10 College Baseball Teams That Could Bounce Back In 2022
The 2021 season was a triumphant return for college baseball after the 2020 season cancellation, but that doesn’t mean it was a season-long celebration for everyone.
Whether it was injuries, Covid pauses, a lack of practice time leading up to the season or just inconsistent play, a number of teams didn’t have things go according to plan once games got going again.
These are 10 teams that stumbled last season that could be in line for bounce back performances in 2022.
Cal State Fullerton
Cracks had shown in the Cal State Fullerton foundation in recent years, but things truly fell apart in 2021, when the Titans went 20-35 for the first full losing season in the history of the program. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect Fullerton to ever again reach the consistent highs it reached in bygone eras of college baseball, but it was shocking to see the team finish ninth in the Big West, and as a difficult season came to a close, coach Rick Vanderhook announced his retirement.
It might be a lengthy road back to Omaha for the Titans, but simply being a contender in the upper crust of the Big West likely isn’t far away given the status the program still holds as the power center of the conference. New coach Jason Dietrich, whose years in Fullerton as the pitching coach were arguably the most successful seasons for Vanderhook as the head coach, could help a pitching staff that had a 6.01 team ERA last season turn things around and breathe new life into a clubhouse that hasn’t had much to celebrate in recent years.
A ranked team in the preseason, UCF showed its promise at times, such as in a road series win over Mississippi early in the season, but ultimately ended up being an inconsistent team all throughout 2021. It ended with the Knights finishing 31-30 overall, 18-14 in conference play and well out of the discussion for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Plenty of talent returns for the 2022 season, including a solid core to the lineup in outfielder Gephry Pena, shortstop Alex Freeland, second baseman Tom Josten and catcher Ben McCabe. On the mound, the return of lefthander David Litchfield is huge, as are the additions of transfer righthanders Connor Staine (Maryland) and Chase Centala (Florida). Taken together, it’s enough to give the Knights a shot at their first regional appearance since 2017.
At 9-12 in the Sun Belt last season, Coastal Carolina suffered its first under .500 season in conference play since 1997, when Coastal was in the Big South and coach Gary Gilmore had been on the job for all of two seasons. In what turned out to be very compact conference standings, that placed the Chanticleers last in the East division, and they would have been deeper in the cellar had it not been for a sweep of Texas State over the last weekend of the regular season.
Moving forward, answers will have to be found on the mound, where Coastal really struggled to get consistent starting pitching last season, but in the field, shortstop Eric Brown is already quietly one of the most dynamic players in the game and a fantastic centerpiece to build a lineup around. Furthermore, despite the record last season, Coastal simply has a talent advantage over much of the rest of the conference to begin with, and that should help put it on the path to making 2021 look like an aberration.
Having lost two dynamic arms like Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox to the draft after the shortened 2020 season, the 2021 campaign was always likely going to represent a step back for the Bulldogs, but injuries to key players like Ryan Webb and C.J. Smith along the way and a bout with mononucleosis for Jonathan Cannon that got him off to a slow start increased the degree of difficulty exponentially. In the end, Georgia finished 31-25 overall and 13-17 in the SEC, which placed them among the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament.
Given how close Georgia was last season, it’s easy to imagine the 2022 team getting back over the hump and not only getting back into the postseason but also coming much closer to being like the teams that hosted regionals in 2018 and 2019. The Bulldogs return a ton of experience in the lineup, including the Tate brothers, Cole and Connor, catcher Corey Collins, first baseman Chaney Rogers and second baseman Josh McAllister. There are more holes to fill in on the pitching staff around the returning Cannon, but sophomore lefthanders Jaden Woods and Liam Sullivan are likely ready for bigger roles than the ones they held last season.
At 26-18, Indiana wasn’t bad last season, necessarily, and it’s entirely possible that it would have been a regional team had it had a chance to score some marquee non-conference wins, but for a program used to getting to the postseason, with six trips in the last seven postseasons leading up to 2021, it was a step back that the Hoosiers were on the outside looking in.
There was some significant re-tooling going on in Bloomington over the offseason, as a large number of IU’s most productive players moved on to pro baseball or graduated, but some experience returns on the mound, led by righthander John Modugno and lefthander Ty Bothwell. Indiana also brought in a talented group of transfers, headlined by infielders Tyler Doanes (West Virginia) and Phillip Glasser (Youngstown State), and righthanders Jack Perkins (Louisville) and Bradley Brehmer (Wright State). Pencil the Hoosiers in as a team more likely to compete at the top of the Big Ten as they are to fall further back in the league.
Kentucky last season came tantalizingly close to its first postseason appearance since 2017. Through 18 SEC games, UK had a 9-9 record, meaning over the final 12 games, it needed at minimum to avoid getting swept, and more likely, to upset one of Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina or Vanderbilt to be in good position for an at-large bid. In the end, neither happened. The Wildcats dropped all four series and ended up getting swept in the most winnable of those series against South Carolina. They finished 12-18 in the SEC regular season and dropped their SEC Tournament opener to Florida.
In 2022, Kentucky returns 97% of its starting assignments for a pitching staff that could prove to be one of the best in an SEC that will go into the season light on proven pitching staffs. Offensively, there are pieces to replace, but in Ryan Ritter, the Wildcats return one of the best defensive shortstops in the country, and in outfielder Oraj Anu, return a veteran power bat to build the lineup around. UK also brought in a top-five transfer class full of players ready to contribute right away. The jump from the wrong side of the bubble to the right side of the bubble is a big one in the SEC, but Kentucky has the talent to pull it off.
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Louisville in 2021 had arguably the strangest season among major programs. The Cardinals were 23-11 as late as April 20, but after a Covid pause that cost them the Pittsburgh series, things weren’t the same. They dropped three of their last four ACC series, with all three series losses sweeps at the hands of Clemson, North Carolina and Miami, and went 1-1 in the ACC Tournament, which kept them on the wrong side of the tournament bubble. A lot went wrong for that team. The injury bug bit, there was bad Covid luck and there were some players who simply didn’t perform up to expectations.
Bouncing back won’t be easy for Louisville in 2022, as it will be without lineup stalwarts Henry Davis and Alex Binelas, but there should be optimism about a group led by dynamic shortstop Christian Knapczyk, physical outfielder Cameron Masterman and speedy outfielder Levi Usher, plus a pitching staff headlined by lefthander Michael Prosecky, whose stuff is electric. More than anything else, history suggests that Louisville will bounce back, as it has only missed the tournament one other time in the Dan McDonnell era. History also suggests that they won’t just bounce back to the tournament, but will bounce back to being one of the best in the ACC.
The Aggies bottomed out in 2021, finishing 9-21 in SEC play, which placed them last in the SEC West. Just Missouri, which finished one game worse at 8-22, kept Texas A&M out of the basement in the conference as a whole. In the end, it cost longtime coach Rob Childress his post and sent the program into an offseason of turnover, as former Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle took over and a whole host of newcomers arrived in Aggieland.
It’s hard to know just how much better to expect the Aggies to be in 2022, but with the top-ranked transfer class in the country having just arrived, it’s reasonable to expect them to be quite a bit better. That group includes former Arizona State first baseman Jack Moss, former Texas Tech ace Micah Dallas, veteran catcher Troy Claunch from Oregon State, a very productive outfielder from Texas-San Antonio in Dylan Rock, and Trey Dillard, a hard-throwing righthander who closed for Missouri in 2020, among others. A return to regionals seems like a fair expectation, with anything more serving as icing on the cake as Schlossnagle looks to return A&M to being a contender in the SEC.
Wake Forest had a tough season in 2021, going 20-27 overall and 10-22 in the ACC, but things were difficult even beyond the record. After what turned out to be a solid series win over Northeastern to begin the season and playing Notre Dame close in a series loss to begin ACC play, the team went on a Covid pause that cost them a series against Boston College. The next weekend, they took on Miami on the road, but did so with a still-limited roster due to Covid, which forced the Sunday game to be canceled due to a lack of available pitchers on the Wake roster. After that point, despite some series wins along the way, the Demon Deacons never quite seemed to recover.
On paper, Wake Forest isn’t an obvious candidate for a bounce back, with a veteran, productive core of players departing after last season, but its young players might be ready to lead the program back to some high highs. Third baseman Brock Wilken had a big summer on the Cape and could be one of the best players in college baseball next season. It’s a similar story with righthander Eric Adler on the mound. And to top it off, the Deacons brought in a top-15 recruiting class, led by lefthander Josh Hartle, a top-50 draft prospect coming out of high school last season before removing his name from consideration. Wake will be relatively inexperienced next season, but talent might make up for it.
Consistently a middle-of-the-pack team in the Pac-12 at worst, Washington uncharacteristically stumbled last season to a 6-21 conference record, its worst since going 6-21 in league play in 2011, coach Lindsay Meggs’ second season at the helm. With a .241/.313/.336 team slash line, scoring runs was the primary issue for a team that at one point lost 10 consecutive conference games late in the season.
Improvement for Washington should come just by virtue of it probably not being possible for things to go worse in 2022. The recent history of the program is too solid — recall that it was in the College World Series three seasons ago — and the recruiting classes are too talented, including a top-25 class that just arrived, for the trajectory to be anything but up from here. Pitching should again be solid, but it stands to reason that offensive improvement is the true key to how much improvement Washington shows overall. Will Simpson returns after hitting .315 with seven of the team’s 20 total home runs, but he’ll need more help for the Huskies’ fortunes to improve by a significant margin.