With snow still covering pockets of the country and temperatures still hovering around freezing, it can be hard to imagine that the start of the baseball season is just around the corner. But it's true: the road to Omaha starts a week from Friday. And before conference rivalries and tournaments start heating up, teams will play competitive non-conference series.
Let's take a look at some of the best non-conference matchups to watch in 2018. This is Part I, and stay tuned for Part II next week.
Southern Mississippi vs. No. 12 Mississippi State – Feb. 16-18
One of the biggest questions entering the season is whether or not Southern Mississippi can recreate the offensive production it showed in 2017. Last year, the Golden Eagles ranked No. 1 in the nation in runs scored (544), No. 3 in hits (716) – one of seven teams to finish with more than 700 – and walks (356), No. 4 in home runs (90) and No. 6 in doubles (140). Southern Miss will miss the bat of Dylan Burdeaux, DI’s only player with 100+ hits, but D1baseball.com first-team All-American Matt Wallner (.336/.463/.385 with 19 HRs and 63 RBI in 2017) spearheads a group of talented players returning to the lineup.
First day of practice is in the books. Feels good to be back pic.twitter.com/yzZpZg1eYp— SouthernMissBaseball (@SouthernMissBSB) January 26, 2018
For Mississippi State, the question remains the same: How well can the Bulldogs navigate their arduous SEC slate? Eight of the top 16 teams in the D1baseball.com preseason poll come from the SEC, including five out of the West division. Outfielder Jake Mangum is one of the best switch-hitters in the nation looking to improve on his 2017 campaign, while lefthanded pitcher Konnor Pilkington held hitters to a sub-.200 BAA last year in 17 starts, totaling a 3.08 ERA along the way.
No. 13 Stanford vs. No. 17 Cal State Fullerton – Feb.16-18
Like good pitching? Then this is the series for you. Cal State Fullerton and Stanford both boast top-end talent in their rotations, and this three-game season-opening series will be a good test for each side.The Titans look to make their third CWS in the past four seasons after reaching Omaha in 2015 and 2017. To make a return trip, Cal State Fullerton will need to rely on its pitching as it has a daunting non-conference slate before its Big West series against Long Beach State, one of the best rivalries in the sport.
Junior righty Brett Conine is one of the best relievers in the nation and will look to improve on his impressive 2017 campaign where he finished with 15 saves and was named as a Gregg Olson award finalist. Colton Eastman, a right-handed starter, missed most of last year with an injury but finished the season strong in an outstanding outing against the Dirtbags in the Super Regional. Eastman finished the season 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA in 33.2 innings pitched.
For Stanford, in David Esquer’s first season, the Cardinal turn to starters Kris Bubic and Tristian Beck to carry them back to the CWS for the first time since 2008. Bubic emerged as Stanford’s ace last season with a 7-6 record, 2.79 ERA and a .236 BAA. After missing all of last season due to injury, Beck hopes to return to his freshman-year self.
No. 16 LSU vs. No. 21 Texas – Feb. 23-25
This isn’t the first time LSU has been forced to reload its roster due to graduation and MLB signings, but it'll be intriguing to see whether the Tigers have enough to make it back to Omaha after a runner-up finish in 2017. LSU must replace a combined 40 home runs and 196 RBIs from Greg Deichmann, Michael Papierski, Cole Freeman and Kramer Robinson. Zach Watson, Antoine Duplantis and Josh Smith are the key returnees for the Tigers, and a lot of the burden to return to Omaha will fall on them. On the mound, LSU must replace Alex Lange, Jared Poche' and other arms who combined to start 56 of 72 games last year. Will the firepower be enough in the vaunted SEC? A February matchup against ranked Texas will be a good test for a relatively inexperienced team.
Texas played well in its non-conference schedule before going just 11-12 in Big 12 play. But the Longhorns rallied to the Big 12 Championship game before falling to Oklahoma State, earning an at-large big in the NCAA tournament. Can the Longhorns build on the success it built on in 2017? Right-handed junior Nolan Kingham will play a vital role in the success of the program, and with plenty of bats returning to the lineup, the Longhorns will be in position for another postseason run.
Long Beach State vs. No. 9 Mississippi – March 2-4
Only time will tell us how good the Rebels will be compared to the gauntlet of the SEC this year, but after an eight-game home stretch to start 2018, Ole Miss will have its first big test of the season when it travels to Long Beach State for a three-game series with the Dirtbags. Sophomore LHP Ryan Rolison has potential to be one of the best in the country this year after posting a 6-3 record with an ERA of 3.07, being named to D1baseball.com’s preseason all-American second-team. Dallas Woolfolk anchors the back end of the Rebels’ bullpen after notching 12 saves in 2017. With Nick Fortes, Will Golsan and Ryan Olenek headlining Mississippi’s lineup, it will be interesting to see if the Rebels can make the NCAA tournament, and beyond.
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Long Beach State lost a number of key members of its 2017 team that reached Super Regional, and now turn to junior second baseman Jarren Duran and senior shortstop Laine Huffman to lead the Dirtbags on another postseason run. Before its series with Ole Miss, Long Beach State will host USC and visit No. 8 TCU. Losing a combined 31 starts between Dave Smith and Darren McCaughn won’t be easy to replace, but John Sheaks returns for his senior season after going 8-4 with a 4.09 ERA last year.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Texas Tech – March 9-11
Before we look at this individual matchup, how about this non-conference slate for Texas Tech:
• March 2-4: vs. No. 20 South Alabama (including a doubleheader on Saturday, March 3)
• March 9-11 at No. 8 Kentucky
• March 13-14 at No. 15 Louisville
• April 10 at No. 18 Dallas Baptist
• April 24-25 at No. 4 Arkansas
• May 8 vs. No. 18 Dallas Baptist
The combined record in 2017 from those five teams? 223-96, which is a .699 winning percentage. The Red Raiders last made the CWS in 2016, and previously in 2014, and if they want to continue the tradition of reaching Omaha every other year, their non-conference schedule will be a big indicator how good this team can be in the national spotlight.
Now, onto this series.
There isn't a soul that would be opposed to seeing a pitching duel between two of the nation’s best in Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle and Texas Tech’s Stephen Gingery. Hjelle is a massive 6-foot-11 righty who is the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year and posted an 11-4 record with a 3.89 ERA over 108.2 IP and a strikeout-walk ratio of 102:33. Ginery, who took home Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honors, finished last year with a 10-1 record and conference-best 1.58 ERA (fifth best in the nation), holding hitters to an astonishing .186 batting average against. It will be interesting to see if first-team preseason all-American lefty improve from his Sophomore year and lead the Red Raiders back to the CWS.
Another player to keep an eye on is Wildcats outfielder Tristian Pompey. Pompey is one of the best returning players in the country and his splits from last year -- .361 average, 18 doubles and 10 home runs –- could just be scratching the surface of his potential.
Part II is coming next week.