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2004 College Midseason Report
By Will Kimmey
Five teams reached the College World Series both in 1981 and 1982, the largest group to ever make back-to-back trips to Omaha. Four teams have turned the trick a handful of times, most recently last year when Rice, South Carolina, Stanford and Texas made their returns.
Those four teams, as well as 2003 participants Louisiana State and Miami, are all poised to book trips to Rosenblatt Stadium again this June, possibly breaking the record set in 1982.
"It's unusual," said Cal State Fullerton coach George Horton, who guided his team to Omaha last year. "Usually when you have an Omaha team, you lose 10 players to the draft and graduation like we did and find yourself kind of in a rebuilding year.
"Well, Stanford doesn't rebuild, they reload. LSU was a young team a year ago. Miami has most of its roster back, and Rice has all of its pitching back. I guess it's a year you could see a lot of repeaters."
At the midway point of the season, no alpha dog has emerged from this year's college baseball landscape. Unlike last year, when Rice never dropped below No. 3 in the polls en route to winning its first national title, there's no clear-cut favorite. Rather, a strong quartet of teams has created some separation from the rest of the pack: Stanford, Texas, Louisiana State and Rice. If that group and Miami and South Carolina all return to Omaha, it would leave just two vacancies at the College World Series for the rest of the field to fight over.
"Every year there's a couple of teams that stand out and are a little better, but this year any of those teams in that group could win a series against the others or could win in Omaha," a National League scouting director said.
Each of the teams has its own strengths. Stanford (23-4) has held the top spot in the polls for seven weeks, and defeated No. 2 Texas in a three-game series back in February. As usual, the Cardinal rank atop the Pacific-10 Conference in ERA, but this team runs on an offense that would be admirable even in the Southeastern Conference.
"Stanford's real physical and has a lot of guys in that lineup one through nine who can hurt you," Horton said.
The same can be said for LSU (24-6), which naturally has been playing the SEC style it helped create. LSU won two of three games at South Carolina earlier this year, with each team winning a game in which it bludgeoned the other with a double-digit run total after the Tigers won a taut opener 6-3 in 11 innings.
"LSU is the best offensive team I've seen all year," said Texas State coach Ty Harrington, whose team has faced LSU, Rice and Texas. "They're big, strong, and wear you down physically. One through nine, there's no break. With 27 opportunities out-wise, they are scary because they're still a threat with two outs. They can get a five-spot on you before you can even get a guy loose (in the bullpen)."
Harrington and Horton both said Texas (32-4) was the most balanced team in the game. The Longhorns lost closer Huston Street for more than a month, but won 13 of the 15 games played without him.
"Texas has the most incredible balance I've seen from them in a long time, maybe in their history," Harrington said. "If you took the batting order one through nine and flipped it nine through one, you couldn't tell the difference. One through 10 on that pitching staff, you take it 10 through one and it doesn't change a whole bunch. Some have more talent and will play pro, but all 10 are great college guys. So their ability to match up with you late in the game, a hitter or a pitcher, they can do anything they want."
Then there's Rice (25-6). Even coach Wayne Graham would acknowledge his team doesn't show the same balance of the rest of this group, but he also knows he has a team similar to the one that won the last game of 2003. The Owls return their top four pitchers--all junior righthanders, three of whom should come off the draft board before the first round is halfway over. Rice's staff has compiled 17 double-digit strikeout games this year and gotten the timely offense and solid defense it needs.
"Rice can totally dominate you from the mound and make you feel really bad," Harrington said. "It's overpowering and dominating, and it bruises your ego."
This isn't to say that all four of these teams are locks to return to the CWS. Injuries, tournament seedings or unexpected dropoffs are all among the circumstances that could keep 2004 from seeing a large number of repeat teams in Omaha. Plus other contenders such as pitching-rich Long Beach State or a well-balanced Mississippi club, along with the aforementioned Miami and South Carolina clubs, could continue emerging as strong contenders. And that's not accounting for any of the upsets that make the postseason so much fun.
But at this point, it's tough to find any safer bets. Especially since each team proved its mettle and gained experience last season.
"I think they are the best teams, but I think they were going into it," the scouting director said. "The cream always rises to the top."
Most Overachieving Team
The fourth-smallest school in Division I ran off a 16-game winning streak after an 0-5 start. The Panthers (21-9) have used pitching, defense and fleet-footed outfielders to upend Southeastern Conference schools including Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State and also won a conference road series against three-time defending Big South champ Coastal Carolina. Senior third baseman/righthander Connor Robertson (.311-7-31, 3-0, 0.00 with three saves) could help Birmingham-Southern to the NCAA tournament in just its third year in D-I, and first year of postseason eligibility after two-year probationary period.
Honorable mention: College of Charleston, Oklahoma, Virginia
Most Underachieving Team
Baylor (13-18) was ranked No. 13 in the preseason and returned a strong pitching staff from a team that went 45-23 in 2003. But a rigorous early season schedule (12 losses in 12 games against teams once ranked in the Top 25) and an offense that hasn't been as productive without 2003 draftees David Murphy and Chris Durbin (.287 team batting average) left Baylor 6-13 heading into Big 12 play.
Honorable mention: Georgia Tech, Boston College
Best Bounce-Back Candidate
The Tigers opened the year ranked No. 11 but fell from the polls after losing tight games at East Carolina, Auburn and against South Carolina. The Tigers were just 9-10 after a series loss at Texas Tech and a midweek defeat against Elon, but swept their first two Atlantic Coast Conference series and beat No. 6 South Carolina on Wednesday to improve to 18-10 and could finish strong in a down year in the conference to claim the title. Clemson has the arms in lefthander Tyler Lumsden and righthanders Jason Berken and Kris Harvey as well as a solid lineup with third baseman Brad McCann (.421-8-30) leading the way.
Honorable mention: Cal State Fullerton, UC Riverside
Jered Weaver, rhp, Long Beach State
Weaver has been the story in college baseball this season. He opened the year with seven three-hit innings and has seemingly topped that performance weekly. He has twice struck out the first 10 batters of a game and recorded six double-digit K performances, including a career-high 16 punchouts over six innings against Wichita State. His numbers--9-0, 0.84, 65 IP, 29 H, 9-100 BB-K ratio--are nearly unfathomable. Weaver has been better statistically than Mark Prior was for Southern California in 2001. He also may have cemented his status as the top overall pick in June after enjoying one of his two 15-strikeout games at in front of the Padres staff at Petco Park.
Honorable mention: Philip Humber, rhp, Rice; Wade Townsend, rhp, Rice
Jed Lowrie, 2b, Stanford
Lowrie didn't enroll at Stanford with the same prospect pedigree as teammates such as Danny Putnam and John Mayberry, but he's outproducing both first-round talents as well as every other hitter in the Pac-10. The 6-foot sophomore leads the league in on-base plus slugging percentage (1.265), is tied for the league lead with eight homers and ranks second with 36 RBIs. Plus he's shown the versatility to shift between second base and shortstop while hitting in the middle of the order.
Honorable Mention: Dustin Pedroia, ss, Arizona State, Warner Jones, 2b, Vanderbilt
Smoke Laval, Louisiana State
Mike Bianco, Mississippi
This one is too close to call now. Maybe we'll let their teams' matchup on May 21-23 decide. Laval has met the pressure of following the legendary Skip Bertman head on. Fighting tremendous expectations, he led a young LSU team to Omaha last season, overcoming the death of Wally Pontiff and the loss of injured ace Lane Mestepey. The Tigers have returned this year to form an explosive lineup that gets hits from top to bottom and might be the best since the "gorilla ball" years. Strong recruiting efforts have helped Mike Bianco lead Mississippi to a school-record 25-4 start and have tradition-rich Mississippi State looking up in the standings at their Magnolia State brethren for a change.
Honorable Mention: John Savage, UC Irvine; Brian O'Connor, Virginia
B.J. Szymanski, of, Princeton
It took just one pitch for scouts to take notice of B.J. Szymanski.
That pitch came in Szymanski's first at-bat of the season and happened to be a 96 mph fastball from Old Dominion righthander Justin Verlander, a likely top 10 pick. Szymanski deposited the ball into the trees beyond the center-field fence at Bud Metheny Stadium.
"I've always hit fastballs pretty well and I went in there looking for one," Szymanski said. "He's a pretty intimidating pitcher and it was a pretty good pitch, low in the zone. I just turned on it and hit it over the fence."
With that mighty blow, the scouts there to scope Verlander started moving the switch-hitting Princeton center fielder up their follow lists. They had already noticed his muscular 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame and witnessed his batting practice power.
Szymanski doesn't just show plus power in game action. He also displays solid pitch recognition, above-average speed (he runs a 6.45-6.47 60-yard dash) and plus arm strength, thrusting him into contention to become a first-round pick this June.
"I wanted to take him over to that lake over there and see if he could walk on water, because he can do everything else," one area scout said.
Szymanski's meteoric rise seems more impressive given that he is playing just his second season of college baseball and spends his late summers and falls as an All-Ivy League wide receiver. He caught 44 passes for 823 and a league-best 18.7 yards per grab last year for Princeton.
"It's a pitching-rich draft, and I've talked to a number of scouting directors that like him a lot because of the limited number of athletes and position players," Princeton coach Scott Bradley said. "He's a five-tool player who scouts look at as just a part-time baseball player who can keep improving. He has the ability to do things other kids can't. A week into our practice (last year), the assistant coaches and I looked at him and then at each other and said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' "
Szymanski hit .330-3-32 and led the Tigers in runs (39), hits (59), at-bats (174), triples (six) and extra-base hits (88) last year. He's batting .421-3-22 with five doubles and four triples this season. Bradley compares Szymanski to a switch-hitting Rocco Baldelli, a player he recruited heavily out of high school.
Szymanski was recruited more as a football player out of Rider High in Wichita Falls, Texas. He spoke to Bradley during his recruiting trip to Princeton, but opted to play only football as a freshman so he could keep his academics in order. He returned to Texas that summer and participated in a Reds tryout camp as a favor to Rider High baseball coach Kerry Hargrove. He smacked some ropes there, piquing the Reds' interest--as well as his own. "I pretty much decided right there that I would play college baseball," he said.
Bradley welcomed the physical specimen wholeheartedly and has since helped Szymanski improve his mental approach to the game. "In high school, I played more on raw athletic ability and less on baseball skills," he said. He has also improved his selectivity at the plate and shown a knack for making adjustments.
"He might get fooled by a breaking ball in one at-bat, but if you're a pitcher you better put it away the next time because he learns," Bradley said. "We've always known how good a hitter and a player he was, and all it took was one game at Old Dominion for everyone else to."
Best Two-Way Player
Stephen Head, 1b/lhp, Mississippi
There's probably no player who's meant more to his team than Head. He hits in the heart of the order and is tied for second in the SEC with 41 RBIs while ranking first or second on the Mississippi team in nearly every offensive category, including average (.421), homers (10) and doubles (eight). He's moved from being the team's closer a year ago to a full-time starter, and has gone 4-0, 2.92 with 32 strikeouts and eight walks in 37 innings.
Honorable mention: Joe Koshansky, 1b/lhp, Virgina; Dennis Bigley, 1b/rhp, Oral Roberts
Wes Whisler, 1b/lhp, UCLA
Miss Cleo couldn't have predicted Whisler's path through college. The Indiana native verbally committed to Louisiana State before backing out and signing with Ohio native Gary Adams at UCLA. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound athlete hit .328-18-46 as a freshman while going 5-2, 4.06 on the mound to earn first-team Freshman All-America and third-team All-America honors. He followed up that performance with by being named the Cape Cod League's top prospect after hitting .309-6-16.
But he's regressed since. Whisler slipped to .310-9-39 and 3-7, 5.66 as a sophomore, then batted just .167 in the Cape. He was batting .253-2-12 this year and was 1-2, 4.97with 23 strikeouts and 18 walks in 38 innings on the mound. A National League scouting director breaks down Whisler, who's gone from a sure-fire first-round pick as a hitter to a possible early pick as a pitcher, depending on your viewpoint.
"I'm not a big Wes Whisler fan, but I think the industry likes him better than I do, so somebody's going to take him in the first two rounds.
"I don't think he has the bat speed to be a quality major league hitter. He's big, strong and physical, so some guys think he'll hit and hit for power. But you're taking a chance on a bat that might just be OK.
"On the mound, his breaking ball is not plus; it's just ordinary. You're talking about a big physical guy with an average fastball (88-92 mph) and not much else. If you can improve his breaking pitch, and add in the fact that he's lefthanded, he can be a major league pitcher.
"He looks great in the uniform, and for years everybody thought he was going to be something. I've just seen too many guys like that who never lived up to their potential."
Loudest Numbers: Warner Jones, 2b, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt has developed into an SEC contender because of its quality weekend rotation led by probable first-rounder Jeremy Sowers, but the offense has to score some runs to get those pitchers their wins. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Jones has provided a lot of that offense. The sophomore led the nation with a .500 average and 19 doubles while adding five homers and 41 RBIs. He also delivered at least one hit in each of the Commodores' first 25 games this season, and had a 32 game-streak dating back to last year.
Honorable mention: Jarrett Hoffpauir, 2b, Southern Mississippi; Mike Ferris, 1b, Miami (Ohio)
Collin Mahoney, rhp, Clemson
Clemson catcher Collin Mahoney and outfielder Roberto Valiente were raking the field after practice late last season when they noticed a radar gun sitting near the bullpen. They crept over to it and began clocking each other's velocity in the bullpen.
Pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan eventually appeared and began chiding the players about messing with his gun when Mahoney mentioned that he had touched 90 mph. O'Sullivan didn't believe it, so Valiente strapped on the catcher's gear, and assistant Bradley LeCroy manned the radar gun as O'Sullivan watched.
"It was straight out of a movie, like 'The Rookie'," Mahoney recalled. "The first pitch I threw, (LeCroy) stuck up four fingers and coach O'Sullivan said, '84?' He said, 'No, 94.' "
A little less than a year later that experiment could land Mahoney, the backup catcher with a .237 career average, in the draft's first two rounds. The 6-foot-4 junior touches 97-99 mph in nearly every outing as a reliever now, and has spent the last several months learning how to pitch. Mahoney's mound experience since Little League consisted of just five innings during high school in Patterson, N.Y.
"It almost frustrates me that I spent my whole life on catching, and one day I wake up and realize I have this God-given ability to throw in the 90s," said Mahoney, who has 12 at-bats this season.
Mahoney threw for coach Jack Leggett shortly after reaching 94 in that impromptu bullpen session. He reached 95 that day and decided to focus on pitching during his summer in the Cape Cod League. Mononucleosis derailed that plan after just three innings for Falmouth.
Mahoney returned to campus in the fall to compete with Seton Hall transfer Lou Santangelo for the starting catcher's role. Mahoney's velocity slowly rose from 92-95 to his present range, and the staff knew it would do the righthander an injustice to not move him to the mound.
Another teammate's presence has also helped Mahoney's transition to the mound. Righthander Kris Harvey, also a two-way catcher-pitcher, is the son of Brian Harvey, a two-time major league all-star with 177 career saves. The former big league closer has apprised the burgeoning reliever about the mental preparedness needed in his new role. He also suggested Mahoney abandon his curveball and changeup for a power slider, thrown at 85-88 mph, so the power pitcher doesn't speed up hitters' bats with his secondary stuff.
"This guy is my idol and my mentor right now," Mahoney said. "I could never imagine making the transition to closer without a former major league all-star closer hanging out in the bullpen."
Mahoney has struggled at times with command and mechanics, but O'Sullivan can see improvement every week. Mahoney threw his first slider in a game at East Carolina, then threw two for strikes against Wake Forest in the team's first conference series. He said the plate looks bigger each outing
Mahoney was just 0-2, 10.61 (a six-run, two-out outing at Texas Tech colors his numbers), with 13 strikeouts and seven walks in nine innings. While his numbers don't show a whole lot of success, O'Sullivan said Mahoney was getting the hang of his new role.
"He's not so wild that it's all over the place," O'Sullivan said. "He's got a good feel for pitching and he does have an idea of the strike zone. It's not like the catcher is a hockey goalie back there."
Mahoney said he doesn't even look at the numbers. O'Sullivan doesn't look much. He gives Mahoney a long leash because with the purpose of helping Mahoney gain confidence and experience each one-inning relief stint at a time.
"If he ends up making a career out of it, you look back and it's a good story to tell," O'Sullivan said.
They can call it "The Rookie 2."