down the Indians after being drafted in the 17th round out of high school and went to Corvallis instead. This past year, Madrigal used his 5’8, 165-pound body to hit .367 and get selected fourth overall by the Chicago White Sox. THAT’s what developing players is all about. It was good to see the young man choose to play college ball and increase his wallet size significantly by doing so. Dear high school draftees, take heed. 

Favorite Game/Series To Cover
The Dairy Queen Classic in Minneapolis. It was 25 degrees outside and 68 inside. This was the second year where the Minnesota Vikings allowed the Gophers to host three or four weeks of baseball in their indoor stadium in the first weekend of March. It was really great to catch a weekend of games in the middle of Norseland as the world froze outside. Also, this DQ Classic was played just a few weeks after the Super Bowl was played there, which is cool. The icing on the ice cream cake was having this being a Pac 12-Big 10 Challenge in which Illinois went 3-0 to take the title. Unfortunately, because of the Final Four being played there this April, the Gophers are not allowed to play any baseball games inside the big Viking ship.

Bold Prediction For 2019
Arizona State makes it to the Super Regionals and Tracy Smith saves his job in Tempe. This is a “win or else” season for the Sun Devil head honcho. But here’s the thing, he’s got a loaded team for 2019. Spencer Torkelson led the nation in home runs as a freshman last year and he’ll team with Hunter Bishop to form two of the best power-hitters in the country. And Alec Marsh and Boyd Vander Kooi are going to be a formidable 1-2 punch on the mound on weekends. Coach Smith told me, “I’m very confident in this group and I know they are confident in themselves.” 

Mark Etheridge

Favorite Team To Cover: Mississippi State
Sometimes the sum is greater than the individual parts and Mississippi State proved to be a great example with the run to Omaha. After losing their coach after the opening series, new skipper Gary Henderson pieced together a pitching staff and found enough offense to pull off victory after victory over teams that on paper should beat them. 

Favorite Player To Cover: Casey Mize, Auburn
I am a sucker for the dominant hurler and Auburn’s Casey Mize blossomed into one of the best pitchers in recent SEC history. His February no-hitter over Northeastern was a highlight and set the stage for what ended up a great season both for him and for Auburn.

Favorite Regular Season Moment
It was May 13, and 189 fans were in New Rochelle, NY to watch St. Peters at Iona. The visitors had lost 77 consecutive games, a stretch going back to May 19, 2016. Some were wondering if they Peacocks would go winless for the second year in a row. Instead, starting pitcher Willie Krajnik pitched a three-hit, seven inning complete game in a 7-1 victory that saw St. Peter’s take advantage of ten Iona walks. 

Favorite Postseason Moment 
Two outs, bottom of the ninth in Palo Alto. We are looking like another extra inning contest is imminent. Cal State Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook calls on freshman Jace Chamberlain to pinch hit against Stanford. Chamberlain looks like a slugger, but he had no home runs in 88 at bats. Chamberlain jumped on a fastball from Stanford reliever Will Matthiessen and pounded it off the right-center field scoreboard to push the Titans into the winners’ bracket. 

Favorite Prospect: Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
Years later, we will be talking about watching the Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray play college baseball at Oklahoma. We will discuss how the tools outfielder advanced from a guy scouts were watching into a top ten overall selection. 

Favorite Game/Series To Cover
I love opening day. I love heated rivalries. I love full stadiums. It isn’t too often that you get all three in one series. Southern Miss hosted Mississippi State last year in a packed Pete Taylor Park and got a little payback sweeping the three-game set after the Bulldogs had ended their season on the same field the prior season. 

Bold 2019 Prediction
Last season in this column, I picked Oregon State to not have as good a regular season as they did in their dominant 2017 campaign but then end up winning the CWS title. While perhaps not the boldest prediction on record, it did turn out accurate. For the 2019 prediction, I don’t know how bold this one is but sure hope it is accurate. After forty-year coaching career at Florida State, 74-year-old Mike Martin is back for one final season. While it may be too “Disney storybook” for his Seminoles to send him away with his first title, a 17th trip to Omaha would be a warm sendoff.

Shotgun Spratling

Favorite Team To Cover: Washington
The Huskies fell to 11-11 when I saw them lose the opener at USC, but head coach Lindsay Meggs was confident his team could go on a run, if they could get healthy. Slowly but surely they started getting some important pieces back and, despite being 19-19 at one point, finished the regular season 11-4 with a series win over No. 3 Stanford to earn a trip to regionals. They rolled through the Conway Regional and won the Fullerton Super Regional in a drama-filled Game 3 to advance to their first College World Series. It was fun to watch how the team evolved from when I saw it against USC to its super regional matchup and they were a loose team that always was having a good time.

Favorite Player To Cover: Brady Singer, Florida
I’m jealous of reporters that got to cover Florida regularly. The Gators always have a ton of talent, but Brady Singer was a different cat and getting to cover him was a joy. He has first-round stuff on the mound and top pick mentality. He is going to go after guys and has no plans to back down. He also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind after the game and how can you not pull for a guy who pays off his parents’ debt for Christmas.

Favorite Regular Season Moment
Mike Gillespie’s jersey retirement. UC Irvine announced a Mike Gillespie retirement ceremony for the Friday of its final home series, but failed to mention to Gillespie plans to retire his number as well. He was surprised and in his classic self-deprecating way asked successor Ben Orloff, “Why’d you go and mess up your field?” With several of his former players in the stands telling their favorite ‘Skip Stories,’ the ‘Eaters won on a night when everything fittingly went perfect for Gillespie.

Favorite Postseason Moment
Jumbo Jack. Cal State Fullerton is a program no one wants to see in the postseason, but especially not for Stanford. The Stanford Regional has been won by the Titans two years in a row even with the Cardinal being the national No. 2 seed this year. Stanford looked set for redemption this year until an improbable scene in the winner’s bracket left the Cardinal speechless. With two outs and no one on in the bottom of the ninth, six-foot-4, 240-pound Fullerton freshman Jace “Jumbo” Chamberlain was sent up to pinch hit. He unloaded on a fastball to blast his first career home run, hitting it off the scoreboard in right-center field. It was an improbable finish for a team that entered No. 292 of 297 teams in home runs per game with 0.20.

Favorite Prospect: Bryson Stott, UNLV
San Diego State head coach Mark Martinez asked for the NBA’s one-and-done rule to be allowed for UNLV shortstop Bryson Stott after Stott went five for five in a game against the Aztecs. The Rebels’ leadoff hitter can do everything. He hit .393 during the regular season with four homers and 32 RBI to go along a nation’s best 30 doubles. He also stole 14 bases and was one of the toughest hitters to strike out (No. 18 nationally with one strikeout every 14 at-bats). He sprays the ball from foul line to foul line and has power potential that is yet to be unlocked. Stott showed this summer he can be an outstanding defender as well and another strong season could end with his name being called early in the first round.

Favorite Game/Series To Cover
A Great One at Goodwin: Before the Fullerton Super Regional, I told both head coaches, I was just hoping the series would go three games, giving me one extra game to cover before the end of my season. Not only did it go three games, it went extra innings in the third. Before it got to the 10th inning, there was a dramatic ninth inning. Washington starter Joe DeMers had allowed only one hit on 74 pitches in the first eight innings and the Huskies led 3-1. He got two outs but before he could get the third Fullerton scored three runs to take a 4-3 lead. DeMers did not go from hero to goat though. Washington scored the tying run in the ninth before Fullerton got out of the jam. The Titans appeared to be on their way back to Omaha when they re-took the lead in the 10th inning on 5-foot-6 Hank LoForte’s two-out, out-of-nowhere solo homer. Washington did not die and with the help of Fullerton defensive deficiencies, the Huskies rallied for two runs, winning on a Kaiser Weiss sacrifice fly to score Levi Jordan.

Bold 2018 Prediction
The Pac-12 will win another title. When the Pac-12 wins, it often wins in bunches. Since 1967, only one Pac-12 national title has not been a part of a multi-year run. The stretches between national title runs have grown longer in the last 20 years, but when they breakthrough, they at least go for the back-to-back as they have done most recently in 2006-07 and 2012-13.

David Seifert

Favorite Team to Scout: Florida
With prospects at every position and for every draft class, the Florida Gators were easily my favorite team to scout last spring. During my look on Easter weekend against Vanderbilt, the Gators started the fifth overall selection (Jonathan India) at third base, the 18th overall selection (Brady Singer) on the mound, an eighth rounder (JJ Schwarz) behind the plate, a tenth rounder at shortstop (Deacon Liput) and a 25th rounder (Nick Horvath) in center field. Michael Byrne, a personal favorite and 14th rounder who fell due to signability questions, closed out the game with two scoreless innings. The following day another first rounder (Jackson Kowar) started on the bump for the Gators while potential future high round draft picks (Wil Dalton, Tommy Mace, Austin Langworthy, Brady Smith, Hunter McMullen, Tyler Dyson, Jack Leftwich) also appeared in the series.

Favorite Player to Scout: Casey Mize, Auburn
It took me until Week Six of the Scouting Trail to catch up with him, but he came as advertised with fastballs up to 96 m.p.h., a devastating split change-up and two plus breaking pitches. It was my first ever look at Mize and one that I will surely remember forever. He was a magician with his feel for the ball and manipulating the action on it, while also possessing top of the scale competitiveness.

Favorite Regular Season Moment
March 30 and day two of a three-day Easter weekend trip to Florida during which Mother Nature allowed me to see Logan Gilbert (Stetson) vs. Anthony Maldonado (Bethune-Cookman) and Brady Singer (Florida) vs. Drake Fellows (Vanderbilt). Both games were originally scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. However, with a storm moving west to east across north central Florida, the Stetson game was moved up to a 4:30 p.m. start to beat the rainstorm while the Florida game was delayed, eventually beginning at 8:15 p.m. With a two-hour drive between DeLand and Gainesville, it was the perfect opportunity to see top 2018 draft talents Singer and Gilbert, while also getting a preview of 2019 prospects Fellows and Maldonado.

Favorite Game/Series to Scout
Week Nine of the college season was a dream in the making. Two big-time series separated by a little over two hours of driving time between Fayetteville, AR and Springfield, MO. Unranked, but dangerous South Carolina was at No. 3 Arkansas, while No. 9 Oregon State visited No. 19 Missouri State. It was a slam dunk weekend where I could potentially see 15 of the Top 150 Midseason college prospects. The original game times lined up perfectly to see all six games between the two locations. However, tornadoes in the Northwest Arkansas area on Friday evening prevented the Razorbacks and Gamecocks from squaring off. That evening’s scheduled game was postponed, turning into a Noon double-header on Saturday. Regardless, I was still able to see five games between the two series and 14 of the 15 top prospects (minus Nick Madrigal who took infield and was rumored to be returning that weekend, but held out of the games still recovering from his hand fracture).

Bold 2019 Prediction
2019 will mark the return of the mid-major to the CWS: Two teams from outside the Power Five (ACC, SEC, Pac-12, BIG 12, BIG Ten) and Big West will advance to Omaha. This has not happened since 2012 when Kent State (Mid-American) and Stony Brook (America East) joined the CWS field, sparking college baseball and providing hope to mid-majors across the country.

Recently, the rich have gotten richer. There have been only three teams total from outside the Power Five and Big West to make it to the CWS in the past six seasons. Coastal Carolina, National Champions in 2016, and Louisville twice; 2014 as a member of the American Athletic Conference and 2013, their last year as a member of the Big East.

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