Seniors star on CWS stage
By John Manuel
If you follow college baseball, you knew that could happen this year. In the fall, Baseball America compiled an all-star team of players returning for a fourth season, and the list was impressive. It included such CWS stalwarts as Rice's trio of Eric Arnold, Hunter Brown and A.J. Porfirio, Clemson's Khalil Greene and Steve Reba, Nebraska's Shane Komine, Georgia Tech's Victor Menocal, Notre Dame's Steve Stanley and Stanford's Chris O'Riordan, to name a few.
Those guys were easy to pick. So who did we miss? How about South Carolina's Yaron Peters, the guy with the .399-29-94 numbers. And Rice lefty Justin Crowder, the guy with 10 wins and an ERA under 2.00 (who's still the Owls' third starter). Not to mention South Carolina's Blake Taylor, the erstwhile-and-once-again starter who happens to have 21 saves.
We knew the 2002 class of college juniors was low on position player talent, a flaw never more evident than in the draft two weeks ago. It left the door open for skilled, talented (but perhaps not overly so) seniors to come in with their experience and savvy and have big years.
Some have done better than others, like Crowder, Greene, Peters and Taylor. Others, like Rice's hitting trio and O'Riordan, have continued on their steady career paths, but have actually had better years statistically in the past. All have made their presence felt in Omaha, where senior leadership always seems to count.
Forgive me if my frame of reference is short, but five years of coming to Omaha makes this a convenient reference point. Of the last five national champions, only Miami's 1999 champions did not have significant senior help, either on the mound, at the plate or in both places. Only AARP has had more help from seniors.
The 1998 Southern California team had seniors in its No. 1 starter (Seth Etherton), closer (record-setting Jack Krawczyk) and key hitters (CWS most outstanding player Wes Rachels and third baseman Morgan Ensberg). In 2000, LSU's three biggest hits--homers by Blair Barbier and Jeremy Witten, and the game-winning single by Brad Cresse--all came from seniors, as the Tigers edged a Stanford lineup with five senior starters.
And last year, Miami made up for '99, with senior outfielder Charlton Jimerson winning the MOP, senior Kevin Brown driving in five runs and senior Tom Farmer getting the win.
This year's crop stands out more than most, though. The 5-foot-7 Stanley has a pedigree that includes a Cape Cod League batting title (2000), almost 400 hits and undying praise from every coach who has seen him. His baseball acumen is rivaled only by Clemson's Greene, whose savvy and skills may have been too good, causing scouts to underestimate his now obvious talent. It's just Stanley's luck that one of the two guys with more career hits, Greene, is playing in the same field.
Peters might be more typical, a senior slugger whose other tools are a little more limited, but he's no less unique thanks to his seeming inability to fail in clutch situations.
It's a shame Komine had little left for his trip to Omaha. As we've said before, it's hard to imagine a player meaning more to a program than Komine has meant over the last four years to the Huskers. Would Sunday's attendance record have been possible had Komine not won 41 games over the last four years for the Big Red? That seems unlikely.
And perhaps no senior has been through more than Menocal, a sixth-round pick out of high school who has had enough highs and lows in his career for all his peers combined.
Notre Dame, Rice and Stanford get more than their share of seniors, thanks to their academic reputations, and all three coaches have made that part of their recruiting pitch, convincing players they can get their degrees, play for national championships and still have productive professional careers.
There's plenty of baseball left in this CWS, and it might come down to the team whose seniors play the best.
Of course, Texas, which relies on seniors less than any other club in the field, could win the whole thing and make this column look stupid. But then that's baseball.
And Another Thing . . .
Speaking of making this column look stupid, it's time to don the suspenders and big glasses and take a Larry King-inspired look at the CWS:
Once again, the Drover came through last night. It's impossible to top the Drover's famous Whiskey Filet, and the staff was, as always, very hospitable. Thanks to Stanford media gurus Brett and Chad for the company . . . Was that Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson in the press box Saturday? Always thought he'd be bigger, though he could yet loom large in Nebraska. The Rosenblatt banter has Nebraska coach Dave Van Horn heeding the "Woo Pig! Sooey!" call of his alma mater, Arkansas, to replace Norm DeBriyn. Stephenson has dropped hints he'd be interested in heading up to Lincoln and transplanting his Wichita State program to a big football school. It all adds up, so Wichita State might want to put in a call to Eric Wedge to take over should Stephenson leave . . . If Vanderbilt's search committee isn't in Omaha, it's not doing its job. Three of the best candidates for the Vandy job are here in assistant coaches Tim Corbin (Clemson), Bob Moranda (Georgia Tech) and Brian O'Connor (Notre Dame) . . . For its size, the Pontiac Aztek features quite a tight turning radius, but it's a little underpowered. We'll give it three stars on a five-star scale . . . Rock group Southern Culture on the Skids comes to Omaha on Wednesday, and with Krispy Kremes and pulled pork barbecue in evidence at the Blatt, it looks like North Carolina out here. Now if only Wake Forest, North Carolina or East Carolina could get over the hump and get to the CWS, we might have something . . . Nobody rocks Omaha like 89.7 The River, but less Dave Matthews and more Weezer would be nice . . . South Carolina coach Ray Tanner noted in the postgame that BA picked the Gamecocks to go 0-2. At least he's reading. Always glad to provide bulletin board material, but where's the chicken that usually perches atop the South Carolina dugout? Must not have made it through airport security . . . Look for Baseball America's Freshman of the Year to have big league ties. Just a prediction from one in the know . . . I don't know about you, but I'm not used to that Desert Dome bubble at the zoo yet. Wouldn't a giant Zesto's billboard, kind of Citgo sign style, look better in right field? . . . If you're still reading, then I thank you.
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