Opening weekend of the college baseball season is here. The first pitch is Friday across the nation and little time is wasted getting right into intense action with the inaugural MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament in Talking Stick, Arizona.
TCU and Cal State Fullerton will start things off, followed by a rematch of the 2014 and ’15 College World Series championship with Vanderbilt taking on Virginia. Just how stacked is the field? That’s three nationally-ranked teams and six combined national championships.
Amongst just four teams.
Let’s take a closer look at what to watch from Salt River Fields.
Vanderbilt enters the season No. 1
This Commodores team is loaded. The starting lineup has eight returning starters from last season’s Super Regional run. Junior outfielder JJ Bleday is the big name to watch. Despite missing time with an injury, Bleday broke out in a huge way last season, slashing .368/.494/.511 and playing particularly well on the big stage of the Nashville Super Regional. He enters this season on a ten-game hitting streak and a member of the preseason Golden Spikes watchlist.
The pitching is what makes this team even scarier. Although definitely right-handed heavy, the projected weekend rotation returns three starters that combined for 31 starts last season. Patrick Raby is the senior veteran presence with a career 22-10 record and 2.95 ERA, but expectations are high for Drake Fellows to build on his impressive 2018 sophomore campaign as the Friday night starter. Mason Hickman was a Freshman All-American last season on the Sunday spot and should only be better this year.
Of course, righty Kumar Rocker is one of the most anticipated freshmen to watch in the entire nation. And perhaps that is the most frightening aspect of Tim Corbin’s roster. For every veteran presence, it seems like there is a freshman or sophomore waiting to challenge them. This team is deep and will be fun to watch in 2019.
A new look TCU will have some question marks in 2019
The Horned Frogs went 29-28 in 2013. Then, in 2014, they began a four-year run that saw them average 49.75 wins per year with each season ending in the College World Series. The remarkable run came to an end last season, and with it, a lot of familiar faces from the offense are gone.
Today’s preparation doesn’t only affect tomorrow’s game, it affects the very last game of the season. The Horned Frogs are prepared for the Long Fight ahead. Are you? pic.twitter.com/hbRrXEaTXk— TCU Baseball (@TCU_Baseball) February 10, 2019
The starting lineup lost five everyday players and may have up to six new faces in it. To put that in perspective, the projected returners to the lineup hit a combined .241 with 18 home runs and 123 RBI last year. Names like Luken Baker and A.J. Balta will be tough to replace, but Josh Watson (.305 with eight home runs and 32 RBI in 2018) returns to anchor a lineup that has quite a few interesting transfers amongst it, most notable first baseman Jake Guenther and second baseman Austin Henry who were conference players of the year on the JUCO circuit.
Where TCU should be just fine is on the bump. Many expect this to be Nick Lodolo’s breakout campaign. The big 6’6 righty is one of the best strikeout artists in the conference and along with Jared Janczak, the two should provide a dominant presence on Friday and Saturday every weekend.
Expect another strong year from Cal State Fullerton
When your program has made 27 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, winning seasons become the standard. While the Titans lose some big names, they return plenty that should land them near the top of the Big West and back in the hunt for Omaha once again.
Cal State Fullerton is fun to watch because it is usually a lineup of grinders. You won’t see a lot of Division I-leading batting average hitters or home run sluggers, but these guys always seem to get the job done. Hank LaForte and Sahid Valenzuela should make up one of the more exciting double-play duos in the country. With Daniel Cope behind the plate and Mitchell Berryhill in center, the Titans are loaded with experience up the middle. A lineup with three projected freshmen may raise some concerns, but Kameron Guangorena is expected to do big things in his rookie campaign. He’ll carry the load of trying to replace the run-producing big hits Fullerton lost.
The Titans take a big hit on the mound, losing 44 starts and 21 wins with the loss of Colton Eastman, Tommy Wilson, and Andrew Quezada as well as 10 saves from closer Brett Conine. However, Tanner Bibee pitched well in his freshman campaign and should be ready on Friday nights as the ace in 2019. There is a lot of youth here, but Rick Vanderhook seems to always get it done.
Will Virginia compete in a stacked ACC?
We’ll find out pretty quickly, won’t we? While early season tournaments don’t kill a team’s chances to make it to Omaha, it is a big test for Virginia who will be battling in a conference that has what looks to be nine NCAA tournament contenders in the early goings of the 2019 season.
Virginia not only had a young team last year but had some big injuries to deal with as well. Outfielder Cameron Simmons didn’t swing a bat in 2018 but carries a .312 career batting average and 13 home runs into the 2019 campaign. Evan Sperling was rolling as the Sunday starter when his season got cut short. When you add those two with a nucleus of Tanner Morris, Nate Eikhoff, Alex Tappen, and Stopper of the Year candidate Andrew Abbot, the Cavaliers should be very competitive once again in 2019.
One big name to watch early on will be right-hander Mike Vasil. The freshman pitcher will enter the weekend rotation and is one of the most coveted young arms in DI this season. Should he reach the expectations many have and Sperling gets healthy, Virginia will have a nice rotation.
What to watch in Arizona
There will be some intriguing matchups this weekend. Here’s a quick look at what stands out.
- Vanderbilt enters the season ranked No. 1 for the first time since 2015. The Commodores made it all the way to Omaha that 2015 season. The three teams they played in the College World Series that year? Cal State Fullerton, TCU, and Virginia.
- Vanderbilt and Virginia meet for the first time since those back-to-back College World Series. Vanderbilt won in 2014 and Virginia took the title the following season. Both were memorable series, going the distance both times.
- Virginia freshman Mike Vasil will be put right to the test. He’s projected to get the Saturday start against No. 19 TCU and its veteran righty Janczak.
- Speaking of TCU, the Horned Frogs hope the third time is a charm. This will be the third season opener against Cal State Fullerton, and the Titans have won the two previous meetings. They also will face Virginia for the third time in program history, this being the first in the regular season. The two programs have split in the NCAA postseason, with Virginia winning a 15-inning thriller in Omaha in 2014 and TCU winning convincingly 5-1 in 2017.
- It’s been 15 years since Fullerton last won a national championship. The Titans have won their four titles spanning four different decades (1979, 1984, 1995, and 2004). If they want to continue that streak, this is their last chance. A strong showing against TCU, Vanderbilt and Virginia is certainly the way to get things rolling.
- 4:00 pm ET: TCU vs. Cal State Fullerton
- 8:00 pm ET: Vanderbilt vs. Virginia WATCH ON MLB.com
- 4:00 pm ET: Cal State Fullerton vs. Vanderbilt
- 8:00 pm ET: Virginia vs. TCU
- 2:00 pm ET: Vanderbilt vs. TCU
- 5:00 pm ET: Cal State Fullerton vs. Virginia