Pac-10 Baseball Preview: Leave It To Beavers
When it comes to baseball, the Pacific-10 Conference is really a misnomer. The University of Oregon dropped baseball 25 years ago. Accordingly, for the purposes of baseball, the conference is really the Pac-9.
Baseball was Oregon's oldest athletic program (dating back to 1877), but it was eliminated from the school's athletic program in 1981 because of budget reductions in the aftermath of Title IX. Although it took awhile for Oregon State to pick up the slack, the Beavers made the state proud last year by winning the conference, hosting a Regional and Super Regional, and earning one of the eight spots in the College World Series.
OSU was joined in postseason play by fellow CWS participant Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford, and USC--making it the second straight year and fourth time overall that five Pacific-10 teams made the NCAA Tournament. The Pac-10 has produced a World Series participant each year since 1996 and has made it to Omaha 24 times overall since Arizona and Arizona State joined the league in 1979.
The 24-game conference schedule begins March 17. The winner and as many as five other schools could earn a postseason bid this year.
The teams are presented in the projected order of finish in the Pac-10 preseason poll among coaches.
1. Oregon State
2005: 46-12 | College World Series | 7th in final poll | 9th RPI
A "feel good" story last year, Oregon State now has to live up to the huge expectations placed upon the program. Picked by the coaches to finish eighth in the league before the year began, the Beavers surprised everyone by winning the conference with a school-record 46 wins and advancing to the College World Series for the first time since 1952.
Led by one of the best pitching staffs in the country, OSU was selected by seven of the nine coaches to capture the Pac-10 title this year. The team's three starting pitchers--Dallas Buck (12-1, 2.09 ERA with a .194 BAA), Jonah Nickerson (9-2, 2.13 with a nearly 4:1 K/BB ratio), and Anton Maxwell (11-1, 4.33)--return for their junior years. Ace reliever Kevin Gunderson (6-4, 14 saves, 2.76)--all 5-foot-8, 155 pounds of him--is back as well.
Buck wasn't as sharp in the Cape Cod League as he was the summer before but is still expected to be no worse than a mid-first round selection in the June draft. Nickerson and Gunderson, meanwhile, pitched for Team USA last summer.
Whether Buck, Nickerson, and Maxwell can combine to go 32-4 again will be largely determined by how well the offense performs this year. Senior Tyler Graham (.307 with 0 HR and 21 SB), a speedster who was drafted in the 15th round by the Chicago Cubs, takes over for first-round draft pick Jacoby Ellsbury in CF and at the top of the lineup. Sophomore shortstop and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Darwin Barney (.301, 2 HR, 44 RBI), sophomore catcher Mitch Canham (.325 with a team-leading 8 HR), and senior third baseman Shea McFeely (.319, 5 HR) will be asked to generate power in the middle of the order.
Put it all together and the Beavers are not only the favorite to win the Pac-10 title but are a legitimate contender for the national championship.
2005: 41-22 | Super Regional | 17th in final poll | 11th RPI
USC missed the College World Series last year by one game, falling in the rubber match to conference rival Oregon State in the Super Regionals at Corvallis. Coach Mike Gillespie, one of only two men (along with Arizona's Jerry Kindall) to both play for and coach an NCAA championship baseball team, loses Jeff Clement, the third overall pick in last year's draft, but returns junior right-hander Ian Kennedy, possibly the top hurler in the country.
Kennedy (12-3, 2.54 ERA, 12.2 K/9), who led the nation in strikeouts with 158, is a consensus first-team All-American. He was named Pac-10 Conference Pitcher of the Year and has pitched for Team USA with success in back-to-back summers, including last year when he allowed just 11 hits in 28 innings while striking out 35. Look for the 6-foot, 195-pound starter, possessor of a low-90s fastball and outstanding command of four pitches, to go in the top five next June unless Ian's advisor and agent-to-be Scott Boras scares off potential suitors.
In addition to Kennedy, the Trojans have seven starting position players, as well as junior closer Paul Koss (4-1, 14 saves, 2.81 ERA), back in the fold. The offense will be spearheaded by sophomore third baseman Matt Cusick (.311, 4 HR), junior outfielder Cyle Hankerd (.298, 1 HR), and senior second baseman Blake Sharpe (.297, 5 HR). Hankerd was selected the number one prospect in the New England Collegiate League last summer, falling two RBI short of the Triple Crown (.383, 9, 36). He also hit a home run in the All-Star game, two more vs. Team USA in an exhibition game, and slugged a couple in a two-game sweep in the finals.
2005: 34-25 | Regional | 38th in RPI
Stanford, which failed to earn a Top 25 ranking by Baseball America for the first time since 1981, is coming off its poorest conference record (12-12) since 1993. The Cardinal could find the going tough this year, trying to replace a couple of first rounders (John Mayberry Jr. and Jed Lowrie) and its two best starting pitchers.
Three-time NCAA Coach of the Year Mark Marquess, however, is not without talent. Seven starters return on offense. Sophomore outfielder Michael Taylor (.289, 4 HR), selected the top prospect in the Alaska League last summer, is an emerging star. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound behemoth has the offensive and defensive tools, including surprising speed, to become one of the top picks in the 2007 draft.
Seniors John Hester (.282, 5 HR), picked by Baseball America to be the catcher on the All-Conference team, and Chris Minaker (.291, 3 HR), a slick-fielding shortstop, add experience and leadership, while junior third baseman Adam Sorgi (.322, 5 HR) provides another potent bat. Junior right-hander Greg Reynolds (2-3, 5.08 ERA) has the most potential among the pitchers and is expected to become the team's "Friday Night" starter. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Reynolds has the size and the stuff (90-95 mph fastball and hard curve) to be considered as a first round draft choice if he can improve his command and throw more strikes than he has in the past.
T3. Arizona State
2005: 42-25 | College World Series | 6th in final poll | 13th RPI
Arizona State begins the year ranked in Baseball America's Top 25 for the 20th consecutive season, the longest streak in the country. The Sun Devils surprised host Cal State Fullerton in the Super Regionals last year, reaching the College World Series for the 19th time in school history.
After losing six starters, Coach Pat Murphy reloads with 20 letter winners plus the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation. The influx of talent includes five recruits who were drafted last year, yet opted to attend school in hopes of winning a sixth national championship during their stay at ASU.
Newcomers Preston Paramore (NYM, 22nd round), Brett Wallace (TOR, 42nd), and two-way player Ike Davis (TB, 19th) are expected to replace the departing Tuffy Gosewich, Jeff Larish (fourth in the country with 23 HR), and first round draftee Travis Buck at catcher, first base, and DH/OF, respectively. Freshman shortstop Matt Hall (LAA, 8th) is also slated to fill in for Andrew Romine, who will redshirt this year after doctors found a blood clot in his chest.
Junior outfielder Colin Curtis (.342, 2 HR, 17 SB), a first-team preseason All-American, will lead the offense, while junior right-handers Pat Bresnehan (5-4, 5.60 ERA) and Zechry Zinicola (4-4, 5.48) plus senior Brett Bordes (5-7, 4.24) will provide mound experience for the Sun Devils.
2005: 39-21 | Regional | 12th in final poll | 30th RPI
Arizona lost more talent than any team in the conference. Four players were drafted in the first five rounds last June, including first rounder Trevor Crowe, the co-Pac-10 Player of the Year. All three weekend starters will need to be replaced as well.
Coach Andy Lopez, who guided Pepperdine to a national championship in 1992 and has twice been been named National Coach of the Year, will have just three regulars back from last year's squad. Fortunately, both middle infielders return. Shortstop Jason Donald (.288, 5 HR), a second-team preseason All-American, and second baseman Brad Boyer (.285, 3 HR) form the best double-play combo in the conference.
Team USA closer Mark Melancon (4-3, 11 saves, 2.58 ERA), a junior RHP, becomes the number one starting pitcher this year and sophomore left-handers Eric Berger (6-2, 3.84) and David Coulon (3-3, 5.50), coming off strong summers in the Cape, fill out the weekend rotation.
T5. California (34-23)
A team that should have made the field of 64 last year returns seven regulars, headed by three All-Americans--outfielders Brennan Boesch and Chris Errecart plus right-hander Brandon Morrow. Boesch (.355, 7 HR), Errecart (.298, 8 HR), and Morrow (0-1, 9.36 ERA) are all potential number one draft choices in June.
Morrow is much more of a project. The 6-foot-3 junior can hit the upper 90s on the radar gun but has battled control problems in limited duty as a Golden Bear. Coming off a big summer in the Cape, Morrow has the ability to be "one of the most dominant pitchers in the country," Coach David Esquer told Baseball America.
7. Washington (33-22)
Tim Lincecum (8-6, 3.11 ERA with 131 Ks in 104 IP) is the story here. A draft-eligible sophomore last year, Lincecum wasn't taken until the 42nd round by the Cleveland Indians because he reportedly was looking for a seven-figure contract. He went to the Cape and led the league with a 0.69 ERA while striking out more than half the hitters (69 of 134) he faced. Lincecum has a major league-quality fastball and curveball but his 6-foot, 160-pound frame may prevent him from ever being drafted as high as his stats might otherwise suggest.
8. UCLA (15-41)
Eight regulars, including the top six hitters in the lineup, return for a UCLA team that went 4-20 in conference action last year. The Bruins have three junior pitchers--starters Hector Ambriz (3-7, 3.94 ERA) and David Huff, a UC Irvine transfer via Cypress JC, and closer Brant Rustich (2-7, 5.23)--who could gain the attention of scouts this spring, as well as the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country.
9. Washington State (21-37)
The Cougars went 1-23 in the Pac-10 and have finished in last place in the conference every year since 1999. Six regulars return, plus the team's winningest pitcher (Wayne Daman, 7-6, 4.91 ERA). Daman will be joined in the rotation by junior transfer Mike Wagner, who went 4-0 with 66 strikeouts in 63 innings in a two-year stint at Vanderbilt.