DI baseball championship: Players to watch from all 16 regionals (Part IV)
In one month, there will be a new College World Series champion raising the trophy at TD Ameritrade Park. That much is known, after defending champ Coastal Carolina's early conference tournament exit has resulted in a postseason absence this year.
The road to Omaha starts Thursday for 64 other teams following Monday's release of the 2017 Division I baseball tournament bracket. These squads are dispersed among 16 loaded four-team regionals, each presenting its own storylines and intriguing matchups. Here are the players to keep your eyes on from the bottom right side of the bracket.
FORT WORTH REGIONAL
Teams (in descending seed order): TCU, Virginia, Dallas Baptist, Central Connecticut State
Pitcher to watch: TCU's Jared Janczak made two CWS starts for the Horned Frogs last year, just about one month after being inserted into the rotation as a freshman. He's only grown this year as a top-two starter for a TCU squad aiming for a fourth straight CWS berth. The righty is 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA. He missed a few weeks in April and May due to arm soreness but has since returned strong with eight straight scoreless innings and 12 strikeouts in two outings.
Hitter to watch: Virginia's Pavin Smith also has some past CWS experience to lean on. All he did as a freshman in 2015 was lead the national champion Cavaliers in hits. This year, Smith is fourth in that category (75) among a deep lineup that boasts four batters hitting above .340. Perhaps the greatest number on Smith's stat line: he's only struck out nine times this year. Smith is a pesky hitter with great plate discipline.
Teams: Arkansas, Missouri State, Oklahoma State, Oral Roberts
Pitcher to watch: Oral Roberts ace Miguel Ausua saved his finest performance yet for the Golden Eagles' third consecutive Summit League title game win. The lefty limited North Dakota State to five hits in a complete game shutout, his first of his career. That closed out an 11-2 regular season with a 1.67 ERA and 8.24 strikeouts per nine mark. Ausua will likely get the first crack at regional host Arkansas in the opening game. It'll be interesting to see what he can do against an SEC power.
Hitter to watch: Ausua and Co. will have to be extra careful going up against Arkansas slugger Chad Spanberger. Prior to being silenced by LSU in the Razorbacks' SEC finals loss, the junior had hit five home runs in the previous three games. He was 8-for-13 with 10 RBIs and seven runs scored during his scorching stretch. Spanberger hit 19 total bombs on the season along with 12 doubles and a team-high 64 RBIs.
Teams: Wake Forest, West Virginia, Maryland, UMBC
Pitcher to watch: Pitching depth will be vital for Maryland out of this offensive-minded regional, and there's no concerns when it comes to the top of the rotation with ace righty Brian Shaffer. Shaffer has thrown 21 more innings than any other Terps hurler (103.1) and has their only two complete games on the year. The Big Ten Pitcher of the Year shows great command — only 18 walks — while striking out 8.9 batters per nine.
Hitter to watch: Wake Forest was one of the most prolific home run-hitting offenses this year with 96, one short of the national lead. Leading the group of big boppers is junior first baseman Gavin Sheets with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs. It's hard to pitch around Sheets when four of his teammates also boast double-figure home run totals, which means Sheets will get plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
Teams: Florida, South Florida, Bethune-Cookman, Marist
Pitcher to watch: Florida's wealth of pitching carried it to a No. 3 overall seed, despite its inconsistent offense on occasion. The most talented of the crew is junior Alex Faedo. The Tampa native finished with seven wins, 113 strikeouts and a 2.80 ERA in 15 starts. At times, he was nearly unhittable — take his three-start stretch in early March when he threw 21.2 scoreless innings against Miami (Fla.), Columbia and Seton Hall. On the other hand, he did get roughed up in SEC play against Tennessee (six runs), Vanderbilt (six) and Arkansas (seven). The Gators will need the better version of Faedo to get through a regional loaded with potential sleepers.
Hitter to watch: South Florida has a four- or five-tool shortstop in leadoff hitter Kevin Merrell. The junior flirted with a .400 batting average for much of the season (it stands at .386 heading into regional competition), he's shown improved power with a career-high six homers (he had one in his first two seasons) and he shows exceptional range and hands in the infield. Merrell is one of the top overall hitters in this year's tournament.