With seven weekends in the books and seven to go before Selection Monday, we have reached the midpoint of college baseball’s regular season. In lieu of our standard Weekend Preview, we present our Midseason Update, in which we’ll recognize some of the top performers of the first half. We also look ahead with our Midseason Field of 64 projection.
Everyone knows pitching rules in the BBCOR bat era, but a number of physical sluggers have put up huge offensive numbers in the first half. D.J. Peterson, Hunter Renfroe, Mason Katz and Matt Oberste are all worthy candidates for this honor, but we’ll give the nod to Bryant, who leads the nation with 14 home runs and ranks second with a 1.437 OPS.
Against a stout schedule on the pitcher-friendly West Coast, Bryant is hitting .370/.537/.900 with 33 RBIs and a 34-19 walk-strikeout mark in 28 games. He went on an incredible tear in the month of March, hitting 13 of his 14 home runs and posting an absurd .411/.561/1.055 line. On the season, Bryant has accounted for more than half of his team’s 26 home runs, and a number of them have come when the Toreros needed them most.
“Every once in a while, you have a player like this in college baseball--just a guy who can dominate the college game,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said after Bryant smacked two walk-off home runs in a Week Five series sweep of Brigham Young.
“He has really matured into a complete hitter. He and (hitting coach) Jay (Johnson) have just spent a ton of time together. Kris is just way more balanced right now. His dad was a hitting coach, is a hitting coach, so he came in with a good approach, a good understanding of things. The power’s always been there, but now, there really are no holes. He just makes the ballpark look small, one of those guys.”
Bryant’s defensive versatility has also been a major asset for USD, which has played him in right field and center in addition to his usual third base (allowing us to put him in the outfield on our midseason All-America team, in order to get Peterson, Katz and Oberste on our team). After taking a huge series against then-No. 2 Oregon State, the Toreros are 18-10 overall and ranked in the Top 25, and no player has been a bigger part of his team’s success than Bryant.
The first half of the season was a disappointment for Stanford, but if it weren’t for Appel it would have been a catastrophe. Appel has ranked as draft’s top prospect for two straight years now, and he has pitched like the best pitcher in the country as a senior this spring, posting a 0.96 ERA and a 64-8 strikeout-walk mark in 47 innings. He is holding hitters to a .161 average and has thrown three complete games (including two shutouts) in six starts.
Appel is just 4-2 on the season, losing his season debut at Rice and then falling to UNLV in a game during which he struck out 15 over seven innings, allowing just one earned run--but two unearned. Stanford’s offense and defense have underachieved significantly, and the pitching staff behind Appel has been inconsistent, but Appel has been a rock. He has posted double-digit strikeouts in each of his last five starts, highlighted by a 14-strikeout, three-hit shutout against Texas on March 1.
As good as he was last year, when he went 10-2, 2.56 and was drafted eighth overall by the Pirates, Appel is even better as a senior.
“Mark’s come out really rejuvenated to become a better baseball player,” Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter said after Appel’s three-hitter against Fresno State in Week Two. “He’s a leader on our team, a captain on our team, he’s really trying to help us get to Omaha and win a championship. He added 10 pounds in the offseason, he’s in great shape. One thing about Mark: He’s an intense competitor, he’s trying to get better every day.”
North Carolina’s Skye Bolt (.396/.519/.663) and Cal State Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman (6-1, 1.26 with no walks in 50 innings as the Friday starter) have strong cases, but we’re giving the nod to Bregman, who has stepped into one of college baseball’s most stressful jobs--starting shortstop for LSU--and handled it like a seasoned superstar.
Through 28 games, Bregman is hitting .442/.489/.617 with eight doubles, two triples, three homers, 24 RBIs and nine stolen bases in nine attempts. The Tigers slid him into the No. 3 hole in the order from the onset of his career, and he hit the ground running. Bregman was a big name on the scouting circuit in high school, and his success comes as no surprise. But that doesn’t make it any less remarkable.
“Everybody knew about Bregman, and I didn’t do anything to squelch the promotion of him--whenever anyone asked me about him I spoke in raving terms because I knew he could handle it,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said in mid-March. “He hasn’t done anything to disappoint us. He’s probably been even better defensively than we anticipated. He’s just been remarkable on defense.”
After starting his career with 13 straight errorless games, Bregman has made seven errors in the last 15 games, but he is still fielding at a solid .941 clip. He had big shoes to fill at shortstop, where Austin Nola was the model of consistency over the last four years, but Bregman has held his own on defense while also providing a huge offensive upgrade for the 26-2 Tigers.
Breakout Team of the First Half
Plenty of teams have exceeded expectations in the first half, from national powers that have overcome roster turnover (Virginia, Cal State Fullerton, Florida State) to mid-major favorites that have played their way into the Top 25 (Florida Gulf Coast, Indiana). But no team came out of nowhere to make a national splash the way Central Arkansas did.
The Bears had yet to post a winning overall record in their first six seasons since reclassifying as a Division I program. They head into Week Eight with a 21-7 record, which includes series wins at Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi and single wins against Oklahoma State, Kansas and Wichita State. UCA exploded onto the scene in Week Four, when it ended then-No. 3 Mississippi State’s season-opening 17-game winning streak and went on to win the series in Starkville. A week later, the Bears cracked the Top 25 for the first time.
UCA has a genuine college star in sweet-swinging outfielder Forrestt Allday, but the Bears aren’t loaded with premium prospects. They are brimming with experienced veterans who know how to win, however.
“A great way to define us is we have a lot of good college baseball players,” Central Arkansas coach Allen Gum said after the MSU series. “There’s a lot of excitement, and I’m proud of our guys. I think the coaching staff and the players, we’re all pretty level headed. We have an understanding that when we do things right, we can compete with anybody in the country.”
Coach of the First Half
Brian O’Connor, Virginia
The Cavaliers entered the season unranked due to questions about the pitching staff. Through 30 games, the Cavs are ranked No. 5, sitting at 27-3 overall and 9-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, reminding the nation that the Cavs should never be taken lightly. O’Connor always gets the most out of his teams.
Virginia’s stellar sophomores in the lineup have continued to improve, as Branden Cogswell, Nick Howard, Mike Papi, Derek Fisher, Brandon Downes and Nate Irving form the backbone of a very good offensive team. But freshmen have accounted for roughly half of UVa.’s innings off the mound, and O’Connor and pitching coach Karl Kuhn have pushed all the right buttons to put their young arms in position to succeed. O’Connor’s steadying hand has helped an underclassmen-laden team play at an elite level far earlier than expected. In that respect, this club feels like O’Connor’s 2009 team, another team loaded with talented sophomores that reached the College World Series a year ahead of schedule.
“We’ve got a lot of good talent on this club,” O’Connor said in early March. “It will be fun to watch them develop this year.”
Most Compelling Storyline of the First Half
Golden age for the Hoosier State
A historically warm winter and spring helped spawn the Great Northern Renaissance of 2012, when the state of Indiana sent three teams to regionals (Purdue--which hosted a regional--plus Indiana State and Valparaiso). The weather has been lousy across the North for much of this spring, but the state of baseball in Indiana is stronger than ever.
Indiana (22-3) is riding a school-record 16-game winning streak into Week Eight and is ranked No. 16 in the nation. The Hoosiers broke into the Top 25 for the first time in school history after winning a series at Florida in Week Four. And in Week Two, Notre Dame broke into the rankings for the first time since 2006. The Irish have been a fixture in the rankings ever since.
One of the top prospects for the 2013 draft plays at Indiana State (lefthander Sean Manaea). And two beautiful new ballparks opened in the state this spring, at Purdue and Indiana. College baseball in Indiana is riding high, and there is no reason to expect the state’s emerging powers to go away anytime soon.
We’ll have more on the robust state of baseball in Indiana next week.
|Midseason All-America Team|
|C||Stuart Turner, Mississippi||Jr.||.418||.466||.633||98||21||41||3||34||1|
|1B||Mason Katz, LSU||Sr.||.419||.504||.886||105||28||44||13||49||1|
|2B||Tony Kemp, Vanderbilt||Jr.||.375||.486||.482||112||30||42||0||19||14|
|3B||D.J. Peterson, New Mexico||Jr.||.410||.512||.910||100||36||41||11||35||3|
|SS||Alex Bregman, LSU||Fr.||.442||.489||.617||120||33||53||3||24||9|
|OF||Kris Bryant, San Diego||Jr.||.370||.537||.900||100||41||37||14||33||5|
|OF||Phillip Ervin, Samford||Jr.||.378||.513||.733||90||27||34||8||20||10|
|OF||Hunter Renfroe, Mississippi State||Jr.||.439||.504||.847||98||25||43||9||36||8|
|DH||Matt Oberste, Oklahoma||Jr.||.460||.526||.814||113||28||52||8||38||6|
|UT||Michael Lorenzen, CS Fullerton||Jr.||.385||.457||.642||109||26||42||5||31||6|
|SP||Mark Appel, Stanford||Sr.||4||2||0.96||6||0||47||27||8||64||.161|
|SP||Kent Emanuel, North Carolina||Jr.||5||1||1.16||7||0||54||41||10||40||.214|
|SP||Thomas Eshelman, CS Fullerton||Fr.||6||1||1.26||7||0||50||28||0||35||.161|
|SP||Jonathan Gray, Oklahoma||Jr.||5||1||1.34||7||0||54||27||9||63||.152|
|RP||Brian Miller, Vanderbilt||So.||4||0||0.33||16||8||28||20||2||25||.196|
|UT||Michael Lorenzen, CS Fullerton||Jr.||0||0||2.08||9||9||9||7||2||9||.219|