OMAHA—I took advantage of another 7 p.m. start time to play my annual round of golf with Doug Kroll of NCAA.com at Shoreline Golf Course in nearby Carter Lake—we've come to call it the Shoreline Classic. This year, we were also joined by Doug's co-worker, Matt Wickline. Like South Carolina, I am the defending champion, and like the Gamecocks on Monday, I had to overcome an early deficit, trailing by two strokes after nine holes. Like the last few innings last night, the back nine was full of dramatic momentum swings—Doug increased his lead to four strokes after 13 holes, then I surged ahead by two strokes with two holes to play. My short game melted down on No. 17, allowing Doug to retake a one-stroke lead. But I took the final hole, and our showdown ended in a draw, with Matt three strokes behind us.
Settling for a tie is never satisfying, but at least we don't have to worry about that tonight. Either South Carolina will be crowed national champion for the second straight year, or Florida will force a decisive third game Wednesday. The Gators showed plenty of character with their backs to the wall in super regionals against Mississippi State, but Mississippi State is no South Carolina, and the Bulldogs did not have Michael Roth on the mound, as the Gamecocks are expected to. After MSU's walk-off win in the second game of the Gainesville Super Regional, the Gators were "almost ticked off and mad" in the post-game press conference, according to Matthew Stevens of the Starkville Daily News. After their gut-wrenching loss Monday against South Carolina, the Gators seemed shell-shocked and despondent. Maybe they'll put those emotions behind them and bounce back tonight, but they looked like they were already beaten Monday night, for what that's worth.
If this is the last day of the college baseball season, let me say that it has been quite a year. College basball has entered a new era, ushered in by less potent bats and a brand-new stadium for the College World Series. And after a slow start, this CWS has provided us with fantastic theater over the past three games, for which I'm appreciative.
I'm also thankful for all the coaches and players who have made college baseball fun to cover in 2011. Without further ado, here is a list of my favorite players to watch and interview this season—also known as the All-Fitt Team:
C: Jacob Stallings, North Carolina
Watching him throw is a treat, and I appreciated the insight he offered about his pitching staff and his own development.
1B: C.J. Cron, Utah
Cron was the most fearsome hitter I saw in 2011. He put on a show at the Houston College Classic—it's fun to watch a power hitter who seems almost impossible to get out.
2B: Scott Wingo, South Carolina
The Gamecocks were on television all the time, and I was constantly dazzled by Wingo's defensive wizardry. And he did not disappoint with the glove in Omaha—where he also provided several memorable moments with the bat. Sorry, Keith Werman—you know I love you, but Wingo has earned this spot.
SS: Casey McElroy, Auburn
I'm a sucker for undersized players, and McElroy plays well above his 5-foot-8 stature. He also provided one of my favorite In The Dugout interviews of the season. When his baseball career is over, he'll have a bright future in the booth.
3B: Carter Bell, Oregon State
A hard-nosed Canadian who played through pain and demonstrated a laid-back, subtle sense of humor—what's not to like? Bell was Oregon State's field general.
LF: Tony Kemp, Vanderbilt
Kemp secured his spot on this team during the season's first weekend in San Diego, when his energy, speed and charisma leapt out at me. He was a treat to watch in Omaha, too. Pound for pound, the 5-foot-6, 160-pound Kemp is one of the most exciting players in college baseball.
CF: Jackie Bradley, South Carolina
A long slump and a torn wrist tendon kept him from putting together an All-America season, but Bradley returned to action just in time for the College World Series—and reminded me how much I love to watch him play. Nobody gets better reads in the outfield, and nobody makes it look easier to glide to balls in the gaps.
RF: Preston Tucker, Florida
A personal favorite of mine since his freshman year, Tucker rewarded my faith in his bat by delivering big hit after big hit in the postseason. He's good on the post-game dais, too.
DH: Tony Renda, California
Renda was the unofficial spokesman for Cal's players after the school announced its plans to cut the program last fall, and his candor and intelligence made him exceedingly quotable. Pac-10 coaches raved about his baseball savvy and leadership—big reasons he earned Pac-10 player of the year honors. Oh, and he's 5-foot-8.
UT: Sean Gilmartin, Florida State
Cheating a little bit here—Gilmartin got just 22 at-bats, but that's enough to get him a spot on this team as the two-way player. His In The Dugout segment was perhaps the year's most insightful, thanks to his honest self-assessment and willingness to talk about the nitty-gritty of pitching.
SP: Trevor Bauer, UCLA
Bauer and Gerrit Cole provided two of my favorite interviews ever when I sat down with each for an hour apiece in the preseason. Bauer is the most unique player I've covered in seven years at Baseball America—not only for his extensive repertoire and unusual training regimen, but for his intense, cerebral personality and deep understanding of his craft. No player was more fun to watch in 2011—he loves striking people out, and he's awfully good at it.
SP: Gerrit Cole, UCLA
I was so impressed with Cole's maturity this season; even when he struggled for a stretch in the middle of the season, he was a superb teammate and a terrific interview. He knew every reporter's name and was extraordinarily comfortable and friendly in casual conversation when the recorders were turned off.
SP: Sonny Gray, Vanderbilt
The heart and soul of the All-Fitt Team, Gray just has an incredibly likable, fun-loving personality, and it shows on Twitter, in interviews and in the dugout. Like Cole and Bauer, his stuff is electric, making him a treat to watch on the mound. And he's a sub-6-footer, which helps.
SP: Michael Roth, South Carolina
Every time Roth opens his mouth, fantastic quotes spill out. Nothing fazes him—he is simply a wonder for his ability to handle pressure situations, because it seems like he feels no pressure whatsoever. He's a reporter's dream, in addition to being a really, really good pitcher.
RP: Matt Price, South Carolina
Another Gamecock? Can't be avoided. No team is more fun to cover than South Carolina, which lives right on the edge and always seems to come out on top. Price is a huge reason for that. Nobody has a bigger heart, and nobody is better in tight spots. He made for a good In The Dugout interview, too.
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