College baseball: Five unheralded teams that could make noise in June
With one quick glance at the preseason roster, you could easily predict many of the teams that were destined to be in the thick of things come College World Series time.
Teams like TCU, North Carolina and Louisville simply had way too much talent to not roll through much of their schedule, and sure enough those teams have dominated and still find themselves toward the top of the rankings.
But others really have to earn the respect they get, and as such might not be at the start of the discussion of 2017 championship contenders. But make no mistake, those teams that have to grind their way to the top are not ones you want to face in June — just ask Coastal Carolina's victims in last year's run to the trophy. None of these teams are likely to host a regional, but that isn't important to a team on a mission.
Here are five of the under-the-radar squads that have the pieces to make a deep College World Series run.
Note: Stats are via NCAA.org and are current through May 7
No team around the country has a higher-rated blend of hitting and pitching than the Red Storm, who rank fifth in batting average and seventh in earned run average.
The pitching staff is led by Sean Mooney, a freshman who is pitching like a battle-tested stud. In 12 appearances (nine starts), Mooney sports a perfect 6-0 record and outstanding 1.07 ERA. That includes a heroic performance out of the pen against powerhouse North Carolina in his final appearance before being moved into the rotation. He entered that game in the third inning after the Tar Heels were mashing the ball early on and put up four innings of three-hit ball, keeping UNC in check and buying time for his offense to rally and grab the big win in Chapel Hill.
The offense has few question marks, with five hitters batting higher than .350. That's led by Michael Donadio (.388 average, .480 on-base percentage) and Jesse Berardi (.368 AVG, team-high 40 RBIs). The starting rotation lacks great consistency behind Mooney, but a dominant bullpen has helped the Red Storm keep winning despite their Nos. 2 and 3 starters having ERAs of 4.64 and 4.74. Even with those occasional struggles, St. John's is holding opponents to some extremely low marks of a .221 average and .284 slugging percentage.
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Playing in the Big East, the Red Storm might not have the richest schedule, but they've still had their share of quality wins including the early-season victory at North Carolina and an in-conference series win against Seton Hall.
USF has built a nice resume out of the American Athletic Conference, taking on the best its schedule has to offer and coming out looking great. A non-conference win at Florida State. Sweeps of Central Florida and East Carolina. A series win against Houston. They might not be playing a grueling ACC or SEC schedule, but the Bulls have really impressed, and their top-25 RPI ranking supports that.
Kevin Merrell is a monster at the top of the lineup, hitting over .400 and supplying a great mix of pop (.636 slugging percentage) and speed (17 steals). They have three starting pitchers who head coach Mark Kingston can trust to give him a quality start more often than not in Phoenix Sanders (2.99 ERA), Peter Strzelecki (2.62) and Shane McClanahan (3.22). Kingston also has a major weapon in the bullpen in Ryan Valdes, who often comes in when starters show some signs of shakiness and piles up innings. Because of that, Valdes sports an amazing 9-0 record.
USF isn't a team with many holes to exploit, ranking in the upper quadrant of just about every meaningful statistic. Perhaps a lack of consistent power (131st in home runs per game) or speed (153rd in steals per game), but it makes up for it with solid at-bats up and down the lineup and a lockdown pitching staff that ranks sixth with a 2.75 ERA.
The Mountaineers' 27-19 record is nothing extraordinary, but the team has shown an ability to play at a very high level, and its No. 13 RPI ranking shows just how nice of a resume it has carved out. West Virginia has claimed series wins over Coastal Carolina (scored 26 runs in two games), Baylor, Oklahoma State and, most impressively, TCU.
Yes, the Mountaineers have had some duds, losing series to middling teams like Charlotte, Tulane and Kansas State, but head coach Randy Mazey's guys have shown an uncanny ability to step their game up against ranked teams, and that bodes well for being a tough out in June.
West Virginia is a team that relies heavily on its bullpen, with only Michael Grove and BJ Myers being consistent starting pitching options — though freshman Alek Manoah has done well since moving into the rotation. Myers has been their Friday night starter and has turned in some gems against great teams. In starts against Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech, the junior combined to throw 20.1 innings, allowing just four earned runs. If he can continue to be a big-game starter in the postseason, he could get West Virginia the much-needed Game 1 momentum it needs.
The lineup lacks a ton of impact bats but has enough guys who can put up solid plate appearances, with four players over 30 RBIs. Kyle Davis is the main man, as the junior currently holds the team triple crown with a .320 average, eight home runs and 33 RBIs.
It seems crazy for a team in arguably the best conference in the country to fly under the radar, but with so many juggernauts in the ACC this year, most eyes haven't been on the Demon Deacons. They haven't really captured any signature wins — dropping 2/3 to Louisville and Clemson while not having Virginia or North Carolina on its regular-season schedule — but Wake Forest has dispatched respectable teams like NC State and Georgia Tech. How it performs in the ACC tournament or even this weekend at Florida State could be very telling, but this should be a battle-tested team.
The Demon Deacons seemingly always have runners on base, with six hitters carrying an on-base percentage over .400 and two more at .391 and .372. That .407 team mark ranks 13th in the country, as does its .315 batting average, while its 8.2 runs per game are ninth. But where Wake Forest stands in a class all by itself is with the greatest weapon in baseball: the longball. Its 1.72 home runs per game are the most in the country, with four players already reaching double digits. That's led by Gavin Sheets, who has gone deep 17 times — including a three-homer game against USC — and leads the nation with 69 RBIs. Outfielder Stuart Fairchild is another standout player with a .353 average, 11 home runs and 14 steals.
The pitching staff boasts a solid 1-2 punch in Connor Johnstone (7-0, 3.04 ERA) and Parker Dunshee (8-1, 4.21 ERA), especially considering how much run support it's accustomed to. And Griffin Roberts is dynamite out of the bullpen, striking out 54 batters in 36.1 innings. Granted, the pitching is not the strength of the team, but it has the talent to keep the opponent off the scoreboard enough to give the deadly offense time to bust out, and more often than not it does.
On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, Houston has a squad that sometimes struggles to break games open offensively but has a great pitching staff to give them a chance to win. In fact — though you can't read too closely into mid-February games — the Cougars held that stacked Wake Forest offense to just one run in a 7-1 season-opening victory.
Trey Cumbie (7-1, 2.41 ERA) has stepped up as the second ace of the staff. The sophomore had a poor two-start stretch in which he allowed 10 earned runs, but in his other 60.1 innings this season, he has allowed just nine (1.35 ERA). John King (5-1, 3.26 ERA) and Mitch Ullom (6-3, 3.28) are also very reliable options.
Things aren't as deep on the offensive side, with only one true impact hitter in Jake Scheiner. The infielder is smashing the ball with a .360 average and 13 homers, but he hasn't had a ton of help. Connor Wong (.302, 10 home runs) has also been very good, but there's a pretty steep dropoff after that. Pitching around Scheiner and taking your chances with the other eight might be the best way to succeed against the Cougars in the postseason, but with such a loaded starting rotation, a few runs could be all they need.