CAL STATE FULLERTON
Christian Colon, So., SS
For Cal State Fullerton to notch its fifth national title in school history—and its first since 2004—Colon will have to produce fireworks at the top of the Titans order, just as he’s done all season. In 60 games, the 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore has batted .352/.438/.518 with a team-high 78 runs, seven home runs and 14 stolen bases. He has been even better in the postseason, using a line-drive approach to hit .471 and help the Titans blister their NCAA tournament foes 64-11 in five games.
But for all the commendable things Colon has done at the plate this year, it’s his defense and instinctive play that are considered the strengths of his game. A 2006 Aflac All-American Game MVP, he showcased above-average range and arm strength as a high schooler, and he has continued to do that ever since he stepped on campus and was named a freshman BA All-American in 2007. Now, Colon is regarded as one of the premium middle-of-the-diamond defenders in college baseball.
Fullerton has five Omaha appearances in this decade, but this is the first for Colon, after the Titans fell to Stanford in a super regional last year. Colon leads a group of seven returning starters who excel at situational hitting and applying pressure to the opposition. Their quest for redemption begins on Saturday afternoon, when the Titans open CWS play against Arkansas.
Brett Eibner, So., OF/RHP
One of the best two-way sophomores in the nation, Eibner will have to spark Arkansas with his bat and arm if the Razorbacks hope to emerge from bracket one, which includes two of the top three national seeds (No. 2 Cal State Fullerton, No. 3 Louisiana State). As a freshman, Eibner batted .298/.405/.497, leading the team in RBIs (48), and played standout defense in center field. He hasn’t performed as well at the plate this year (.224/.382/.485) and is just 1-for-5 with four walks in the tournament, but his above-average tools across the board give him a chance to get it going at any time.
A good runner with an even better arm, Eibner is a big reason why Arkansas is considered a good defensive team up the middle. Head coach Dave Van Horn also puts that arm strength to good use on the mound, where Eibner’s fastball has been clocked up to 95 mph. After being used mostly in relief a year ago, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound righthander went 5-4, 4.61 with 66 strikeouts in 70 innings this year as the Razorbacks’ Saturday starter. His recent struggles at the plate have followed him to the mound in the tournament (1-0, 8.71 in 10 innings), and he’ll be attempting to turn it around against some explosive offenses.
A fourth-round pick of the Astros coming out of high school in 2007, Eibner’s tools project well at the pro level. But if the Razorbacks are going to advance to the final series for the first time since 1979 (when they faced Cal State Fullerton, their first CWS opponent), Eibner will have to tap into his talent right now and make a substantial impact on both sides of the game.
Jared Mitchell, Jr., OF
With athleticism that both baseball coach Paul Mainieri and football coach Les Miles have come to appreciate (Mitchell also plays wide receiver), the 6-foot, 192-pound junior came into his own on the diamond this season. His .325/.471/.557 line represents a steady improvement from each previous year, and his nine home runs and 35 stolen bases either match or better his totals from his freshman and sophomore campaigns combined. And with other speedy teams such as Cal State Fullerton in the Omaha field, the Tigers need Mitchell’s legs to serve as an equalizer.
The Tigers are also looking for Mitchell to improve upon his performance from last year’s CWS, when he went 2-for-12 before the Tigers eventually fell to North Carolina and finished tied for fifth place. He should be able to do that, given the improved plate discipline that came as a result of Miles giving him the spring off to focus on baseball. The other question for Mitchell is his defense, which still needs refinement despite his physical tools to play the outfield.
Mitchell’s breakthrough—as well as the general appeal of his athletic profile—prompted the White Sox to take him 23rd overall in this week’s draft. He was one of six Tigers taken, all of whom were part of LSU’s Omaha run last year. Mitchell is looking to pair the BCS national championship he won as a freshman with a CWS title, which would be the school’s first since 2000.
Danny Hultzen, Fr., LHP
Virginia is making its first CWS appearance in school history, and its freshman two-way sensation is a big reason why. The team’s Friday starter, Hultzen has posted a 9-1, 2.09 mark with 95 strikeouts in 86 innings this season, helping the team get off to a scorching 19-0 start before it finally dropped a home game to Miami. His success on the mound continued in the postseason when he held No. 6 national seed UC Irvine scoreless over 7 1/3 innings and helped propel the Cavaliers out of the “group of death” and into the super regional.
Hultzen also swings a dangerous stick, as he demonstrated throughout a decorated prep career that landed him on BA’s High School All-American Team as a senior. Manning first base when he’s not on the bump, Hultzen is hitting .333/.419/.430 with three home runs and 33 RBIs heading into CWS play. His sound approach even holds up well against the best pitching that college baseball has to offer, as Hultzen went 2-for-4 against Stephen Strasburg in Virginia’s first regional game.
Hultzen’s future seems brightest on the mound, with one opposing coach declaring that he is good enough to be pitching in A-ball right now. His first season of college ball has been spectacular enough to remind head coach Brian O’Connor of former Virginia two-way standout and 2006 ACC player of the year Sean Doolittle (now with the Athletics). But Hultzen has already done what Doolittle couldn’t: lead the Cavaliers to Omaha. With LSU first on the docket, he will get the opportunity to help the team advance further, as the 6-foot-2, 190-pound lefthander matches up well with a Tigers lineup dominated by lefties.
Dustin Ackley, Jr., 1B
With another outstanding statistical year in the books, Ackley is deservedly acknowledged as the best hitter in college baseball today and one of the finest in North Carolina Tar Heels history. In his three seasons in Chapel Hill, he has never batted under .400 and has never failed to lead the team to Omaha. Ackley showed glimpses of the superstar he would become as a freshman, leading the nation in hits (119) and capturing BA’s Freshman of the Year award. As a sophomore, the sweet-swinging lefty found a way to improve upon his first-year totals, batting .417/.503/.597 and ranking among the ACC’s top 10 in 13 offensive categories.
This season, Ackley has added a power stroke to go along with another gaudy season line (.412/.513/.776 to this point), as his 22 home runs have already eclipsed his combined total from his first two years. Just like in 2008, he spent most of the regular season batting third before coach Mike Fox moved him up in the order for the tournament. Now Ackley is batting in the two-hole, which should give him a few extra at-bats in Omaha. And that’s probably a smart play, seeing as how the 6-foot-1, 185-pound first baseman batted .522 (12-for-23) in the CWS last year and has been a fixture on the all-tournament team.
Ackley’s track record of performance, remarkable plate discipline and extraordinary bat control suggest that he’ll be a force at the top of a major-league order for years to come, which is what the Mariners had in mind when they made him the No. 2 pick in the draft. Before he embarks on a bright future in pro ball, however, Ackley will try to do what the Tar Heels have failed to accomplish their last three years in Omaha: win a national championship.
Mike Leake, Jr., RHP
Leake has had the trust of coach Pat Murphy since he first arrived in Tempe. He began his freshman season as the team’s closer before permanently moving into the Friday starter’s role, finishing the year 13-2, 3.69 with 94 strikeouts in 127 innings and helping lead the team to Omaha. In 2008, Leake was a BA All-American as a two-way player, but didn’t make the trip back to Rosenblatt after the team lost to eventual champion Fresno State in a super regional.
Now, after a banner junior year (and another appearance on the BA All-American Team), Leake has really spoiled the Sun Devils faithful. In 17 appearances, the 6-foot, 180-pound righthander has managed to factor into the decision every time, going 16-1, 1.36 with 150 strikeouts in 133 innings. Armed with a sinking fastball, two quality breaking pitches and exceptional command, Leake keeps the ball in the park, as he’s allowed just two home runs on the season. Although he lacks the ideal size that scouts look for in a major league starting pitcher, the Reds thought enough of his efficiency to take him with the eighth pick in the first round.
Some have speculated that Leake’s numbers are a product of a down Pacific-10 Conference, but he silenced critics in a regional game against Oral Roberts when he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and struck out 15 batters in his third consecutive complete game. If Arizona State is to break a streak of nine straight CWS appearances without winning a title, Leake will have to continue his dominance. And as the only player on the current roster to have played in a Series, Leake’s leadership will be just as important as his talent in determining how the Devils fare in Omaha this year.
Chance Ruffin, So., RHP
Texas is no stranger to the CWS, who will be participating in college baseball’s grand finale for the 33rd time, but this will be Ruffin’s first Omaha visit after the team failed to make it out of regionals last year. Even though Rosenblatt wasn’t in the cards a season ago, Ruffin was phenomenal in his freshman campaign, going 8-3, 1.96 with 82 strikeouts in 78 innings, which was good enough to make him a BA third-team All-American. The Big 12 freshman of the year also factored heavily into the Longhorns’ two NCAA Tournament victories, picking up the win against Sam Houston State and earning one of his three saves on the year against St. John’s.
Ruffin’s sophomore season hasn’t been quite as stellar, but an above-average fastball-slider mix helped him compile a 10-2, 3.02 mark nonetheless, striking out 101 batters in 116 frames. And as was the case in last year’s tournament, coach Augie Garrido continues to use his ace whenever possible, allowing Ruffin to go the distance in the team’s first game against Texas Christian in the super regional, and then summoning him from the bullpen for the final two outs of the series that clinched a CWS berth.
Although the team does not have a pitcher with Omaha experience, Ruffin leads a talented and battle-tested group that has thrown more innings than any other staff this postseason (thanks in part to a 25-inning affair against Boston College, a game that Ruffin started and pitched the first 6 2/3 innings of). Ruffin is also trying to fill the large shoes of his father and former major leaguer, Bruce, who won a national championship with the Longhorns in 1983. The first step toward doing that comes when Texas faces off against Southern Mississippi Sunday afternoon.
Bo Davis, Sr., OF
When a broken collarbone sidelined senior shortstop Brian Dozier in mid-April, Davis helped rally a scrappy Southern Mississippi squad that has been playing well since an impressive run in the Conference USA tournament. He first emerged as an offensive force in 2008 when he led the team in runs scored (53) and ranked second in hits (74) and doubles (16) following a sophomore campaign where he was limited to just 34 starts due to an elbow injury. An instinctual defender in center field, Davis’ glove is as reliable as it gets, as he’s committed just five errors over his four seasons as a Golden Eagle.
At 6-foot, 185 pounds, the redshirt senior doesn’t have eye-popping tools, but he’s been prolific at the plate this year, ranking among the top five in the conference in batting average (.371), on-base percentage (.488) and slugging percentage (.649). Earlier in the year, Davis was seeing most of his at-bats from the third and fourth spots in the lineup. But in coach Corky Palmer’s attempt to maximize the number of at-bats for his star, Davis has batted exclusively in the leadoff position in the NCAA Tournament, where he is hitting .435 with four home runs and six RBIs in 23 at-bats.
The Eagles are playing their best baseball of the year for Palmer, who is retiring at season’s end after 11 years with the school that he led to seven consecutive regionals and its first CWS appearance. Davis, a 24th-round pick of the Padres, lacks the draft credentials of the other marquee players in this bracket, but he represents the heart and soul of a Southern Miss club that is taking the place of Fresno State as this year’s Omaha Cinderella.