College baseball: Surprise teams of 2017
Everybody loves the underdog. Coastal Carolina proved that last season, shocking the nation and bringing home the Chanticleers first national championship. This season, there have been a few surprise teams rising to the occasion.
Though there is a long road to Omaha, these underdogs have certainly turned some heads.
D1Baseball had five SEC teams in their preseason poll. The NCBWA had seven.
Neither poll ranked Kentucky, who is currently atop the standings in the SEC East.
The Wildcats struggled opening the season, getting swept by UNC. After an 0-4 start, Kentucky won 12 of 13 games heading into SEC play. They swept Texas A&M on opening weekend and then took two of three from Ole Miss. UK has been rolling ever since.
First year head coach Nick Mingione came in and took over a team that finished in the middle of the pack in the SEC standings last year, but the bottom of nearly every offensive category. He challenged them to fix that.
“One thing we believe in is brutal honesty," Mingione said. "We had a bunch of faces back with eight returning starters. We [the coaching staff] showed them that we finished in the bottom half of the league in batting average, hits, runs, walks, you name it. We challenged them. We told them we will be right there with them, but for us to do things that have never been done before we have to get better. I’m telling you, all they’ve done is bought into everything we’re doing.”
Flash forward to present day, and Kentucky boasts the best offense in SEC, leading the conference in average (.315) and RBIs (291), while belting the second-most home runs (42).
“We had to teach them you’re only good as the pitches you see," Mingione said. "It starts with controlling the strike zone, once you can do that, then you got a chance. Most people talk about hitting, but we talk about offense. There’s a difference, hitting is just a small part of offense. You need guys who can execute those types of things.”
This past week, the Wildcats went 3-1 against top 10 teams, including an exciting victory over No. 2 Louisville.
"I believe with all of my heart we play in the best league [SEC] in America," Mingione said. "When you can have a 3-game series against LSU with their storied tradition, and prior to that we get to play Louisville, it’s just another example. I am really proud of our staff, I’m really proud of our team. We keep proving, not just to ourselves, but the entire country, that we can compete with everyone on our schedule and I think this week was another one of us proving that.”
The Wildcats took two of three from LSU over the weekend, and now have a two-game lead atop the SEC East. Overall they are 28-13 on the season, with a 12-6 record in the SEC.
The advantage Kentucky has down the tenuous SEC stretch is that their destiny is seemingly in their own hands. Two big mathcups with South Carolina and Florida remain, with two tough series against SEC East foes Tennessee and Georgia are on the slate as well.
“There’s a couple teams who are in that same boat," Mingione said. "In order to do that in this league, you have to earn that. Our guys have earned that position. I also know this league is crazy. Anything can happen at any time. We got four SEC weekends to go. What’s gotten us to this point is that we’ve treated every game this season as the most important game of the year, because it is.”
D1Baseball ranking: NR | RPI: 8
No Big 12 team was hotter down the stretch at the end of last season than the Mountaineers. WVU caught fire all the way to the Big 12 championship game, before falling to TCU in extra innings.
It would have been a storybook ending 20 years in the making, the last time West Virginia was invited to the NCAA Regionals.
The Mountaineers must have taken it personally. They are looking like they can make those long-awaited regionals, even projected as a host team last week.
The Mountaineers were battle tested from opening day, playing 18 straight games on the road. They came out ahead, entering their first home stand at 10-8.
It was pretty smooth sailing until this past weekend. The Mountaineers stumbled a bit, losing their first Big 12 series of the season, the last Big 12 team to do so. They now sit at 23-15, 9-6 in the Big 12. The Mountaineers trail TCU by two games, but took two of three from the then-No. 3 ranked team in walk-off fashion two weekends ago.
Last week, WVU garnered their first national rankings since 1982, and their first amongst the likes of D1Baseball and Baseball America. Their series loss dropped them out this week, but they have time to pick up ground.
D1Basebll ranking: 15 | RPI: 13
It isn’t a tremendous surprise that Arkansas is playing well. It’s how well they are playing that has come as a bit of a surprise.
The Razorbacks are coming off of a 26-29 season. Arkansas came out strong in 2016 looking for a repeat visit to the CWS after Player of the Year Andrew Benintendi led them there in 2015. They would falter down the stretch, dropping their last 13 in a row. Even more worrisome was that they went 7-23 in SEC play.
That’s no longer the case, as Arkansas sits at 32-10, 12-6 in the SEC. They are tied for second with Auburn in the SEC West, trailing Mississippi State by one game. They too, were projected as a host in the field of 64 heading into this weekend's series against Auburn.
Arkansas dropped that series, but were able to walk away with one win. It makes their four remaining SEC weekend series (Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M) must wins if they hope to maintain their spot amongst the national rankings.
Arkansas’ offense has been phenomenal this season. The Razorbacks are second in the SEC in average (.296) and RBI (276) while slugging a conference best 54 home runs. Though he had a rough Friday night, pitcher Blaine Knight is proving his freshman year was no fluke. Now a full-time member of the rotation, Knight has gone 6-2 with a 3.13 ERA while striking out 10 batters per nine innings.
D1Baseball ranking: NR | RPI: 17
Good? Yes. First place? Surprising.
Justin Hill’s Cowboys have put up three consecutive 30-win seasons, but none have been enough to earn them a regional invite. Now, they have a five-game cushion on perennial Southland favorite Sam Houston State with a 18-3 conference record.
McNeese State sent a message early on, scoring a program-record 32 runs on 29 hits in their fourth game of the season. They hit a minor skid, getting swept by then-No. 7 Arizona, but rallied to go 14-2 over their next 16 games.
9th-inning rally lifts Cowboys to 5-4 win over Demons https://t.co/iftaVR5k7t— McNeese Athletics (@McNeeseSports) April 23, 2017
The biggest question mark surrounding the Cowboys is how they will handle the competition in the field of 64. They are 1-6 against ranked opponents, their lone win a 5-4 thriller over LSU.
McNeese’s offense hasn’t relented since their 32-run outburst. They lead the Southland Conference in nearly every statistical category, including average (.312), home runs (43), runs scored (302) and RBI (277). Senior outfielder Matt Galler has paced the upstart Cowboys' offense, batting .380 with 11 home run and 40 RBI, amongst the top three in the conference in those categories.
After yet another conference series win this past weekend, the Cowboys sit at 28-11 atop the Southland Conference. This weekend they face a huge test, heading to Sam Houston State in a battle of Southland heavyweights.
D1Baseball ranking: 18 | RPI: 30
The Red Storm came out of the gates red hot this season. They defeated teams like North Carolina and the defending-champion Coastal Carolina en route to a 19-2 start, their best since 1981. They entered D1Baseball.com's rankings at No. 22 in Week 3 and haven’t left.
St. John’s stumbled in their Big East opener, dropping two of three to Creighton but rebounded quickly with a sweep of Butler.
Despite a slew of injuries to their rotation, the Red Storm's balance has been remarkable. They are the only team in DI currently in the Top 5 in batting average (No. 4 at .332) and ERA (No. 4 at 2.59). Freshman RHP Sean Mooney has been particularly impressive, pressed into the starting rotation and going 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA. Junior Jesse Berardi has come alive pacing the offense, batting .409 (fifth-best in DI) with a team-best four home runs.
“It was important right off the bat,” first baseman John Valente told NCAA.com earlier this season. “Normally northeast teams start off a little slower. We have a little bit of a disadvantage due to the weather. But it all came down to the pitching. We had these young guys step up, and came in and did what they had to do. Luckily the offense stepped up, too.”
With only eight opponents in the Big East, there is little room for error. Trailing Creighton and Xavier, the Red Storm will have to be dominant down the stretch to secure an automatic bid.