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Injuries Alter Expectations For Several Teams With College World Series Potential

Injuries are always a part of determining champions in college baseball, and oftentimes, the team lifting the trophy at the end of the College World Series is a team that had uncommonly good injury fortune along the way. Either way, they are always part of the story.

But during the 2021 season, a seemingly higher than normal number of teams with real CWS aspirations have seen seasons sidetracked due to them. And while there have been instances here and there of players missing time for Covid-19-related reasons, as you might have expected, much more notable is the amount of players who were out for long stretches or are out for good because of traditional baseball ailments.

The news last week put into sharp relief just how much of a storyline this has been in 2021, as two SEC teams had outlooks for the rest of the season altered due to massive injuries.

After he was pulled from a start in the first inning two weekends ago, Mississippi announced that righthander Gunnar Hoglund, one of the best pitchers in the entire country and a potential first-round pick this July, will miss the rest of the season due to Tommy John surgery.

Even as it has had an up-and-down season, Ole Miss had to be taken seriously as an Omaha contender as long as it had a rotation led by Doug Nikhazy and Hoglund. Now, that dynamic duo has been ripped apart not but five weeks after its best hitter, Tim Elko, went down with a torn ACL. Elko has since returned in a limited role, but is no longer capable of being the guy to carry the offense due to the injury.

The other bit of news was that Georgia lefthander Ryan Webb will miss the rest of the season. His specific injury isn’t clear, but coach Scott Stricklin was unequivocal in saying that Webb is done for the year. That was just the latest in a line of speed bumps the Georgia pitching staff has faced this season.

Webb began the year sidelined due to Covid-19, and righthander Jonathan Cannon missed a few weeks while recovering from mononucleosis. Cannon has since returned, but the Bulldogs had several pitchers never debut this season due to injury, and lefthander C.J. Smith was shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury. Georgia was never considered to be the CWS contender that Ole Miss has been for much of the season, but it certainly hampers the Bulldogs’ chances of ending up on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

But those are just the two most recent examples. There are plenty of others.

Texas Tech has fallen a step behind Texas and Texas Christian in the Big 12 thanks in part to losing lefthanded reliever Jakob Brustoski prior to the season, starting pitcher Brandon Birdsell in mid April and both Dylan Neuse and Kurt Wilson from the lineup just days after the Birdsell news dropped.

Arizona State surely knows how Texas Tech feels about having injuries clustered together, as it lost Boyd Vander Kooi, Cooper Benson and Erik Tolman, arguably the three most important pitchers on staff, to Tommy John all within a week of each other in March.

There are a lot of reasons that Louisiana State has not lived up to its top-10 billing to begin the season, but having righthander Jaden Hill be ineffective at times early and then losing him to a Tommy John surgery of his own has a lot to do with it. Louisville dealt with missing players due to contact tracing early in the season, but has had lingering injuries since then, including to righthander and projected ace Glenn Albanese.

Uniformly, as you might expect, coaches have been quick to talk about how they’re not fixating on the negative, and rather, are proud of the rest of the team for pressing on.

“I’m really proud of how our pitching staff has rallied to piece it together, to get it done, and put us in a position to be in the postseason,” Stricklin said after the Webb news, reflecting on all of the injury blows his team has been dealt.

Not long after his trio of arms went down, Arizona State’s Tracy Smith had similar things to say.

“Honestly, I like what I’m seeing. I like (that) our guys are playing hard. For the most part, we’re throwing strikes. We’re competing,” he said as his team extended what was then a nine-game winning streak while dealing with those missing pieces.

Sometimes, statements like those can come off as lip service or an attempt by coaches to avoid giving their players an opening to make excuses, but in the case of these teams, there are still a lot of reasons to be positive in spite of the adversity.

The Ole Miss offense without Elko is still among the best in the SEC, and on Friday the school was announced as one of the 20 possible host sites for regionals and then it went out and won a series against Vanderbilt. Long story short, all of its big-picture goals are still very much in play.

Texas Tech is in a similar boat. It just won a series against rival Texas two weekends ago and was likewise among the preliminary list of 20 host sites. Arizona State, thanks to an offense that has done an excellent job of re-tooling after losing so much to the draft last season, has been solidly in the Field of 64 projections all season. Righthander Landon Marceaux and some young position players have LSU in the bubble conversation, albeit probably behind Georgia, which continues to be competitive in series where you think it is going to be out-classed.

But there’s no getting around the fact that each of these teams has seen its ceiling limited, and with that, we have to reconsider our expectations.

Ole Miss was once the No. 1 team in the country early this season. Texas Tech was the clear favorite in the Big 12. Louisville and LSU were both preseason top 10 teams. Arizona State and Georgia both came into the campaign with Top 25 upside. As it stands now, though, it might be considered a pleasant surprise if any of them end up in Omaha when it’s all said and done.

The fact that the bottom hasn’t fallen out for any of the aforementioned teams shows just how talented and worthy of those expectations they really were, but their ability to match those expectations will likely be a casualty of college baseball’s injury trend this season.

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