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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | February 16, 2018

Which schools return the best pitching staffs for the 2018 season?

The old adage says that defense wins championships. Well, in baseball you can add pitching into that equation, so as the 2018 college baseball season kicks off on Friday, let's take a look at the teams that have some of the best returning pitching staffs entering the season.

Here are the teams with a combination of top-end talent and depth among their pitchers, across both starters and relievers, with an emphasis placed on returning pitchers who proved their merit last season.

Oral Roberts

The Golden Eagles ranked sixth in Division I last season in team ERA at 3.06 and they return their top three starters, plus their closer, this season. The trio of Miguel Ausua, Josh McMinn and Justin McGregor each won at least nine games, combining for a 29-6 record while throwing for at least 80 innings apiece and keeping each of their ERAs below 3.00.

Ausua is the best of the bunch, compiling an 11-3 record with a 1.65 ERA, .235 opposing batting average and limiting opposing hitters to just 15 extra-base hits in 341 at-bats. If Oral Roberts' starters can give their bullpen a lead, look out for Kyler Stout, who recorded a team-high 11 saves along with a 1.62 ERA.

Oral Roberts lost six pitchers from last season but three of them had the three lowest ERAs on the team while combining for just 15.1 innings pitched. The Golden Eagles' pitching staff returns a lot in both quantity and quality.

St. John's

The Red Storm return 12 of their 14 pitchers from last year's pitching staff that ranked eighth in ERA (3.11) and tied for 14th in WHIP (1.24). St. John's brings back its top seven pitchers in terms of innings pitched, most notably sophomore Sean Mooney, who was 8-2 last season with 88 strikeouts in 100 innings pitched, holding opposing batters to a .196 average.

Junior Michael LoPresti won half of his starts last spring, notching a 6-1 record. Big righty Gavin Hollowell, who stands at 6-7, had a team-best 1.65 ERA and struck out 37 of the 115 batters (32 percent) who recorded an at-bat against him.

Texas Tech

The Red Raiders, ranked No. 3 in the D1Baseball.com Top 25, return 15 of their 16 pitchers from last season, an incredible amount of continuity on the mound. While Texas Tech didn't rank among the nation's elite in terms of pitching, the team was nonetheless respectable. The Red Raiders were tied for 20th in strikeouts per nine innings (9.1), 26th in hits allowed per nine innings (8.02), and tied for 38th in ERA (3.73).

From an individual standpoint, junior Steven Gingery is the name to know. He ranked fifth nationally last season in ERA (1.58), tied for 23rd in WHIP (0.97) and tied for 46th in strikeouts (107). He had a team-best record of 10-1 in 91.1 innings pitched, holding opposing batters to a .186 average.

Texas Tech will have to replace Parker Mushinski, who had a team-high six saves last season before being drafted in the seventh round by the Astros, along with a 2.15 ERA in 37.2 innings pitched, but John McMillon (five saves, 1.75 ERA, 25.2 innings) and Jose Quezada (four saves, 3.55 ERA, 38 innings) are returning proven late-game options in the bullpen.

Ole Miss

The Rebels were third in the country last spring in strikeout-to-walk ratio with a ratio of 3.21, as they struck out 524 batters on the season while issuing just 163 walks. They'll have to replace David Parkinson, their top strikeout man (76) and innings eater (77.0 innings pitched) who was drafted in the 12th round by the Phillies, but they return eight pitchers who had at least 35 strikeouts last season – seven of them averaged more than one strikeout per inning.

Sophomore lefty Ryan Rolison is the team's best returning starter (6-3 record, 3.06 ERA, 64 Ks in 61.2 innings pitched) and he ranks fifth among Ole Miss' returning pitchers in terms of ERA, a promising sign for the team's bullpen. Dallas Woolfolk is back in Oxford, Miss., after recording 12 saves a year ago.

As a pitching staff, the Rebels should be able to build on their 2017 season, when they finished tied for 13th nationally in strikeouts per nine innings (9.3) and tied for 25th in team ERA (3.60).

Florida State

The Seminoles return their top three starters from last season – Tyler Holton, Drew Parrish and Cole Sands – who combined for a 22-10 record and 309 strikeouts in 294.1 innings. Florida State will have to replace Drew Carlton, who had a team-high seven saves as a high-usage reliever (62.1 innings pitched in a team-high 36 appearances) and was drafted by the Tigers, but the team returns 10 of its 14 pitchers from last spring.

Will Zirzow, Clayton Kwiatkowski and Chase Haney were staples in the team's bullpen last year, with the former two holding their ERAs below 2.60 last season.

TCU

TCU returns two of its top three starters from last season, including a nine-game winner with a 2.31 ERA in Jared Janczak, as well as closer Durbin Feltman, who recorded 17 saves a year ago.

Sure, the loss of Brian Howard (12-3 record, 113 strikeouts in 105 innings pitched) hurts, but the Horned Frogs' pitching staff returns a lot in both quality and quantity. Cal Coughlin had a miniscule 1.59 ERA in 23 appearances out of the bullpen and Sean Wymer (6-4 record, 2.10 ERA in 55.2 innings) was used more than any other reliever on the team.

The Horned Frogs return 11 of their top 13 pitchers in terms of ERA in 2017, when TCU was tied for ninth nationally in WHIP (1.22) and strikeouts per nine innings (9.5).

Kentucky

Kentucky wasn't immune from roster turnover within its pitching staff in the offseason but the Wildcats do return three of their top four starters, as well as a pair of frequently used relievers.

Righty Sean Hjelle, a junior who stands at 6-11, was the bellcow in the team's rotation last season, making a team-high 17 starts to the tune of 108.2 innings pitched, an 11-4 record, and 102 strikeouts. He'll be joined in UK's rotation by lefty Zach Thompson (8-3 record, 3.45 ERA in 75.2 innings) and 6-7 righty Justin Lewis (6-4 record, 3.56 ERA in 91 innings).

The Wildcats lost closer Logan Salow (12 saves, 1.95 ERA, 73 strikeouts in 55.1 innings) but they'll have Chris Machamer and Brad Schaenzer, who both carried sub-3.50 ERAs while making a combined 42 relief appearances in 2017. Last season Kentucky finished tied for 14th in hits allowed per nine innings (7.74) and WHIP (1.24), while ranking tied for 20th in strikeouts per nine innings (9.1) and tied for 27th in strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.69).

Oregon State

The Beavers led the NCAA in team earned run average last season at 1.93 – 0.72 lower than the second-best pitching staff – as well as WHIP (0.98). Those mind-boggling numbers were largely thanks to ace Luke Heimlich, who posted a DI-best ERA (0.76) and WHIP (0.78). The senior lefty won't have to go at it alone, however. Oregon State returns eight of its 13 pitchers who collectively held opponents to a sub-Mendoza Line .196 batting average.

Lefty Jake Mulholland (7-1 record, 1.20 ERA, .183 opponent batting average and a team-best six saves in 2017) is one of the best relievers in the country.

In total, the Beavers' returning pitchers had a collective 36-5 record last season, five held opposing batters to below a .200 average and seven had an ERA below 3.00. They enter the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason D1Baseball.com Top 25.

Also considered: Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, South Florida, Louisiana, Vanderbilt, Butler, Oregon, UConn, Arkansas, LSU, Cal State Fullerton