Online Extra: Inside look at college baseball
By ERIC OLSON
AP Sports Writer
College baseball’s regular season is rounding third and heading for home, and while many teams will spend the next three weeks jockeying for position in the NCAA tournament, five have shown they are a cut above the rest.
North Carolina (41-4), Vanderbilt (39-6), LSU (39-6), Virginia (38-8) and Oregon State (34-8) look to be locks for national seeds. There are eight of those coveted seeds, and Cal State Fullerton (36-7), North Carolina State (34-11), Florida State (35-9), South Carolina (33-12) and Oregon (33-10) are in the running for the last three.
While teams like the Tar Heels and Commodores have done what was expected of them since January, there have been some big disappointments.
Stanford (23-15), led by star pitcher Mark Appel, is in danger of being on the outside looking in when the NCAA tournament field is announced May 27. Texas (22-20) is alone in last place in the Big 12 and must win the conference tournament to avoid missing the NCAAs for the second straight year. TCU (20-23), picked to challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy, is under .500 because of a maddeningly impotent offense.
A look at the national scene heading into May:
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Virginia is the runaway winner in this category. Picked third in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division, the Cavaliers are enjoying the fruits of 10th-year coach Brian O’Connor’s masterful makeover after losing two weekend starters, the anchor of its bullpen and three starting infielders.
Scott Silverstein is the only returnee from the 2012 weekend rotation, and he’s 7-1 after going 2-5. Freshman left-hander Brandon Waddell (4-1) has struck out 63 in 61 innings. The versatile Nick Howard (5-4) has adjusted to the starter’s role after coming out of the bullpen, and he’s moonlighting at third base and batting .338. Kyle Crockett has three wins and 10 saves as closer.
Mike Papi has rebounded from an injury that knocked him out the second half of last season to bat a team-best .373.
BIGGEST BUST: No one projected in the preseason that Texas would be a national seed-caliber team, but neither did anyone expect the Longhorns to struggle this much.
Texas (22-20) is just 5-13 in the Big 12 after getting swept at Baylor. The Longhorns have lost nine straight Big 12 series going back to last season and could finish last in their conference for the first time since 1956.
Veteran coach Augie Garrido is feeling the heat for an offense whose 3.8 runs a game ranks 271st out of 296 Division I teams. The Longhorns have let outstanding pitching performances go to waste, going 11-14 in games decided by two runs or less.
VANDY IS DANDY: Vanderbilt is on track to be the most dominant Southeastern Conference team in decades. The Commodores are 19-2 in SEC play, the best 21-game record in league history, and they could challenge the mark for best conference record since the conference expanded to a 30-game schedule in 1993. South Carolina had a 25-5 record in 2000.
The Commodores have won 11 straight series going into this week’s trip to South Carolina.
YOUNG GUNS: There has been no shortage of great performances by freshmen and sophomore pitchers.
First, the freshmen: Arizona State’s 6-foot-5, 220-pound Ryan Kellogg is 10-0 in 11 starts after being a 12th-round draft pick by Toronto last year; Fullerton’s Justin Garza is 9-0; and Missouri State’s Jonathan Harris is 8-0.
As for the sophomores, Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede has a nation-leading 11 wins in 11 starts and boasts a 1.63 ERA; LSU’s Aaron Nola is 8-0 with a 2.14 ERA; and North Carolina State’s Carlos Rodon is 5-2 with a nation-leading 105 strikeouts in 67 innings after turning in another dominant performance against the rival Tar Heels on Saturday.
MANAEA MANIA: Few pitchers came into the season more hyped than Indiana State’s Sean Manaea. The left-hander dominated the Cape Cod League last summer, and everyone expected a big encore.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder still is projected as a top-10 pick in next month’s draft on the strength of his mid-90s fastball and an above-average slider. But a hip injury has taken some of the shine off Manaea’s season. He’s 5-3 with a 1.57 ERA.
BIG BOPPER BRYANT: San Diego’s Kris Bryant started the week with 22 home runs — more than the total hit by 217 of Division I’s 296 teams.
With at least 12 games left, Bryant is one behind the 23 hit by national leader Brandon Miller of Samford last year.
His per-game average of 0.50 home runs is on pace to be the highest since Kent Matthes of Alabama hit 28 in 56 games in 2009 — quite a feat considering the new standards that took the pop out of bats went into effect in 2011.
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