CWS Players To Watch, Part II

So you don’t check in on college baseball until you hear the word
“Omaha”? Well, you’ve missed a lot of great action so far, but we’re
here to bring you up to speed. You already have our complete
College World Series preview
to find out the lowdown on all
eight teams (not to mention the top 10 stories of the year), and now
we’ll give you a closer look at a star player from each squad—our picks
to click, if you will—who will be a key to his team’s success in Omaha
and should go on to major league success as
well.

This is the second of two parts, highlighting the four teams in bracket two,
which gets under way with two games on Sunday. (Click here to read about the players to watch for bracket one):

FRESNO STATE

Steve Susdorf, Sr., OF

Susdorf personifies a scrappy Fresno State squad, which became the first No. 4 regional seed to reach the College World Series since the field expanded to 64 teams. He’s never shown tools that wow scouts, but he has been a steady producer for all four of his years with the Bulldogs. Susdorf emerged as a force in the Fresno lineup as a sophomore in 2006, when he hit .329 with 14 home runs and was a first team all-Western Athletic Conference pick. He followed it up with 12 homers and a .548 slugging percentage to again lead the team in power production as a junior, adding 12 stolen bases and again making the all-WAC first team. This season was his best all-around performance, with .345/.438/.585 numbers, 11 home runs, 81 RBIs and 13 stolen bases, enough to make him the WAC player of the year.

Unlike many of the team standouts in the CWS, Susdorf does not have gaudy draft credentials. He was a 27th-round pick of the Tigers last year, but decided to return to school, and the Phillies thought enough of his gap power and athletic ability to make him a 19th-round pick. His value to Fresno State is unmistakable, though. After the Bulldogs lost ace righthander Tanner Scheppers to a shoulder injury, few gave them a chance to go far, but they emerged from a regional that featured Long Beach State, San Diego and California. In the Bulldogs’ super regional with Arizona State, Susdorf went 6-for-15 in the three-game series, including 3-for-6 with two runs and three RBIs in the deciding game. Fresno State again is a decided underdog in Omaha, and Susdorf’s four years of experience will be a major factor in determining their success.

RICE

Cole St. Clair, Sr., LHP

Making the trip to Omaha for the third year in a row, St. Clair is the quintessential College World Series veteran. The only season St. Clair did not make an appearance at Rosenblatt Stadium was his freshman year, a season when he picked up two saves with a 3.26 ERA in 47 innings and held opposing hitters to a .208 average. He became the hub of the Owls staff in his sophomore year, an All-America season when he pitched 74 innings and struck out 100 batters with a 1.82 ERA and 11 saves. He even made his second career start that season in a CWS game against Miami, striking out six in five innings of three-hit ball in an Owls’ triumph. An arm injury in his junior season limited him to 28 innings, though he still added to his Omaha resume with 6 2/3 scoreless innings that included a three-inning save against North Carolina.

St. Clair’s lively fastball and above-average curveball still have not come back to full strength, and he was drafted in the seventh round for the second consecutive year (he did not sign with the Indians in 2007). The Dodgers could have a steal if he can return to his pre-injury form he showed when he pitched for the U.S. college national team in the summer of 2006. St. Clair’s moxie and command have still made his effective this season for Rice, and he has a 10-2 record, mostly in relief. You can be sure coach Wayne Graham will use St. Clair whenever necessary in the CWS, as his blend of talent and experience make him the Owls’ best option on the mound when the game is on the line. This is St. Clair’s last chance to pair his economics degree with a CWS ring, and the first step toward that goal comes when Rice takes on Fresno State Sunday afternoon.

LOUISIANA STATE

Blake Dean, So., OF

Paul Mainieri has brought LSU back to the College World Series in just his second year as coach, and much of the credit goes to the team’s younger players, led by Dean. A two-way star in high school, Dean wasn’t drafted in 2006 in part because of his strong commitment to LSU. He showed right away he would be a huge part of the Tigers’ rebuilding process, leading the team in most offensive categories last year, including a .316 average and seven home runs, and putting together a 20-game hitting streak. He also started every game for LSU, either in left or right field or as a DH. He was even better this year, making himself one of just two sophomores on Baseball America’s All-America first team.

Dean again led his team in batting, while raising his batting average 43 points (.359) and boosting his power numbers (20 homers, 70 RBIs) substantially. He added muscle during the offseason to complement a more balanced approach that allows him to consistently take advantage of a pitcher’s mistakes. He anchors the middle of an LSU order that got red hot at the end of the season, then overcame UC Irvine in super regional play after dropping the first game. In that first game, Dean struck out three times and went 0-for-5. Down 7-2 in the second game and just six outs away from elimination, LSU rallied for seven runs, with Dean scoring in both innings and contributing an RBI single in the ninth. He catapulted the Tigers to Omaha with a 5-for-5 performance in the final game, notching his 20th homer along with three RBIs in a 21-7 romp. Dean’s steady bat has been a major reason for LSU’s surge, and he will need to provide more of the same against No. 2 national seed North Carolina on Sunday.

NORTH CAROLINA

Dustin Ackley, So., 1B

Despite his quiet demeanor off the field, Ackley has caused a ruckus on the diamond in his first two years at North Carolina, with one of the purest lefthanded swings in college baseball. He was Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year last season after he started all 73 games for the Tar Heels, batted .402—just the fifth Tar Heel to bat better than .400 in a season—and led the nation with 119 hits, a school record. It was one of the best offensive seasons in North Carolina history, and he placed among the school’s all-time top 10 for average, runs (70), total bases (175) and doubles (20) in a season. He was one of the main reasons North Carolina made its second consecutive appearance in the College World Series, and he led the team with three homers and eight RBIs in Omaha to make the all-tournament team.

As good as his first year in Chapel Hill was, Ackley may have been even better in 2008, even though the Tar Heels played their home games at the pitcher-friendly USA Baseball complex while Boshamer Stadium is being renovated. He’s batting .408 (with a .500 on-base percentage) coming into Omaha and has eclipsed last year’s totals for runs (79, one away from the school record), RBIs (50) and stolen bases (18). With a .405 career average and the only Tar Heel to record back-to-back 100-hit seasons, perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Ackley moved from the three-hole to the leadoff position at midseason, as coach Mike Fox sought to maximize Ackley’s at-bats and ability to get on base. It was a boon to North Carolina’s attack, and Ackley has gone 11-for-22 in NCAA tournament play so far, with six RBIs in five games. The Tar Heels are undefeated in the tournament as they head into a showdown with a similarly hot LSU club. If they are to reach the national championship series again, Ackley’s bat will be a big reason why.

College | #2008 #College World Series #Postseason

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