This week marks the halfway point of the 2022 college baseball season, and the College World Series is just two months away.
So far, the season has given fans plenty to talk about, from teams rising to the top to others struggling to meet expectations, and a new crop of players emerging on the scene. Five different teams have claimed the No. 1 spot in the National College Baseball Hall of Fame Power Poll, and some of the teams expected to contend for conference or national titles have had their fair share of struggles.
So, what do we know so far through the first seven weeks of the season, and what can fans look forward to in the next six weeks?
Tennessee was underrated
The Preseason HOF Power Poll had the Volunteers reasonably ranked at No. 20 — that is, reasonably compared to last year’s finish and this year’s expectations. But nobody saw Tennessee getting off to this kind of start.
Going into this weekend, Tennessee sits at No. 1 overall with an impressive 31-2 record, the two losses coming at the hands of preseason No. 1 Texas at the Shriners Children’s College Classic in Houston in early March and just this past week against Tennessee Tech. The Vols at one point reeled off 22 straight victories, including a perfect 12-0 mark in Southeastern Conference play that includes sweeps of South Carolina, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Missouri.
“My first instinct, just what it says about this team is it’s a very diversified team,” UT head coach Tony Vitello said after his squad completed the sweep of the Commodores on April 3. “It’s so hard to get a roster to be the way you want where you’ve got … balance in the middle there. I think it’s a well-rounded team and that’s been a work in progress the last few years. I feel like we had it last year, but this year maybe they got a little bit better.”
The Vols are getting tremendous starting pitching from the triumvirate of Drew Beam (7-0, 1.14 ERA), Chase Burns (6-0, 1.51) and Chase Dollander (6-0, 3.00), which has made up for not having Blade Tidwell for most of the season so far due to injury. With Tidwell getting back into the mix plus fireballer Ben Joyce — who earlier this year hit 104 mph in a game — getting hits off Tennessee pitchers could come at a premium.
The Volunteers also boast power up and down the lineup, led by third baseman Trey Lipscomb (.361 batting average, 13 home runs) and catcher Evan Russell (.294, eight home runs). At least six players who have played 19 games or more have six or more home runs.
“They’ve put their own little formula together,” Vitello said. “The roster is really balanced. You’ve got young kids who’ve had a lot of success before they got here. They look to older guys who know what success, and failure, within our program and this league, and they’ve kind of put their own little melting pot of things together. That’s when it’s fun to be a coach.”
What the Vols have done so far is signal a changing of the guard in the SEC East.
Texas is not invincible
Coming into the season, the Longhorns were the overwhelming, undisputed top team in college baseball. With an experienced starting rotation, one of the deepest bullpens in the country and an older lineup, Texas already was penciled in to one of the top eight spots in Omaha.
But what the month of March proved is that nobody is foolproof, and the Longhorns found that out the hard way.
The season started off well for Texas, which won its first 11 games to start the season. But starting with a 5-1 loss to UCLA at the Shriners College Classic in Houston — two games after the aforementioned victory over Tennessee — the Longhorns played .500 baseball, going 10-9 during a 19-game stretch and needing to rally from a 7-1 deficit on Sunday against Red River rival OU to get that far.
Prior to the weekend against the Sooners, Texas had dropped two of its last three weekend series — losing two of three at South Carolina, sweeping Incarnate Word and falling in two of three in its Big 12 Conference opener at Texas Tech. The Horns seemed to have righted the ship somewhat, taking two of three from OU at Globe Life Field in Arlington and repeating that feat at home against TCU this past weekend.
“That's a perfect example of Texas Fight," Texas coach David Pierce told hookem.com after Texas’ 12-8 win on Sunday in the series finale against OU. "It was incredible to watch this game the first four or five innings where it looked like we had no energy, it looked like we were being dominated on the mound, they manufactured runs. At the end of the day, our team is tough. They never gave in."
Even though the Longhorns appear to have turned things around, they aren’t without their issues. Left-hander Lucas Gordon seems to have settled into the role of No. 3 in the weekend rotation after Tanner Witt was lost in March due to an arm injury. But closer Aaron Nixon, one of the top returning pitchers for Texas, mirrored Texas’ struggles during the early part of March, taking the loss twice against Texas Tech then giving up two inherited runners in a 4-2 loss in the Saturday game against OU. He has come back with scoreless performances in his last two outings.
But the Texas lineup is still hammering away on opposing pitchers, leading the Big 12 with a .320 average while first baseman Ivan Melendez and shortstop Trey Faltine are 1-2 in the league in home runs with 16 and 10, respectively.
Teams on the radar
While most teams that were expected to challenge for an Omaha berth are doing so, there are some teams that started the season somewhat under the radar making their cases as well.
1. Miami: If not for Tennessee, the Hurricanes might be the story of the college baseball season. Miami started the season either unranked or just barely in the top 25 in most polls, but in less than two months have shot all the way up to No. 3 in the Hall of Fame Power Poll. The Canes sit at 27-6 on the year and 13-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference with series victories over Boston College and sweeps over Duke, North Carolina and, most impressively, Virginia, which has been as high as No. 2 in the Hall of Fame Power Poll.
2. Oregon State: Another team with a proud tradition that is making its way back to the top of the college baseball world is Oregon State. The 2018 national champs have slid the last couple of years but are on their way back up and have been solid in Pac-12 play except for a series loss to 2021 College World Series participant Stanford. The Beavers show solid balance with an offense that hits .312 on the year, led by Jacob Melton’s nine home runs and 44 RBI, while Cooper Hjerpe paces the pitching staff with a 7-0 record and 1.70 ERA.
3. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders have captured three of the last five Big 12 championships (not counting the 2020 COVID-shortened season), but this year were expected to be down after losing a ton of talent to the MLB draft and the transfer portal. But all Texas Tech has done is reload and placed players in the right positions to succeed, and after two weekends of league play are percentage points behind West Virginia (another team on the rise) and tied with Oklahoma State in the league standings. All-American Jace Jung is doing his thing (.386 with 10 home runs and 40 RBI), and the Red Raiders have a nice 1-2 starting pitching punch of right-handers Andrew Morris (4-0, 3.74 ERA) and Brandon Birdsell (5-1, 1.98 ERA).
4. Louisville: There was a time not so long ago that Louisville was consistently atop the rankings. More recently, however, Dan McDonnell’s program has struggled. Those struggles might be over as the Cardinals have ascended to the top of the ACC Atlantic Division standings and regained a foothold in the national polls. They took a step back recently, losing two of three games at Pittsburgh, but also have swept Boston College and ACC title contender Notre Dame. The toughest part of the Cardinals’ schedule remains, however, with series against Florida State and North Carolina State on the docket the next two weeks.
5. Old Dominion: There are several teams ranked in the Hall of Fame Power Poll that were nowhere near consideration at the start of the season. Headlining that list is Old Dominion out of Conference USA, which is off to a 22-7 mark on the season. The Monarchs’ schedule hasn’t been as tough as some of the other teams in the country, but they are taking care of business, winning C-USA series over Middle Tennessee and Florida International, but mysteriously losing a series at home against UT-San Antonio. The Monarchs will be a team to keep an eye on for the second half of the season.
Each week, the College Baseball Foundation chooses weekly winners for its three signature player awards – Pitcher of the Year, Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year and John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year. Below are our weekly winners for the month of March.
Pitcher of the Year
March 1: Quinn Mathews, Stanford
March 8: Connor Staine, Central Florida
March 15: Brandon Birdsell, Texas Tech
March 22: Carter Holton, Vanderbilt
March 29: Luke Rettig, Lehigh
Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year
March 1: Nik McLaughry, Arizona
March 8: Brooks Lee, Cal-Poly
March 15: Danny DiGeorgio, Rutgers
March 22: Tyler Young, Lehigh
March 29: Kurt Wilson, Texas Tech
John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year
March 1: Devin Ortiz, Virginia
March 8: Cameron Jones, Georgia State
March 15: Michael Braswell, South Carolina
March 22: Devin Ortiz, Virginia
March 29: Braden Montgomery, Stanford