Another season, another five-part preview as we look ahead to the 2011 UCLA baseball season, which will get underway on February 18th when the Bruins take on San Francisco at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Prior to last season I wrote up College Baseball 101 for those of you who want the basics of the game, specifically the things that differ from the pro game. As we look to 2011, we started with Part 1, a general 2010 review and 2011 preview with a look at the schedule and key notes. Part 2 took a look at the pitchers and Part 3, the position players. Part 4 previewed the Pac-10 and this Part 5 takes a look at the country and where UCLA fits in the national scene.
Last season all of the talk around the College World Series centered around it being the last edition of college baseball's crown jewel to be played at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium after a 60 year run at the venerable old stadium. This season 301 teams will set their sights on becoming the first team to win the College World Series at the new home of the event, TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha.
In the last few seasons more and more of the top players have been bypassing the chance to sign with MLB teams after being drafted out of high school and attending college, resulting in an influx of talent at the college level. After six years in which no first round picks did not sign with the team that drafted them, first round picks have passed on the pros in each of the last three years with Gerrit Cole going to UCLA in 2008, Matt Purke going to TCU in 2009 and Dylan Covey is at San Diego and Karsten Whitson is at Florida after passing on signing in 2010.
With so many top players not drafted in the first round also joining some first round picks in college, the competition for the national title is filled with incredibly good teams. So, who is going to make it to Omaha for the 2011 College World Series? Here are my picks, which means these eight teams will not make it, hence why I'm leaving UCLA off.
- Cal St. Fullerton
Most are in agreement that the Pac-10 is the premier conference in the country this season, but the same way, most agree that the SEC is the second best conference there is. Leading the way in the SEC is the nation's most talented team, Florida. A College World Series participant from a year ago with a very young team, Florida is stocked with now experienced talent. Austin Maddox, Brian Johnson and Preston Tucker give the Gators as scary a middle of the lineup in the country and if they can pick one of their talented and experienced bullpen arms to take over as closer, they're going to be awfully scary. One way to stop a powerful offense like Florida's is a dominant starting rotation, which Vanderbilt has. Sonny Gray is one of the best pitchers in the country and the Commodores back that up with three other upperclassmen starting pitchers to torment opposing offenses. The defending national champs, South Carolina, are also a threat with a dominant bullpen back after it was the core of their title run, but they have some starting pitching to replace.
As is usually the case, the Big 12 is led by one of the sport's powerhouses, Texas. Taylor Jungmann gives the Longhorns an ace who will likely be a top-ten draft pick and Cole Green is one of the better Saturday pitchers in the nation. As is always the case with Texas, they will be able to catch the ball and are a preseason top-ten team for a reason even without a great offense because they can pitch and catch with the best of them. Challenging the Longhorns will be their Red River rivals, Oklahoma, who will look to build on their run to the College World Series last year. With seven returning position players the Sooners will have the bats to win the Big 12 and a senior closer who has filled the role for two years is a luxury few teams have. Also in the mix is Baylor not because they have any great players, but they are deep and good at the plate, with the glove and on the mound, both starting and relieving.
The ACC looks as if they'll be in a bit of down year without a dominant team, but they have a few teams in the tier just below the top teams in the country. A year ago, two ACC teams made it to Omaha and both Clemson and Florida St. are contenders to return again. The Tigers will be led by an offense that returns seven starters, especially the power of John Hinson and Jeff Schaus. Like the Tigers, the Seminoles return seven players from their offense that will be among the most potent in the country, as is usually the case with the Florida St. bats. The last challenger in the conference is Virginia, who is led by Danny Hultzen. Hultzen is one of the nation's top pitchers and also contributes as a hitter for a strong offense that can lead the team to a conference title if the bullpen steps up.
Out in the Big West it is Cal St. Fullerton who is again the class of the conference. With Noe Ramirez and Tyler Pill, the Titans have two go-to guys on Friday and Saturday nights and with two more juniors filling out the rotation on Sundays and Tuesdays there is plenty of mound experience. Nick Ramirez may be one of the biggest power hitters on the West Coast and also fills the closer's role to make the Titans a favorite to make it to Omaha. The rest of the Big West is down and there isn't another top 25 team in the league, just as there isn't one in the West Coast Conference.
Right up in the mix for the national title is TCU from the Mountain West. Led by Matt Purke, who had an incredible freshman season and will be a top-five pick in the MLB Draft, the Horned Frogs finally got over the hump by beating Texas to get to the College World Series last year and is now the premier team in the state of Texas, at least for a year. Rice is always a threat in Texas and they once again go into the season as the runaway favorite in Conference USA. This year, that is thanks to Anthony Rendon, far and away the best hitter in the country and the guy most have pegged as the number one pick in the next MLB Draft.
South Carolina as a state always have strong talent and this year is no exception. In addition to the defending national champions South Carolina and Clemson, Coastal Carolina continues their ascent up the college baseball ladder with another good team. They've gotten some rotten postseason match-ups in past years to keep them from making it to Omaha, but with two key pitchers, Jim Birmingham and Keith Hessler passing on the pros to return, the Chants are contenders again. Last season, the only reason Coastal made it to the Super Regionals was because of a bad call that denied College of Charleston the upset in the Regional that they deserved and with a scary offense led by Matt Leads, Charleston will give it another run.
UConn is the class of the conference thanks to George Springer in the offense and will look to repeat last year's conference title, but they are an banged up bunch that may be overrated because they are at first glance the class of the cold north.. St. John's will also field a strong team and with the Huskies going through some injury woes, the Johnnies could be in a perfect position to snap the conference title away, meanwhile Louisville is still in the mix despite losing some major talent to the pros.
After a bit of a revival in past seasons, the Big 10 is in for a down year and there isn't anyone of note in the conference except for Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have long had the advantage of playing in the Metrodome and playing early season home games when no other northern team was and also getting additional practice time in. With the stadium's roof collapsing they've lost that edge, but an experienced and sure-handed infield gives them a chance to stay on track. Also in the cold and contending is Kent St., who was in UCLA's Regional a year ago. The Flashes have seven position players back and their entire weekend staff so they should be back in the postseason in 2011.
Once again, the road to Omaha begins in the cold of February. The goal for teams is no longer Rosenblatt Stadium, but the aura of Omaha is still there and the incredible atmosphere created by the city and its residents is not going anywhere. On February 18, 301 teams from around the country will start on their road to Omaha yet again with the hope that they are one of the eight teams who get to make the trip on June 18 and stand alone on the field at the new ballpark on the 29th as national champions.