College baseball: The best non-conference matchups to watch in 2018 (Part II)
With Division I baseball season starting across the country Friday, last week NCAA.com highlighted some of the best non-conferece matchups to watch in 2018. As promised, here are six more can't-miss series:
No. 17 Cal State Fullerton vs. No. 2 Oregon State – March 9-11
While this series won’t have the same implication as the 2017 opening-round CWS matchup, where the Beavers rallied from four runs down to win 6-5, this will serve as the perfect tune-up before both teams enter their respective conference slates.
We already highlighted the Titans’ pitching in Part I of this list, but the Cal State Fullerton staff will face no better offense — or complete team — in the country this season than Oregon State. The Beavers return one of the most talented middle infields with defending Pac-12 Player of the Year second baseball Nick Madrigal and shortstop Cadyn Grenier, as well as catcher Adley Rutschman (who had the game-winning hit against Cal State Fullerton last year in Omaha) and center fielder Steven Kwan. It might be tough for the Beavers to repeat their success of 2017 (55-6 record, .903 winning percentage), but Oregon State will once again be in the conversation to return to the College World Series in its quest for its first national championship since 2007.
No. 1 Florida vs. No. 5 Florida State – March 13 ,27 and April 10
Another year just means more chapters in the non-conference rivalry between Florida and Florida State, which dates back to 1956. Both the Gators and Seminoles enter 2018 with loaded rosters as each is seeking a return trip to Omaha after UF won its first national championship in 2017. The Seminoles lead the all-time series 128-115-1, however Florida has won the last five matchups.
For the Seminoles, is this the year they can finally get over the hump and win a championship? Florida State returns its entire weekend rotation from the 2017 CWS team headlined by first-team all-American junior Tyler Holton, who finished last year with a 10-3 record with an ERA of 2.34 over 119.1 innings pitched. Holton also finished fourth in the NCAA in strikeouts with 144. Third baseman Drew Mendoza, outfielder Jackson Lueck and catcher Cal Raleigh will headline the Seminole lineup that finished fourth in runs scored last year with 502.
Of note: Long-time Florida State coach Mike Martin needs just 32 wins to become the all-time winngest coach in Division I history, and the Seminoles have never won fewer than 41 games since he became head coach in 1980. The April 10th matchup against Florida is the game No. 34 on the season for FSU.
No. 16 LSU vs. No. 20 South Alabama – March 14
Much has already been said about the new-look Tigers and how well they’ll handle reloading its runner-up lineup from 2017, and their matchup against South Alabama will be a good test right before the difficult SEC schedule begins.
Junior outfielder Travis Swaggerty should be a household name in college baseball by now, and the preseason first-team all-American will most likely be in the running for the Golden Spikes award in 2018. Swaggerty (.356/.484/.571) led the Jaguars in home runs (11) RBI (60) and finished second in doubles (12) and was deservingly named the Sun Belt’s preseason Player of the Year. First baseman Wells Davis, shortstop Drew LaBounty and third baseman Brendan Donovan all return in 2018, but the question will be if they have enough pitching to make a third straight regional appearance, and possibly further.
Congratulations to @SouthALBaseball's Travis Swaggerty, the #SunBeltBSB Preseason Player of the Year.— #FunBelt (@SunBelt) January 31, 2018
Swaggerty led the conference in on-base percentage, RBI and runs scored. He finished second in batting average and total bases.#FunBelt pic.twitter.com/4OgtSIcI5Y
No. 18 Dallas Baptist vs. No. 7 TCU – March 27 and April 13
Along with Florida, Oregon State and Florida State, TCU returns one of the best rotations in the country. Jared Janczak (9-2, 2.31 ERA) and Nick Lodolo (5-1, 4.35) return as proven starters, but one of the big storylines to follow will be how Sean Wymer transitions from the bullpen after all 30 of his appearances in 2017 came in relief.
The Horned Frogs will look to reach their fifth straight CWS appearance and will rely on power-hitting first baseman Luken Baker, who missed last season’s playoff run due to injury. Baker has 145 hits, 19 home runs and 103 RBi in his 114 career games with TCU, and now fully healthy, headlines an offense that includes catcher Zach Humphreys, who is taking over for co-Big 12 Player of the Year Evan Skoug behind the plate. Freshmen infielders Coby Boulware and shortstop Adam Oviedo should make an immediate impact in the lineup, while transfers Conner Shepherd, Johnny Rizer and A.J. Balta will be huge factors if the Horned Frogs want to return to Omaha.
The Patriots are once again one of the early favorites to win the Missouri Valley Baseball Conference, and for good reason. Dallas Baptist has a combined record of 172-76 over the last four seasons that have all lead to NCAA tournament appearances. Outfielder Jameson Hannah will be the Patriots’ top returning hitter, while Tim Millard, Devlin Granberg, Matt Duce and Garrett Wolforth stabilize a solid group of veteran players.
Missouri State vs. No. 2 Oregon State – April 13-15
Although this series might not have the same buzz as the others on this list, two of the country’s best individual talents will be on display between Oregon State’s Nick Madrigal and Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman. Madrigal hit .380 in his sophomore season with 90 hits, 20 doubles and 63 RBI leading one of the best teams in the country. Eierman has some serious power for a middle infielder coming off a 2017 seaon where he finished with 23 home runs, 68 RBI and a .313/.431/.675 split.
No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Texas Tech – April 24-25
While in most scenarios non-conference matchups happen early in the season, Arkansas vs. Texas Tech happens to be one of the few that happen in the middle of conference play – and it will hopefully come when both teams are playing their best baseball of the season. Both the Red Raiders and Razorbacks fell in the regional round of the NCAA tournament last year, but have their eyes set on Omaha with lofty preseason expectations and plenty of talent to make a run at the CWS.
Catcher Grant Koch and shortstop Jax Biggers are the two most notable names returning to the Arkansas lineup, while upperclassmen Luke Bonfield, Carson Shaddy and Jared Gates look to return to Omaha after their appearance in 2015. The SEC is loaded again this year, and Arkansas’ pitching rotation with Blaine Knight, Kacey Murphy and the return of Isaiah Campbell makes it one of the most dangerous teams heading into 2018.
Much of the hype surrounding Texas Tech has been around lefty ace Steve Gingery, but one thing to monitor will be the Red Raiders’ power production. They don’t return a single player who hit double-digit home runs last season. Outfielders Grant Little and Codu Farhart are two great contact hitters, and we’ll see how many different ways TTU can generate runs throughout 2018.