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Carl Chester, who played for Miami’s 2016 College World Series team, has found the road rougher in 2017 (Photo by Andrew Woolley)[/caption] Halfway through the college baseball season, several story lines have emerged.
Louisville’s Brendan McKay is the frontrunner for College Player of the Year. Not only has the junior DH/first baseman batted .409/.522/.659 through the first 27 games of the 56-game regular season, but he was 4-1, 1.18 on the mound with 57 strikeouts and just nine walks allowed in 38 innings. He’s on pace to be the first college player drafted, either as a hitter or pitcher—it just depends on the team drafting him. McKay, the 2015 Freshman of the Year and a two-time first-team All-American, is on his way to becoming arguably the most decorated player in college baseball history. We’ve had newsmakers, such as Oregon State’s sizzling 24-1 start, Missouri’s 20-game winning streak, a perfect game by Loyola Marymount’s Cory Abbott and offensive explosions, such as Citadel putting up 34 on Winthrop or South Alabama posting a 32-0 win against Eastern Illinois on the season’s second day. But the biggest story in college baseball halfway through the season comes from the Sunshine State, where the natural order is upside down. Florida has upset the traditional pecking order over the last decade, muscling aside Miami and Florida State to become the top program in the state. That’s particularly true at the national level and head-to-head under coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who has led Florida to five College World Series trips in nine seasons. Of late, he’s owned Florida State, eliminating the Seminoles in consecutive super regionals and winning 14 of the last 17 matchups, and Miami (24-11 career, 10-3 in last 13 games). However, Miami still went to the College World Series the last two years and have played in 44 straight NCAA tournaments, dating back to 1973. Florida State has won at least 40 games every year for 39 years in a row, a mark of consistency that’s unmatched, and the ‘Noles made back-to-back CWS trips as recently as 2011-2012. But the Hurricanes and Seminoles’ streaks are both in jeopardy in 2017. Miami has lost three straight Atlantic Coast Conference series, two of them on the road at North Carolina State (itself a disappointment) and at North Carolina (a positive surprise this year), the other at home against Wake Forest. That was the Demon Deacons’ first-ever series win at Mark Light Field, and it ended with a 9-0 whitewash with Wake’s Connor Johnstone tossing a Maddux—a 96-pitch shutout over nine innings. The offensive struggles for Miami in a post-Zack Collins world have been pronounced; the team is hitting a collective .205/.316/.291 and ranks last in the ACC in runs per game (3.89). At 12-16, 5-7 ACC and with an RPI of 75, the Canes are in real danger of missing the ACC Tournament, not to mention the NCAAs. The saving graces for the team include coach Jim Morris, who has a .698 career winning percentage and hasn’t lost his fastball, and a schedule that eases up in the second half. The Seminoles have had a better start at 20-11 after sweeping a mid-week two-game set from Florida Gulf Coast, which had risen as high as No. 11 in this season’s rankings. Florida State, which opened the season ranked No. 2, returned plenty of talent and had a strong recruiting class that had some (including, ahem, me) thinking this was the year Mike Martin finally would break through and win a College World Series for the first time after 15 previous trips without a title. That’s not how the season has started. FSU had never lost 11 games in its first 30 games before this season, and had a lost weekend against North Carolina in early April. The Tar Heels swept the Seminoles in Tallahassee for the first time ever, with the ‘Noles coughing up leads in the final two games of the series while committing 11 errors in the process. Martin also suspended All-America shortstop Taylor Walls, reportedly after the player failed to make a planned adjustment in his swing and didn’t run out a ground ball, leading to a dugout argument with coaches. Walls hasn’t hit his stride; fellow junior Dylan Busby has missed time with a shoulder injury; touted freshman Drew Mendoza played for the first time against the Tar Heels after being out with a broken thumb; and the ‘Noles haven’t pitched great, giving up 28 of the last 30 runs in the last two games of a series loss at Virginia Tech in March. It’s all led to a much less rosy outlook for Florida State supporters than its preseason No. 2 ranking. “I know how I felt about this club six weeks ago,” Martin told the Tallahassee Democrat after the UNC series. “Nothing has changed there.” Perhaps the game has changed, though. It’s harder and harder for older coaches to thrive in today’s college baseball scene; ask Augie Garrido, or Rice’s 80-year-old Wayne Graham, whose team was 10-21. As noted before, the 'Canes schedule gets a bit easier, with its next two series against Duke and at Pittsburgh. Florida State visits equally desperate N.C. State this weekend before hosting Clemson. Then the rivals meet April 21-23 for a series in Coral Gables. It’s just midseason, so neither Miami nor Florida State is done writing their 2017 story. But their hopes for a happy ending are fading fast, and that final series may be a winner-keeps-its-streak going affair.