Seven Storylines To Follow In Regular Season’s Final Month

Image credit: Kumar Rocker (Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

The college baseball season is reaching its stretch run. There are four weeks until the start of the NCAA Tournament, meaning there’s a lot to play for.

Whether you’re just getting into the season as the postseason approaches or have been following along since Opening Day, here are seven questions to be answered down the stretch.

1. Is Arkansas the national championship favorite?

Arkansas on March 1 rose to No. 1 in the Top 25 and hasn’t been knocked from the spot since. That’s 10 straight weeks the Razorbacks have been No. 1, the longest run atop the Top 25 since Oregon State did so in 2017.

Arkansas has handled all challengers this season. It is 12-3 against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 and all 15 of those games came away from Baum-Walker Stadium.

The Razorbacks aren’t built like a traditional college baseball power—they don’t have a dominant starting rotation, although in recent weeks lefthander Patrick Wicklander has grown into a strong front-of-the-rotation pitcher, and they don’t have a top-10 draft prospect leading their offense. What they do have, however, is perhaps the deepest roster in the country, a lineup where 1-9 can drive the ball out of the park, a pitching staff that can attack teams in a variety of ways, maybe the best reliever in the country in righthander Kevin Kopps and an elite defense.

Put it all together, and it makes for an impressive all-around team. Arkansas doesn’t have to be perfect to win and has already shown a knack for winning close games. It’s not unbeatable, but it has to be considered the favorite to win its first national championship.

2. Who is the Player of the Year favorite?

As May begins, this race is wide open with no shortage of contenders. At this point, it’s the most open the race has been in five years.

Florida State catcher Mat Nelson (.341/.445/.867) leads the nation with 20 home runs. Louisville catcher Henry Davis (.403/.520/.683, 10 HR) combines impressive offensive numbers with strong defense. Arizona slugger Jacob Berry (.400/.492/.760, 11 HR), Texas Tech second baseman Jace Jung (.362/.477/.717, 15 HR), Notre Dame first baseman Niko Kavadas (.308/.483/.794, 15 HR), East Carolina second baseman Connor Norby (.420/.469/.673, 10 HR) and Eastern Illinois shortstop Trey Sweeny (.399/.523/.736, 12 HR) are all scorching the ball.

On the pitching side, Vanderbilt’s co-aces Kumar Rocker (10-1, 1.70, 97 K) and Jack Leiter (7-2, 2.10, 106 K) are in the mix. Texas ace Ty Madden (6-2, 2.21, 84 K) belongs in the mix, as does the Mississippi duo of Gunnar Hoglund (4-2, 2.47, 96 K) and Doug Nikhazy (5-2, 2.09, 75 K). Indiana State’s Geremy Guerrero (7-1, 1.56), Louisiana State’s Landon Marceaux (4-4, 2.15, 80 K), South Carolina-Upstate’s Jordan Marks (8-1, 1.54, 83 K), Fordham’s Matt Mikulski (7-0, 1.33, 102 K) and East Carolina’s Gavin Williams (6-0, 1.03, 70 K) have all been excellent as well.

Then there’s Arkansas relief ace Kevin Kopps (6-0, 0.85, 6 SV, 75 K). It would be unprecedented for a reliever to be named Player of the Year, but he’s thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and currently leads the nation in ERA, so he’s already in uncharted territory.

In short, there’s no one frontrunner. But, at this stage, the top tier is probably Davis, Leiter, Nelson and Rocker.

3. How far can ACC darlings Notre Dame and Pittsburgh go?

There’s a new look to the ACC standings this year, as Notre Dame and Pittsburgh lead the two divisions. Since joining the conference in 2014, both teams have usually finished near the bottom of their divisions—though Notre Dame did finish second in 2015.

Now, they are in a much different position as the stretch run begins. Notre Dame leads the overall standings by four games and is eyeing its first conference title since 2006, when it was a member of the Big East. The Fighting Irish are also likely to host regionals for the first time since 2001. Pitt is on track to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995 and could host a regional for the first time ever.

No matter what happens in the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame and Pitt will have had successful seasons. But how deep into June can they play?

Before the season began, I tabbed Notre Dame as my Omaha sleeper. After what it has accomplished so far, there should be no doubt the #OmaIrish can live up to the name. Notre Dame has a Player of the Year candidate in Kavadas anchoring the lineup, an impressively deep, versatile pitching staff and an elite defense (its .985 fielding percentage is second in the nation). The Fighting Irish might be light on postseason experience, but they have everything else you would look for in a College World Series contender.

Pitt is more difficult to judge because it has missed the last two weeks due to Covid-19 issues. What effect will that have on the Panthers as they return to action this week? They’re on the hosting bubble now and will need to hit the ground running to secure a home regional. At its best, Pitt has proved it can play with any team in the country. It has a veteran lineup led by Nico Popa (.351/.427/.573, 8 HR, 12 SB), a good bullpen and a quality 1-2 punch in its rotation with Mitch Myers (3-4, 3.14) and Matt Gilbertson (5-3, 3.53). Minimally, Pitt is going to be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t think it has the depth to fall into the losers’ bracket of a regional and win, or the star power to go on the road to win a super regional, but if it plays its game, it can be competitive in the NCAA Tournament.

4. Will the Conference USA renaissance continue in the NCAA Tournament?

Over the last decade, Conference USA has slipped on the diamond, due largely to conference realignment that saw teams like Central Florida and East Carolina leave for the American Athletic Conference. CUSA is this year on track for four NCAA Tournament bids, its most since 2016, and at least one school from the conference figures to host a regional, which last happened in 2017.

CUSA has come storming back, with Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi all ranked in the Top 25. The challenge now will be carrying that over into the NCAA Tournament.

Any of the four teams from the conference in position to make the tournament could win a regional, something no CUSA team has done since Rice in 2013. Louisiana Tech would seem to be the most likely to do so—it this season owns wins against Arkansas and Mississippi and its ace Jonathan Fincher makes for a difficult matchup—but none of the other teams should be counted out. Charlotte has impact talent, ODU ranks second in the nation in home runs (74) and slugging percentage (.540) and Southern Miss leads the conference in ERA (3.54).

At least one CUSA team is expected to be among the 16 regional hosts and any team that doesn’t host will be a dangerous two-seed. With that as an entry point, it’s reasonable to expect to see a CUSA team or two in super regionals.

5. Can Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter lead Vanderbilt to a second straight national championship?

Vanderbilt is still the reigning national champion after the 2020 season was canceled and the Commodores again have a national title contender. They’re led by Rocker and Leiter, the best 1-2 punch in the nation and a pair of likely top-five draft picks in July. A young lineup has developed into a strong offense and the Commodores have a solid defense.

It feels too simplistic to boil down Vanderbilt’s national championship chances to Rocker and Leiter, but they are the ship’s engine. The Commodores are 18-4 when Rocker and Leiter pitch and 14-6 when they don’t. In SEC play alone, they are 10-4 with their aces on the mound and 4-3 without.

When Rocker and Leiter are at their best, Vanderbilt is very difficult to beat in college baseball’s typical weekend format. But the Commodores have lost one of their starts in each of the last four series (Georgia, at Tennessee, Mississippi State, at Florida). Twice, Vanderbilt won the rubber game to take the series. Twice, it lost.

Vanderbilt still has a month to iron out its third-starter situation and its bullpen, as well as further develop its offense, all of which would help make it less dependent on its co-aces. Even right now, however, the Commodores are no-doubt national title contenders. But more so than Arkansas and maybe Mississippi State and Notre Dame, they need to stick to their script against elite competition.

6. Who is the best of the West?

The SEC has dominated the sport over the last decade-plus, producing six of the last 11 national champions and half of the teams that have played for the national title since 2008. But typically, if it’s not an SEC team dogpiling in Omaha, it’s been a team from the West Coast. So, who will emerge as the best of the West?

Evaluating the West Coast teams this season has been a challenge. With very few exceptions, teams west of the Rockies stayed west of the Rockies in non-conference play. The result is something close to a closed system, where teams from the Pac-12, Big West, West Coast Conference, Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference largely only played each other. So, it has taken a longer time than in other parts of the country for the cream to rise to the top.

As we enter the season’s final month, that’s finally happening. Arizona (31-11, 15-6) has the best offense in the nation and has opened a two-game lead in the Pac-12 standings. It plays a critical series this weekend at second-place Stanford (24-9, 10-5). If the Wildcats can win the series, they would be on track for their first conference title since 2012.

Beyond Arizona, other Omaha contenders are Stanford, Oregon and UCLA. UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara, the top two teams in the Big West, cannot be counted out. Gonzaga leads the WCC and has a series win at Texas Christian to its credit but is in the midst of a two-week pause due to Covid-19 issues. How the layoff affects the Zags is something to watch.

7. Who are the potential Cinderellas?

One of the joys of college baseball is watching teams from smaller conferences hang with—and beat—power-conference competition during the NCAA Tournament. This year again figures to have plenty of candidates for the glass slipper. That’s especially true because so many teams are more veteran-heavy this year—often a common denominator for Cinderellas—as a result of the shortened draft and eligibility relief granted due to last year’s canceled season.

The Conference USA teams already mentioned are too good to be labeled Cinderellas, but it should be noted that with the exception of Southern Miss, none of them have much NCAA Tournament history and advancing past regionals would be significant for them. The same can be said of Pitt.

Beyond those teams, however, Fairfield (28-1) stands out. The Stags are playing a conference-only schedule in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and started the season with 26 straight wins before Siena snapped that streak last weekend. It’s hard to get a read on exactly how good they are because they have played no non-conference games, but they’re by far the best team in the conference and are a story to watch down the stretch.

South Carolina-Upstate (30-9) has a strong pitching staff and has picked up some impressive wins already. Liberty (30-11) is battle-tested, having played a very difficult non-conference schedule, and has a veteran roster that will be a tough out. Ball State (28-12) and Central Michigan (28-11) are duking it out for the Mid-American Conference title and both have veteran rosters with strong pitching staffs. Both could be capable of big upsets.

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