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As the season moves past the halfway point, the latest Top 25 and Projected Field of 64 have undergone dramatic changes since the preseason. Today, we look at five of the biggest movers up and down in the season’s first half.
The Red Raiders reached the College World Series last season for the second time in three years, but had to replace five starters from their lineup, including All-American first baseman Eric Gutierrez, as well as several key relievers. But with the entire rotation returning as well as leading hitter Tanner Gardner, Texas Tech entered the year at the back of the rankings. It has had little trouble replacing the offensive production. The Red Raiders are averaging more than seven runs per game and gotten strong efforts from its still young pitching staff, especially lefthander Steven Gingery (6-0, 1.00). Texas Tech now looks like it will contend for a second-straight Big 12 Conference championship and a national seed.
The Tigers last year missed the Southeastern Conference tournament after finishing second-to-last in the conference in coach Butch Thompson’s first season on the Plains. Auburn overhauled its roster, bringing in a 20-man recruiting class that ranked 21st in the country. That class was headlined by righthander Davis Daniel, who immediately took over a spot in the rotation. Daniel’s arrival combined with righthander Keegan Thompson’s return from redshirting following Tommy John surgery and righthander Casey Mize’s step forward in his sophomore season has given Auburn a rotation that can stack up with any in the pitching-rich SEC. The Tigers miss All-American outfielder Anfernee Grier offensively, but have scored enough runs to support their pitching staff. Auburn has won series against SEC East powerhouses Florida and South Carolina, and is in first place in the SEC West. It has tough road trips to Louisiana State and Mississippi State still to come, but looks to have staying power in the conference race.
St. John’s returned an experienced lineup and was expected to do well this season, but Xavier, last year’s Big East Conference Champion, was the preseason pick to repeat. The Red Storm, however, came sprinting out of the gate this spring. St. John’s started the season 23-2 and rose to No. 14 in the Top 25, its best start and highest ranking since 1981, before losing three games last week. The Red Storm’s veteran offense has produced as expected, and the pitching staff has stepped up to match the lineup’s success. St. John’s recruiting class was heavy on pitching and just missed ranking in the Top 25 last fall. Those young pitchers have made immediate contributions, joining returners such as righthanders Michael LoPresti and Ryan McAuliffe to form a strong staff that has produced a team 2.71 ERA. It will be difficult for the Red Storm to maintain its torrid pace throughout the second half, but it has firmly established itself as the Big East favorite and remains on the edge of the hosting race.
After getting losing in super regionals to Florida in back-to-back seasons, Florida State came into this season with expectations of returning to the CWS for the first time since 2012 and competing for a national championship. The season began well enough, as the Seminoles started 13-3 before a midweek loss to the Gators on March 14. Florida State went 1-4 that week, including a series loss at Virginia Tech, and is 8-11 since. The Seminoles have fallen out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2009 and their streak of winning at least 40 games is in jeopardy, as are their NCAA Tournament chances if they aren’t able to arrest their fall. Dating back to fall ball, Florida State has been beset by injuries to key members of its lineup, such as Dylan Busby, Jackson Lueck and Drew Mendoza. Its bullpen has also struggled, even after Opening Day starter Drew Carlton was moved to closer. Florida State can still turn its season around, but with a schedule that includes series against Clemson, Wake Forest and Louisville down the stretch, it will have to play much better.
After coming up 90 feet short of upsetting Texas Tech in super regionals last year, East Carolina had hopes that this would be the season it would break through for its first trip to the CWS. ECU was swept on opening weekend at Mississippi, but seemed to recover before getting swept again by Mercer in mid-March. The Pirates have now lost eight of their last nine games, including their first seven in American Athletic Conference action. Injuries have added up for ECU, as it has been without lefthander Evan Kruczynski and outfielder Dwayna Willaims-Sutton, its best pitcher and hitter, for much of the season. The Pirates have a big hole to dig out of and will be facing tough competition in the AAC the rest of the way.
News and Notes
Atlantic Coast Conference: Virginia Tech entered this weekend’s series against Virginia leading the country with 63 home runs, and added three to that total in Thursday’s 10-9 loss. Redshirt junior first baseman Sam Fragale has hit 14 home runs and is the only Hokie to reach 10 this spring. Twelve different players have homered for Virginia Tech (18-18) this season.
Big 12 Conference: After starting the season 15-2, Baylor has gone 6-11 since, including losing its first three Big 12 series. The Bears have struggled on the mound and went into this weekend’s series against Texas tied for last in the Big 12 with a 5.70 team ERA in conference play. Baylor won Thursday’s opener, 6-2, and has now won back-to-back conference games for the first time this season.
Big Ten Conference: Penn State was originally scheduled to host West Virginia on March 22, but the game was postponed due to the weather. The teams found a way to make it up, however, announcing Friday that they would play May 10 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. “This is a tremendous opportunity for the Pirates to showcase these two great collegiate baseball programs at PNC Park, one of the most iconic ballparks in Major League Baseball,” Pirates president Frank Coonelly said in a statement. “Our organization has so many alumni from and supporters of both of these outstanding institutions that it is truly an honor to have these two schools showcase their talents at PNC Park before their large fan bases in Pittsburgh.”
Pac-12 Conference: After a report in the San Francisco Chronicle listed Astros manager A.J. Hinch “at the top of Stanford’s wish list” to replace retiring coach Mark Marquess, Hinch dismissed the report to reporters in Houston, calling it a “non-story” and saying he was fully committed to managing the Astros. Hinch is a Stanford graduate and was twice named Pac-10 player of the year during his playing career with the Cardinal. But Stanford will have to set its sights slightly lower than a sitting major league manager as it looks to replace Marquess this summer.
Southeastern Conference: Auburn righthander Casey Mize (6-1, 1.23) struck out seven batters in six scoreless innings on Thursday in a 3-2 victory at Tennessee. The sophomore leads the SEC with 82 strikeouts in 58.2 innings this season. Auburn is 5-0 this season in SEC series openers.
Other conferences: Wichita State announced last week that it has accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference, effective July 1. The Shockers will leave the Missouri Valley Conference, where they have competed since 1945 and won 20 regular-season championships and 18 conference tournament titles. Missouri State coach Keith Guttin said he understands why the Shockers are leaving, and hopes the MVC is able to add another strong baseball program. “I hate for it to happen from a baseball perspective because they’ve been a good rival since we joined league in 1991,” he said. “I understand it was driven by a basketball decision. Hopefully we can get somebody or however many teams to replace them that will make a commitment to baseball because that’s going to be important.” . . . Before Georgia State and Troy opened their Sun Belt Conference series Thursday in Atlanta, both teams had a special visitor. The Braves had an off day before their Friday home opener, and shortstop Dansby Swanson used it to speak with both teams. Swanson’s father, Cooter, played and was an assistant coach at Troy.
— GSU Baseball (@GaStateBaseball) April 13, 2017
— Troy Baseball (@TroyTrojansBSB) April 13, 2017