Monday, February 1, 2010

Texas tops preseason USA TODAY/ESPN baseball poll

Texas finished second last season but will start 2010 at the top spot in USA

By Andy Gardiner, USA TODAY
A year ago, Virginia received one vote in the USA TODAY/ESPN coaches' preseason college baseball poll. The Cavaliers will begin 2010 ranked No. 4 in the country, primed to build on a season that produced the program's first trip to the College World Series last June.

"We are in uncharted waters — we've never been in this position to start a season," says coach Brian O'Connor, who welcomes back starters at every position.

"But once you've had that (CWS) experience, you're even hungrier to have it again. We understand getting to Omaha takes hard work."

Texas, which lost to LSU in last year's finals, grabbed the top spot ahead of the Tigers, with Cal State-Fullerton third. Florida State completes the top five.

Texas and LSU feature pitching aces in Taylor Jungmann and Anthony Ranaudo, respectively, who are backed by lineups dotted with CWS veterans. The last time the Longhorns finished second (2004) they came back to win it all the next season.

"This team certainly has College World Series potential, and we're flattered by the idea of being recognized as No. 1," says coach Augie Garrido, who has a total of five titles, at Texas and Fullerton.

"But it still comes down to putting the ball in play and throwing strikes."

Paul Mainieri led LSU to its sixth title last June, the program's first since 2000.

"We lost four stellar players who helped us significantly last season, but the more I'm around it, the more I like this team," Mainieri said. "Still, I can understand clearly why Texas is No. 1. They have a terrific team coming back."

The Atlantic Coast Conference, which has not won a World Series since Wake Forest in 1955, placed six teams in the top 15.

The season begins Feb. 19 and culminates in the CWS in Omaha from June 19-30. This will be the final tournament played at Rosenblatt Stadium. The competition moves to Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park in 2011.

With the release of the preseason USA TODAY/ESPN baseball poll, USA TODAY's Andy Gardiner gives you an outlook of the Top 25 teams heading into the season. 2009 records in parentheses.

1. Texas (50-16-1)

Points: 760 (18 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 2. Outlook: The Longhorns fell one step short of their seventh title last June, but coach Augie Garrido returns five players who started at least 47 games and has a rotation topped by RHs Taylor Jungmann (11-3, 2.00 ERA), Chance Ruffin (10-2, 3.32 ERA) and Austin Dicharry (8-2, 2.28 ERA). Texas must replace closer Austin Wood (6-1, 2.61 ERA, 15 saves). C Cameron Rupp (.292, 11 HR, 46 RBI), SS Brandon Loy (.280), OF Connor Rowe (.277, 40 RBI) and OF Kevin Keyes (.305, 9 HR, 46 RBI) are key field components. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. New Mexico.

2. LSU (56-17)

Points: 721 (10). Previous ranking: 1. Outlook: The Tigers had five players drafted in the first 10 rounds last June but return 10 key players from the team that won the school's sixth NCAA title. All-America 1B Blake Dean (.328, 17 HR, 71 RBI) and C Micah Gibbs (.294, 42 RBI) are the big bats while OFs Mikie Mahtook (.316) and Leon Landry (.300, 12 HR, 41 RBI) bring defensive speed. Sophomores Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover anchor the infield. RH Anthony Ranaudo (12-3, 3.04 ERA, 159 K) anchors the rotation, backed by closer Matty Ott (4-2, school-record 16 saves). Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Centenary.

3. Cal State-Fullerton (47-16)

Points: 671 (2). Previous ranking: 7. Outlook: Titans feel they have unfinished business after going 0-2 in Omaha last season as the No. 2 seed. They're favored to win the Big West behind RHs Daniel Renken (11-3, 2.69 ERA), Noe Ramirez (9-2, 3.33 ERA) and Tyler Pill (11-3, 4.06 ERA) and reliever Nick Ramirez (3-1, 2.61 ERA, 7 saves). The offense lost its top four hitters, leaving SS Christian Colon (.357, 82 runs) and CF Gary Brown (.340, 23 SB) to carry the attack. Nick Ramirez hit .287 with 10 HR and 31 RBI when not in the bullpen. Freshman RH Dylan Floro could help quickly. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Oregon.

4. Virginia (49-15-1)

Points: 665 (1). Previous ranking: 5. Outlook: After reaching the CWS for the first time last June, Cavaliers welcome back all nine position players from a team that had 119 steals, led by OFs Dan Grovatt (.356) and Jarrett Parker (.355, 16 HR, 65 RBI, 20 SB), SS Tyler Cannon (.351) and 2B Phil Gosselin (.310, 64 RBI, 24 SB). Danny Hultzen hit .327 and was 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA on the mound as a freshman. RHs Tyler Wilson (9-3, 2.97 ERA) and Robert Morey (3-0, 3.33 ERA) line up behind Hultzen. A highly-rated 12-man recruiting class will provide depth. Opens: Feb. 19 at No. 18 East Carolina.

5. Florida State (45-18)

Points: 575. Previous ranking: 10. Outlook: Seminoles looking for redemption after being swept at home in the super regionals last year by Arkansas. The weekend rotation returns LHs Sean Gilmartin (12-3, 3.49 ERA) and Brian Busch (6-2 3.97) and RH Mike McGee (6-2, 4.04). McGee (.379, 19 HR, 78 RBI) also will start in the outfield. OF Tyler Holt (.401, 34 SB) is back after a strong summer with USA Baseball. Sophomore SS Stephen Cardullo (.376, 10 HR, 51 RBI) provides defense as well as pop. LH John Gast (5-3, 5.12 ERA) inherits the closer's role. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Georgia State.

6. Rice (43-18)

Points: 547. Previous ranking: 9. Outlook: The Owls were swept by eventual national champ LSU in the super regionals to snap a three-year CWS streak but are poised for a return to Omaha with eight starters back. 3B Anthony Rendon (.388, 20 HR, 72 RBI), CF Steven Sultzbaugh (.324), C Diego Seastrunk (.288, 7 HR, 45 RBI) and SS Rick Hague (.319, 9 HR, 57 RBI) are the heart of the offense. LH Taylor Walls (7-6, 3.72 ERA, 94 IP) and RH Mike Ojala (12-0 in his career) top the rotation. RH Jared Rogers (4-1 in eight starts) won a game in last year's NCAA regionals. Opens: Feb. 19 at No. 25 Stanford.

7. UC-Irvine (45-15)

Points: 534. Previous ranking: 16. Outlook: Picket to finish second in the Big West, the Anteaters are without 2009 Big West player of the year Ben Orloff but will build around LH Daniel Bibona (12-1, 2.63 ERA, 108 K in 106 IP), the 2009 league pitcher of the year, and RH Christian Bergman (9-3, 3.50 ERA), RH Corby Slaught (8-0) and closer Eric Pettis (5-2, 17 saves, 3.86 ERA) provide quality depth. C Francis Larson (.310, 43 RBI) was first-team all-conference last year while IF Casey Stevenson (.346, 41 RBI) and DH Ronnie Shaeffer (.388) were second-teamers. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Loyola Marymount.

8. Arizona State (51-14)

Points: 497. Previous ranking: 3. Outlook: Pat Murphy's forced resignation in November leaves a Sun Devils program that went 2-2 in Omaha last season under the leadership of former assistant Tim Esmay. His biggest asset will be LH Josh Spence (10-1, 2.37 ERA, 125 K in 1022/3 IP), who becomes staff ace with the departure of Mike Leake RH Seth Blair was 7-3 with a 3.39 ERA in 13 starts and LH Mitchell Lambson (9-5, 3.01 ERA, 9 saves) returns as closer. CWS standout OF Kole Calhoun (.313, 12 HR, 53 RBI), 2B Zack MacPhee (.270) and OF Johnny Ruettiger (.360) are the biggest bats. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Northern Illinois.

9. Florida (42-22)

Points: 489. Previous ranking: 13. Outlook: The Gators were knocked out at home in the super regionals by Cinderella Southern Mississippi last June but bring back four starting pitchers with the return of RH Tommy Toledo (4-4, 4.40 ERA in 2008) from injury. RH Anthony DeSclafani and LHs Nick Maronde and Alex Panteliodis went 15-9 in 32 starts last year. But the closer's role is open with the departure of Billy Bullock. 2009 SEC freshman of the year 1B Preston Tucker (.364, 15 HR, 85 RBI) and 3B Josh Adams (.342, 8 HR, 52 RBI) swing the biggest bats. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. South Florida.

10. Georgia Tech (38-19-1)

Points: 484. Previous ranking: 18. Outlook: The Yellow Jackets were knocked out in the regionals for the third consecutive season last year but could change that with the return of five starters and RH ace Deck McGuire (11-2, 3.50 ERA, 118 K in 1001/3 IP). RH Mark Pope went 5-1 with eight saves as a freshman closer in 2009. RHs Brandon Cumpton and Kevin Jacob (a combined 9-6) and LH Jake Davies (3-0, 3.54 ERA) fill out the weekend rotation. The power-hitting infield trio of 1B Tony Plagman, SS Derek Dietrich and 3B Matt Skole all hit better than .300 and combined for 43 HR and 185 RBI. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Missouri State.

11. North Carolina (48-18)

Points: 456. Previous ranking: 4. Outlook: Tar Heels will gun for their fifth consecutive CWS appearance with a team that lost its two best hitters and top three pitchers. OFs Ben Bunting (.336, 37 RBI) and Mike Cavasinni (.272, 24 RBI) and IFs Levi Michael (.290, 13 HR, 57 RBI) and Ryan Graepel (.283, 42 RBI) lead the offense. RH Matt Harvey (7-2, 5.40 ERA, 75 IP) heads the rotation with help from RHs Colin Bates (4-4, 3.15 ERA, 6 saves) and Patrick Johnson (2-2, 3.49, 57 IP). Sophomore Jacob Stallings (.246 in 19 starts) takes over at catcher. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. George Washington.

12. TCU (40-18)

Points: 367. Previous ranking: 12. Outlook: The Horned Frogs came within one game of reaching Omaha for the first time in history last June. With 10 pitchers returning, led by RHs Paul Gerrish, Kyle Winkler and Tyler Lockwood (a combined 18-5) and closer Eric Marshall (2-2, 9 saves, 1.48 ERA), they could get over the hump this season. TCU must replace the 28 homers and 101 RBI provided by Matt Carpenter and Matt Vern, but C Bryan Holaday (.300, 10 HR, 48 RBI) is still a big bat. SS Taylor Featherston (.322, 5 HR) will play a key role. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Sam Houston State.

13. Miami (Fla.) (38-22)

Points: 355. Previous ranking: 20. Outlook: The Hurricanes welcome back LH Eric Erickson, who was 19-5 with a 3.27 ERA and 131 strikeouts his first two years before missing last season with injury. LH Chris Hernandez (7-5, 4.76 ERA) and RH David Gutierrez (4-6, 4.38 ERA) give Miami a three-deep rotation, but the Canes must replace closer Kyle Bellamy (0.97 ERA, 16 saves). C Yasmani Grandal (.299, 16 HR), 2B Scott Lawson (.333), 3B Harold Martinez (.270, 47 RBI) and OF Nathan Melendres (.272) are returning position players. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Rutgers.

14. Oregon State (37-19)

Points: 350. Previous ranking: not ranked. Outlook: Beavers were bounced by TCU in last year's regionals and lost almost half their pitching staff. But RH Sam Gaviglio (10-1, 2.73 ERA) is back along with RH Tyler Waldron (6-4) and closer Kevin Rhoderick (3-3, 9 saves). Coach Pat Casey needs comeback years from pitchers Tanner Robles and Greg Peavey. Freshman C Andrew Susac will help immediately and will be joined by OF Adalberto Santos (.320, 43 RBI, 15 SB) and IF Stefen Romero (.291, 51 RBI). Jared Norris (.331, 36 BI) will play infield and outfield. Opens: Feb. 19 at Hawaii.

15. Clemson (44-22)

Points: 334. Previous ranking: 14. Outlook: The Tigers lost only one position player from a team knocked out in the super regionals. QB and DH Kyle Parker (12 HR, 52 RBI) returns as a super utility player and is backed by OFs Wilson Boyd (.341, 46 RBI) and Jeff Schaus (.320, 13 HR, 50 RBI) and IFs Mike Freeman (.328, 25 extra-base hits) and Jason Stolz (.315). Three starting pitchers who were part of the fifth-best team earned run average (3.68) are gone, but LH Casey Harman (7-3, 3.95 ERA) and closer Tomas Cruz (2-3, 4 saves, 3.33 ERA) return. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Miami (Ohio).

16. Arkansas (41-24)

Points: 289. Previous ranking: 6. Outlook: Nine key players return from a team that upset Florida State in Tallahassee to reach the CWS for only the second time in 20 years. LH Drew Smyly (3-1, 4.66 ERA) and RH Brett Eibner (5-5, 5.00) are at the front of the rotation with RH Mike Bolsinger (6-4, 2.99) and TJ Forrest (2-6, 5.99) also on hand. Eibner starts in the outfield when not on the mound. 1B Andy Wilkins (.319, 19 HR, 58 RBI) keys the offense with help from 3B Zack Cox (.266, 39 RBI) and 2B Bo Bigham (.280). Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Ball State.

17. Mississippi (44-20)

Points: 249. Previous ranking: 11. Outlook: After losing at home to Virginia in the super regionals the Rebels are poised to make another run at Omaha. The key will be all-conference RH Drew Pomeranz (8-4, 3.40 ERA, 124 K in 95 IP). Losing reliever Jake Morgan for the season with an injury will hurt, but RH Rory McKean (5-1, 4.53) will help fill the hole. DH Matt Snyder (.298, 7 HR, 58 RBI), OF Tim Ferguson (.358, 18 steals), utility man Matt Smith (.336, 8 HR, 59 RBI) and 2B Zach Miller (.341, 38 RBI) will carry the offense. Juco transfer C Miles Hamblin will help quickly. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Louisiana-Monroe.

18. East Carolina (46-20)

Points: 224. Previous ranking: 15. Outlook: After winning Conference USA the Pirates were bounced by North Carolina in the super regionals. With the loss of their top three hitters, OF Devin Harris (.344, 14 HR, 48 RBI) and 1B Kyle Roller (.336, 16 HR, 75 RBI) become the offensive linchpins on a team that had 108 homers last year. SS Dustin Harrington (.318, 14 HR) is the defensive glue. RH Brad Mincey (10-5, 3.16 ERA returns as the staff ace along with LH Kevin Brandt (9-2, 3.64 ERA). RH Seth Simmons (3-1, 9 saves) will be the closer. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. No. 4 Virginia.

19. Coastal Carolina (47-16)

Points: 203. Previous ranking: 23. Outlook: With 11 key players returning the Chanticleers want to atone for last year's early exit from the NCAA regionals. OFs Adam Rice, Daniel Bowman and Rico Noel combined for 18 homers and 158 RBI. C Jose Iglesias (.306) and IF Steve Davis (.308) are veteran defenders. RHs Anthony Meo and Austin Fleet were a combined 16-4 last year while LHs Cody Wheeler and Matt Rein were 16-1. Someone needs to replace closer Nick McCully's eight wins and eight saves in 2009. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. West Virginia in Caravelle Resort Tournament at Conway, S.C.

20. Louisville (47-18)

Points: 192. Previous ranking: 17. Outlook: The Cardinals were bounced out of the super regionals last year by Cal State-Fullerton and lost staff ace Justin Marks. But 12 pitchers returned, topped by LH Dean Kiekhefer and RH Tony Zych (combined 12-7 in 16 starts), and RH relievers Derek Self (7-0, 3.88 ERA) and Gabriel Shaw (3-1, 3.73 ERA, 3 saves). The offense lost Chris Dominguez's 25 HR and 82 RBI, but will rely on 1B Andrew Clark (.350, 9 HR, 55 RBI), OF Phil Wunderlich (.367, 18 HR, 78 RBI) and SS Ryan Wright (.335, 66 RBI). Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Bowling Green.

21. Ohio State (42-19)

Points: 131. Previous ranking: not ranked. Outlook: The Buckeyes are eager to move past the final memory of the 2009 season, a 37-6 loss at Florida State in the NCAA regionals. With eight returning field players and a pitching staff topped by RH Alex Wimmers (9-2, 3.27 ERA), this season looks promising. OF Michael Stephens (.346, 14 HR, 63 RBI) paces the offense, backed by C Dan Burkhart (.354, 10 HR, 62 RBI). 2B Cory Kovanda hit .341 and scored 55 runs. Although RH Dean Wolosiansky had a 6.04 ERA, he was 11-2 in 16 starts. RH Drew Rucinski was 12-2 with two saves out of the bullpen. Opens: Feb. 19 at North Florida.

22. Oklahoma (43-20)

Points: 127. Previous ranking: 19. Outlook: After falling to Arkansas at home last year in the regionals, the Sooners must reload with 19 new players. The key on the mound is RH Ryan Duke (10-6 with a 3.58 ERA with 16 saves in two seasons). RH Michael Rocha (5-3, 4.84 ERA) and LH J.R. Robinson (3-1, 6.49) are the lone experienced starters. Juco transfers Zach Neal, Bobby Shore and Anthony Collazo must help quickly. 3B Garrett Buechele (.353, 40 RBI) leads the offense and is backed by OFs Casey Johnson and Chris Ellison (combined 12 HR, 66 RBI). Opens: Feb. 19 at San Diego State.

23. San Diego (29-25)

Points: 95. Previous ranking: not ranked. Outlook: With eight position players and four starting pitchers returning the Toreros are poised to put last year's disappointing season behind them. RHs A.J. Griffin (8-3, 3.33 ERA) and Matt Thompson (5-5, 5.98) top the rotation. Scott DeNault (3-4, 4.50 ERA) leads a bullpen-by-committee that saw six earn saves last year. SS Zach Walters (.377) leads an offense that features five .300 hitters. Utility man James Meador (.376, 45 RBI), 3B Sean Nicol (.359, 19 SB) and 2B Chris Engell (.358, 37 RBI) are key components. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Indiana.

24. Southern Mississippi (40-26)

Points: 94. Previous ranking: 8. Outlook: The Golden Eagles sent long-time coach Corky Palmer into retirement last June with the program's first trip to Omaha. Former assistant Scott Berry takes over with several key pieces still in place. RH Todd McInnis (9-4, 3.73 ERA) is the staff ace and RH Collin Cargill (4-3, 3.55 ERA, 13 saves) returns as closer. LH Cody Schlagel (5-1, 5.37 ERA) steps into the weekend rotation. OF Kameron Brunty (.336, 7 HR, 53 RBI), 1B Joe Archer (.306, 10 HR, 62 RBI) and 3B Taylor Walker (.305, 64 runs) are the heart of the offense. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. Northwestern State.

25. Stanford (30-25)

Points: 79. Previous ranking: not ranked. Outlook: The Cardinal will need a top-10 recruiting class to produce quickly. They lost closer Drew Storen (7-1, 7 saves) as a top 10 draft pick and OF Toby Gerhart (7 HR, 36 RBI) to the NFL draft along with four other starters. LH Brett Mooneyham (6-3, 4.14 ERA) and RH Jordan Pries (4-4, 4.62 ERA) top the rotation while freshman Mark Appel steps in for Storen. 2B Colin Walsh (.320) and OF Kellen Kiilsgaard (.313, 9 HR, 46 RBI) are the top returning hitters. Freshmen SS Kenny Diekroeger and OF Jake Stewart are expected to help immediately. Opens: Feb. 19 vs. No. 6 Rice.

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