College Midseason Update

Beckham's the top player; Crow top pitcher at midpoint

The uniform start date limits the regular season to 13 weeks, but if you factor in a week for conference tournaments, a week for regionals and a week for super-regionals, we're halfway to Omaha with eight weeks in the books. It's a perfect time to look at some of the top performers and storylines of the first half.

Top Player

A trio of stellar Player of the Year candidates separated themselves from the pack in the first half of 2008. You can't go wrong with Arizona State first baseman/lefthander Ike Davis or Florida State catcher/righthander Buster Posey, but we'll give the nod to Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham, who put up monstrous numbers in a less dynamic offense. No player meant more to a very good team in the first half than Beckham, whose 16 home runs not only lead the nation but are twice as many anyone else on his team. He also leads the Bulldogs in batting (.432), on-base percentage (.530), slugging (.871), RBIs (39) and stolen bases (10 in 11 attempts) while drawing twice as many walks (24) as strikeouts (12) and playing a strong shortstop.

Davis has emerged as the greatest threat in the Sun Devils' murderer's row, leading the nation with 57 RBIs while batting .423/.484/.876 with 14 homers, 20 doubles and five steals in six tries. Perhaps just as importantly, he has settled into ASU's closer role since Jason Jarvis was lost to academic ineligibility, going 4-0, 1.12 with three saves and a 21-3 strikeout-walk ratio in 16 innings over 11 appearances.

Posey started the year as a similar two-way threat, earning four saves without allowing a run in five relief appearances, but lately he has focused on catching and leading Florida State's potent offense. He ranks among the nation's top five in batting (.469), OBP (.571) and slugging (.862) and has amassed 10 homers and 40 RBIs.

Top Pitcher

Major league scouting directors were nearly unanimous in voting San Diego lefthander Brian Matusz and Missouri righthander Aaron Crow onto Baseball America's preseason All-America first team. The pair entered the season as the top two pitching prospects for the 2008 draft, and they have lived up to every bit of their billing, matching each other eye-popping performance for eye-popping performance every week. But Crow has been ever so slightly better despite worse conditions, and he edges Matusz for midseason top pitcher honors.

Matusz has gone 7-1, 1.99 and leads the nation with 80 strikeouts while walking 18 in 59 innings. Since being roughed up in his season debut against San Diego State, Matusz has been unbeatable, and not far from unhittable.

But Crow stole the headlines with a 42 2/3 inning scoreless streak that ended Friday against Texas. Even after he allowed nine runs in five innings in a howling 30-40 mph wind, his ERA was just 2.05; before that it was a miniscule 0.69.

"His stuff was good, but he wasn't ahead in the count, and they were geared up to hit him," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson said after the Texas loss. "Crow really makes teams either really bad or really good. Teams will cheat a little on the fastball and if he's not locating, they'll get out in front of the fastball. I think a lot of things got to him—he won't admit it, but the streak, the pressure, the wind blowing out, there were a lot of factors. When I heard the forecast, I said it was going to end tonight."

It ended with a thud, but Crow still managed to last five innings and pick up his eighth win of the year, tied for the most in the nation. He has 71 strikeouts and 13 walks through 57 innings and three complete-game shutouts in eight starts. Big 12 coaches have been downright effusive in their praise for Crow, who has not only shown command of a plus fastball, plus slider and solid curveball but has also demonstrated toughness and fierce competitiveness.

"He's got it all," said longtime Texas Tech coach Larry Hays. "He's got outstanding stuff, good velocity, lots of movement, and put that together with that little bulldog he's got in him and boy, he's been the real deal. We came out and matched him, but we ended up with a 1-0 loss, and I don't know if we ever got close to winning. Right now, he's the best thing we've seen.

"We've had some great pitchers in the league, but he's right up there. He doesn't have the stature of a Roger Clemens, but that kind of stuff, that kind of competitiveness. You look out there and think, 'Well, he'll wear down.' But you look at what he's throwing in the eighth or ninth, and well, that's not right."

Top Game

In that same April 11 contest where Crow's scoreless streak came to an end, the Tigers overcame an early 9-0 deficit to blast Texas 31-12 behind four home runs and nine RBIs by Missouri senior outfielder Jacob Priday.

Top Individual Performance

April 11 was a good day in college baseball. That same day, San Diego State sophomore righthander Stephen Strasburg struck out 23 in a one-hit shutout against Utah. Strasburg can make his own strong case for midseason pitcher of the year honors, going 4-1, 1.97 with a 73-8 strikeout-walk ratio in 50 innings.

Top Freshman

Victor Sanchez arrived at San Diego bearing an enormous burden before he ever played his first game for the Toreros. Along with righthander Kyle Blair, Sanchez was the centerpiece of the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, and he had already proven himself against college competition last summer, when he was the No. 1 prospect in the Northwoods League. All he had to do this spring was step right into the middle of a power-starved USD lineup and cushion the loss of mainstays Jordan Abruzzo, Justin Snyder and Shane Buschini. The Toreros boast one of the nation's best pitching staffs, but more than anything they needed Sanchez to be an elite power hitter to give their lineup some punch.

He has delivered in a big way, batting .317/.387/.633 with 11 homers (more than a third of USD's team total) and 41 RBIs. He has made 10 errors at third base, but he shows aptitude for the position and has made some terrific plays at the hot corner. And he's come up with a slew of clutch hits already in his short collegiate career.

Sanchez narrowly beats out Tennessee center fielder Kentrail Davis (.370/.471/.606 with eight homers, 34 RBIs and six stolen bases in eight tries), Rice shortstop Rick Hague (.368/.436/.602, six homers and 35 RBIs) and Mississippi lefthander Drew Pomeranz (3-1, 1.89 with 46 strikeouts and 12 walks in 38 innings).

Top Senior

Just like last year, when Vanderbilt's Casey Weathers took the nation by storm, the best closer in college baseball is a flame-throwing senior. Georgia righthander Joshua Fields has given up just one unearned run and five hits in 17 innings over 18 appearances, racking up 10 saves and a 33-8 strikeout-walk ratio. A first-team preseason All-American as a junior in 2007, Fields struggled to a 1-6, 4.46 mark a year ago and did not sign with the Braves as a second-round pick. That's looking like a smart move, as Fields has overpowered hitters this spring with a 95-97 mph fastball and vicious 82 mph curveball.

"What we did a little bit differently out of the gate with him—it's probably one of the reasons we lost a few close games early—but I haven't used him in the eighth inning. It's one-inning saves," Bulldogs coach David Perno said. "He hasn't thrown a lot of innings, but the numbers are Little League-ish, and it's amazing to me. First and foremost was the fastball command, which has gotten back to form. Fortunately for us, he's cleaned up his mechanics, got his fastball command back. And he's got the best breaking pitch we've had."

Fields edges California second baseman Josh Satin (.433/.513/.764, 11 homers, 36 RBIs), Nebraska righthander Johnny Dorn (4-1, 1.98 with 55 strikeouts and 13 walks in 55 innings), Kentucky outfielder Sawyer Carroll (.456/.542/.816, 10 homers, 48 RBIs) and Michigan catcher/first baseman Nate Recknagel (.394/.473/.761, 11 homers, 36 RBIs).

Top Coach

In 2007, Nebraska started the year in the top 25 before a number of off-field distractions and chemistry problems derailed the Cornhuskers' season. They finished 32-27 overall, 14-13 in the Big 12, but coach Mike Anderson still shepherded them to a second-place finish in the Tempe, Ariz., regional. This year, Anderson has taken a less heralded team with far fewer expectations and led it to a 25-6 start, and an 11-3 mark in conference play.

"I keep saying I don't think we're the most talented team by any stretch of the imagination, but we perform well together," said Anderson, whose team was picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll. "Our starting pitching has been good, and from that point on we just play well together. If you see our team, we're not overpowering, we don't have the power numbers. I think we've got starting pitching that's been very productive, we've gotten clutch hitting, and we play solid defense. We've gotten key hits when we needed them."

Credit Anderson for his steadying influence and ability to get his team to play for each other. He gets the nod over California's Dave Esquer, UC Irvine's Mike Gillespie and Florida State's Mike Martin.

Top Position

Rarely has college baseball seen such a bumper crop of star first baseman with bright professional futures. Like Crow and Matusz, the outstanding first-base prospects have all played at a very high level.

Besides Davis' amazing exploits at Arizona State, South Carolina's Justin Smoak (.362/.497/.677,10 homers, 29 RBIs) has cemented his reputation as the best prospect in the bunch. Miami slugger Yonder Alonso (.358/.533/.679, eight homers, 33 RBIs) isn't far behind Smoak and is part of the nation's most dangerous lineup at Miami. David Cooper (.385/.488/.777, 14 homers, 39 RBIs) could sneak into the first round and is a major reason California has reached No. 5 in the rankings. The reigning Freshman of the Year, North Carolina's Dustin Ackley (.377/.472/.582, six homers, 29 RBIs, 13 stolen bases in 15 tries) isn't eligible for the 2008 draft but has kept on producing as a sophomore.

Two other potential first-round picks who project as first basemen in pro ball have played well across the diamond at third base. Brett Wallace (.388/.509/.682, nine homers, 42 RBIs, 10 SB) has hit like crazy for three years at Arizona State. And Allan Dykstra (.310/.516/.575, eight homers, 20 RBIs) has produced despite getting nothing to hit in Wake Forest's disappointing lineup.

Weakest Position

Where have you gone, Shane Robinson? Sugar Shane has left and gone away. And no college outfielder has made a serious run at player of the year honors in 2008.

By most accounts, this is the weakest outfield crop in recent memory. There's a chance that no college outfielders will be taken in the first round in June, particularly since there are so many other impact bats available at the corner infield positions. Last year's midseason player of the year, Texas' slugging outfielder Kyle Russell (.248 with seven homers), struggled for most of the first half, and fellow Longhorn and first-team preseason All-American Jordan Danks (.324/.452/.515 with three homers, 25 RBIs and nine steals) has been steady but not spectacular. The other first-teamer, Miami's Dennis Raben (.264/.423/.542 with four homers) was slowed by a back injury and hasn't really gotten going since his return. The lack of elite outfielders could allow an athlete like Pepperdine's Eric Thames (.408/.510/.816, 10 homers, 47 RBIs, 10 SB) to climb up draft boards in a hurry if he keeps producing at such a high level.