College Midseason Report

Texas' Russell putting together a historic season




In the weekly grind of college baseball, sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. That's why we step back at the midway point every year and present the midseason report.

Once again, parity is the name of the game, as five different teams have already held the No. 1 spot in the Top 25 rankings. No more than five teams held the top spot in any year between 2000 and 2005, but last year parity hit hard, as eight teams claimed No. 1 during the course of the season.

Here's a quick look at the best performances and top storylines of the first half, as well as our predictions for the 64-team NCAA tournament field.

TOP PLAYER

Competition for player of the year honors at the midway point is fierce, as Florida State second baseman Tony Thomas (.496/.580/.842), Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez (.365/.449/.738), and Arizona State first baseman Brett Wallace (.481/.560/.850) all have very strong cases. But the nod goes to Texas sophomore outfielder Kyle Russell, who is well on his way to a historic season.

Through 35 games, Russell already had 18 home runs, just two off the single-season school record. That's not just any school record; we're talking about the storied history of Texas. It's not easy to hit home runs at spacious Disch-Falk Field, which helps explain why the school record is just 20 long balls. Russell was already on the verge of eclipsing that mark with two months left in the season.

"In that park, you can't fluke 17 home runs, and they play a real good schedule too," a National League area scout said. "If you think about the talent they have had there and then you see what he is doing, this is not a fluke."

Added one Texas-area coach, "He's got the best power of anybody I've seen at Texas the last decade."

The Longhorns have been fair in that stretch, winning two national championships. Russell might be their best offensive player under Garrido, though. Through 117 at-bats, the draft-eligible sophomore was batting .359/.473/.915 with a 34-24 strikeout-walk ratio. That's quite a turnaround for a player who posted a 55-17 K-BB ratio as a freshman, then posted an abysmal 64-10 K-BB mark in the Cape Cod League.

"What he's doing on the positive side comes as a result of huge disappointments within himself about his season here and also this summer, when he set the Cape Cod League strikeout record," Texas coach Augie Garrido said. "He came back with a mission clearly in mind to keep it simple, and he's done that so far."

The key for Russell will be blocking out the burgeoning buzz about his incredible season and staying focused on the field.

"The media stuff around here is ganging up on him a little bit," Garrido said. "To remain consistent, he's going to have to really stay within himself, and our media locally makes that harder to do. It's a work in progress, and he's doing very well with it all. He wants to be a pro baseball player, and he has a chance to be, has a chance to play in the major leagues, and he's going to have to deal with this part of it."

TOP PITCHER

For the second straight year, a towering lefthander entered the season bearing the mantle of best pitcher in the nation, and for the second straight year he has lived up to the hype. Last year 6-foot-6 North Carolina lefty Andrew Miller earned top pitcher honors at midseason and finished the year as Player of the Year. This year, it's 6-foot-5 Vanderbilt lefty David Price who has lived up to the massive preseason hype.

Price was off to a 5-0, 2.88 start with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 59 innings of work. He threw three straight complete games during one stretch, culminating in a 10-inning, 14-strikeout masterpiece in a win against Mississippi, his fifth consecutive double-digit strikeout game.

Price's explosive mid-90s fastball and an above-average hard-breaking slider remain his bread and butter, but he's become a more complete pitcher than ever, working in a two-seam fastball, a changeup and a slurve.

Honorable mention goes to San Diego sophomore lefthander Brian Matusz, who struck out 96 through his first 64 innings; Mercer closer Cory Gearrin, who struck out 48 and allowed just five hits through 30 innings; UNC Charlotte righthander Adam Mills (7-1, 1.20 with an 85-13 strikeout-walk ratio in 68 innings); Tulane righthander Sean Morgan (6-1, 1.84, 79-22 K-BB in 54 IP); Wichita State righthander Travis Banwart (6-2, 1.08, 55-14 K-BB in 50 IP); South Carolina righty Harris Honeycutt (6-0, 1.62, 50-13 K-BB in 44 IP); Arkansas lefty Nick Schmidt (6-0, 1.83, 57-28 K-BB in 59 IP); and Virginia righty Jacob Thompson (7-0, 1.75, 52-15 K-BB in 51 IP). Those guys put together great first halves, but nobody matches Price's combination of elite talent and big-time performance.

TOP FRESHMAN

This one's a no-brainer. North Carolina first baseman Dustin Ackley could make a strong case for best player in the nation, let alone best freshman. Ackley's UNC freshman-record hitting streak had reached 23 games heading into an Easter weekend series at Boston College, the fifth-longest streak in school history. He was hitting .505 during the streak, recording multiple hits in 16 of the 23 games to raise his overall line to .479/.496/.727. Ackley started his career with another impressive streak: he notched at least one double in each of his first six games.

TOP SENIOR

Vanderbilt closer Casey Weathers has dominated with a 94-98 mph fastball and a much-improved slider, helping him go 4-1, 1.31 with 32 strikeouts and seven walks through 21 innings. That's impressive, but the nod goes to Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta, who homered in five straight games, then went homerless for one and bounced back two days later with a pair of bombs in the Gators' upset of No. 2 Florida State. LaPorta (.433/.587/.942 with 15 home runs through 104 at-bats) is on pace to eclipse his monster 2005 numbers, when he led the nation with 26 long balls. The biggest differences: he's no longer bothered by the strained oblique muscle that sabotaged his junior season, and he's struck out just eight times while drawing 25 walks. Even in 2005, LaPorta whiffed 65 times and walked just 44 times.

"I feel a lot better than I did two years ago," LaPorta said. "My plate discipline is very good right now, and I feel very confident at the plate. I don't swing at hardly any bad pitches right now."

TOP COACH

There are several worthy candidates here, including Arizona's Andy Lopez, Florida State's Mike Martin, East Carolina's Billy Godwin and Long Beach State's Mike Weathers. But we'll go with Coastal Carolina skipper Gary Gilmore, who guided his team to a 27-3 start and a No. 14 ranking. The Chanticleers have good players, of course, but their talent level doesn't jump out. Coastal is just a solid, well-coached club that does all the little fundamental things right and never beats itself. More than any other team, even the other surprises, Coastal's success is a credit to its coaching.

TOP FIVE STORIES

1. The looming changes that have been proposed to remedy baseball's poor score in the Academic Progress Rate. Many coaches are up in arms about the proposal to restrict teams to 27 scholarships and require that all scholarship players receive at least 33 percent grants, fearing the loss of monetary flexibility. Whether or not that change goes through, the elimination of the one-time transfer exemption and the fall certification requirement are likely to pass, and both will have major impacts on the game.

2. Vanderbilt. The Commodores aren't known as a traditional baseball power, but their 26-4 start has people everywhere talking. Vandy coach Tim Corbin tries to keep expectations in line for the nation's No. 1 team every chance he gets, but it's not easy.

"I was here for the previous coaching staff and the current one, and the change has been absolutely unbelievable," an American League crosschecker said. "I get more out of watching Vanderbilt practice than I do for any other team, just their organization and structure. They are all in great shape and play and practice with high energy."

3. Florida State's 23-game winning streak. The Seminoles finally lost their first game in a midweek game against Jacksonville, but first they established themselves as legitimate national championship contenders. Sure, the long winning streak came against mostly light competition after a season-opening sweep of Tennessee, but winning 23 baseball games in a row isn't ever easy.

4. Nick Fuller and Lonnie Chisenhall. Two of the nation's top four freshmen were dismissed from South Carolina's title-contending team after being charged with burglary and grand larceny. It was a small blow to the Gamecocks' 2007 aspirations, a bigger blow to their long-term plan, and an even bigger blow to the unsuspecting coaching staff that had to deal with the unpleasant aftermath.

5. Oregon State's resilience. The defending national champions were supposed to be down a little after losing the core of its back-to-back College World Series teams--the pitching trio of Jonah Nickerson, Kevin Gunderson and Dallas Buck, not to mention 2006 Pacific-10 Conference player of the year Cole Gillespie. But the Beavers kept on winning, even after playing their first 17 games on the road against quality opponents. They started the year 23-3 and rose to No. 4 in the nation before being swept at Arizona in their Pac-10 opener. Even after dropping that series, Oregon State has firmly established itself as one of the very best programs in the nation.

Contributing: John Manuel.