Pac-10/National Baseball Preview

With the start of preseason practice just weeks away and the regular season beginning shortly after that, we're getting a head start on our comprehensive baseball coverage. Included in this detailed preview is a look at each team in the Pac-10 and where we've projected them to finish this season. Also, check out the preseason edition of the "Super Sixteen" national ranking and notes on the major conferences around the country.

PAC-10 CONFERENCE : Projected order of finish

1. Stanford Cardinal (51-18, 18-6, 1st, College World Series)

The Cardinal has made five consecutive trips to the College World Series and they appear to have plenty of talent to make another run at Omaha here in 2004.  Offense was the #1 strength for this team last year and it should be more of the same thing this season.  Leading the way are a pair of veteran outfielders in Sam Fuld (.321-4-35) and Danny Putnam (.348-16-66).  Fuld is a two-time All-American and the all-time CWS hits leader while Putnam burst onto the scene last year which included a huge postseason.  Putnam may have been overshadowed a bit by Ryan Garko and Carlos Quentin last season, but with those players now in professional baseball, he will get all the attention and be the hitter opposing pitchers key on the most.  This is a lineup filled with talent with players such as first baseman John Mayberry, Jr. (.299-4-33), OF/DH Chris Carter (.241-7-17), and catcher Donny Lucy (.291-2-18) looking to play leading roles now that Garko and Quentin are gone.  Eight of the 11 regular position player starters return from a team that hit .316 last season.

Stanford will have to figure out a way to replace #1 starter John Hudgins and #3 starter Ryan McCally in their rotation.  However, the Cardinal do return arguably the most successful returning starting pitcher in the conference in sophomore Mark Romanczuk (12-2, 4.01).  Romanczuk along with fellow sophomore Matt Manship (2-4, 3.98, 9 SV) should form the top 1-2 starting pitching combo in the Pac-10 this year. 
Top relievers David O'Hagan (7-1, 4.89, 3 SV) and Kodiak Quick (2-0, 4.25, 3 SV) also return.  A key for the Cardinal this season will be finding a consistent #3 starter.    Overall, a young, but talented staff.

Bottom Line: You have to figure that pitching is the determining factor for Stanford and whether they return to Omaha for a sixth straight year.  If the Romanczuk/Manship combo can take their games to the next level while someone emerges in the #3 spot in the rotation, then with this team's hitting, Stanford could make another run at the national championship.

2. Arizona Wildcats (35-23, 13-11, 4th, Regionals)

This should be the year the Wildcats break through and become a bona fide top 25 team.  Third year head coach Andy Lopez has done a terrific job rebuilding a program that struggled for the greater part of the 90's.  Arizona was expecting to have ace starter Richie Gardner return, but Gardner signed a pro contract just prior to school starting in August.  Had Gardner come back, I think Arizona could have been a legit top 10 team.  That still may happen, but now some unproven pitchers are going to have step up.  Senior Sean Rierson (9-3, 5.38), the most experienced starting pitcher in the conference, should lead this pitching staff.  Rierson is the only returning starting pitcher.  The top four relievers from last year all return including sophomore Kevin Guyette (3-3, 4.80, 2 SV) who may be ready to assume a spot in the weekend rotation.  This is a team that will go as far as their pitching takes them as hitting should not be a problem.

Eight position player starters return from a team that combined for a .328 average and nine runs per game last year.  First round pick and starting center fielder Brian Anderson is the only player not back in a Wildcat uniform.  Junior left fielder Jeff Van Houten (.413-11-72) returns and he should lead this Wildcat offense again; an offense that may be the best in the country.  Other top returnees include third baseman Brad Boyer (.351-5-47) and second baseman Moises Duran (.286-15-63).  All kinds of depth and talent in this lineup.  The current sophomores and the current freshmen were both rated as top 10 classes prior to their arrival at Arizona. 

Bottom Line: If Coach Lopez finds a couple of pitchers to round out his rotation along with a few reliable relievers (which was the major problem for UA in '03), then Arizona should make a splash on the national scene this season.

3. Arizona State Sun Devils (54-14, 16-8, 2nd, Super Regionals)

Arizona State was a victim of a tough draw last June having to play their super regional at Cal State Fullerton (who they lost to in three games).  Having seen every CWS game last year, it's pretty safe to say ASU was better than half of the teams participating.  This year, the Sun Devils will rely on two big bats to try to carry them to Omaha, a place they've been just once in nine years under head coach Pat Murphy.  Junior Dustin Pedroia (.404-4-52) is probably the top shortstop in the country.  Not only does he hit, but Pedroia only committed eight errors all of last season for an amazing .975 fielding percentage.  The other star on this team is first baseman-turned-outfielder Jeff Larish (.372-18-95).  Larish had a breakthrough season last year and is expected to move out to left field for this season.   ASU's other big hitters from a year ago are all gone, but there should be plenty of talent to fill those shoes (four other starters do return).  Watch for freshman center fielder Colin Curtis.  This kid can flat out play.

Pitching is the major question mark for the Devils this season.  Gone are ASU's top two starting pitchers plus their top five relievers (including closer Ryan Schroyer who transferred to San Diego State).  The only key member of their pitching staff from a year ago that returns is sophomore Erik Averill (8-2, 3.66).  Averill should be the ace of the squad and one of the top pitchers in the conference.  After that, it's really anybody's guess.  11 of ASU's 13 pitchers are newcomers to the program.  At this point, it appears sophomore Brett Bordes (1-1, 3.21) and BYU transfer Jeff Mousser (5-7, 6.40) will round out the rotation.

Bottom Line: There are some holes in the lineup to fill, but Pedroia and Larish are major stars and will carry this team just fine until everything is settled.  The key for this team in '04 is obviously pitching.  A ton of inexperienced pitchers will have to play prominent roles on this team.  If (big if) they grow up in a hurry, ASU should contend for the conference title.

4. USC Trojans (28-28, 11-13, T5th)

2003 was a rough year for the Trojans as they fell apart at the end of the season and didn't even qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  I see them at the front of the second tier of Pac-10 teams this season.  Like Arizona State, USC has two big hitters that will put up some serious numbers.  Sophomore catcher Jeff Clement (.298-21-53) and junior third baseman Joey Metropoulos (.321-11-41) are those two players.  Clement starred with Team USA last summer while Metropoulos led the Cape Cod League in home runs.  Now, about the other seven players in the lineup.  Three other starters return from last year, but gone is leading hitter and four-year starter Anthony Lunetta.  It will be interesting to see who steps up in this lineup this season.

On the pitching side, it was an extremely rough year last season as USC compiled a 5.75 team ERA.  I can't really imagine a USC pitching staff getting any worse than that.  They will have to do without their top two starters from that team, but promising sophomore starter Billy Paschal (3-7, 5.43) is back.  So is veteran Brett Bannister (8-3, 3.56 in 2002) who missed all of last season with an injury.  Key relievers Bret Butler (1-5, 4.44) and Josh Rummonds (5-3, 4.66) also return and may move into the starting rotation.

Bottom Line: It's hard to believe a USC team missing the NCAA Tournament two years in a row.  I don't see them challenging for the Pac-10 title unless they get some breakthrough years from multiple hitters and pitchers, but it's still USC and there is plenty of pure talent on this team.  They need guys to complement Clement and Metropoulos and a few pitchers to step up and take charge of starting spots in the rotation.

5. California Golden Bears (28-27, 10-14, 7th)

2003 was a very disappointing season for the Bears as well.  They had a veteran team, chalk full of talented sophomores and juniors who were supposed to lead them to a postseason berth.  But way too many players had down years and a 10-14 Pac-10 record was the result.  The bright side is that some of those juniors were drafted very low or went undrafted at all, so they're back to give it one more try.  Gone is All-American third baseman and first round pick Conor Jackson, but seven position player starters do return.  Leading the way is right fielder Brian Horwitz (.347-6-47) and catcher Chris Grossman (.341-8-45).  Both of these guys are seniors and very capable of taking their games to the next level.

On the mound, 10 of Cal's top 11 pitchers are back, many of which have starting experience.  The down side is that too many of those pitchers suffered through mediocre-to-terrible seasons last year.  At the top of the list is senior Matt Brown (4-8, 6.02) who was supposed to be an All-Conference and possibly All-American pitcher last season.  Also returning is starter Joe Todoroff (5-2, 4.64) and starter/closer Jesse Ingram (2-3, 6.57 ERA).  The Bears shouldn't lack for depth on their pitching staff this season.  Of any pitching staff in the conference, Cal returns the most bodies.

Bottom Line: It all comes down to guys like Brown and Ingram for this team to reach the postseason this season.  The Bears didn't have a go-to-guy in their rotation or in their bullpen last season and that was their downfall.  If Brown and Ingram (and some others) can rebound, the Bears should have an excellent shot at the NCAA's.

6. UCLA Bruins (28-31, 11-13, T5th)
2004 marks the 30th and final year of head coach Gary Adams' tenure at UCLA.  The Bruins haven't appeared in the NCAA Tournament since the 2000 season, but have the looks of a talented and experienced ballclub this year.  Eight starting position players return along with the top two starting pitchers from a year ago.  The star on this club is junior 1B/LHP Wes Whisler (.310-9-39; 3-7, 5.66).  Whisler had a huge freshman campaign, but suffered through a sophomore slump last season.  There may not be a more dangerous hitter in the conference though and there's no reason to believe Whisler can't rebound in '04.  Other top hitters on this team include third baseman Brandon Averill (.329-10-33) and outfielder Billy Susdorf (.310-10-40).

Whisler along with senior Casey Janssen (6-6, 5.88) should continue to be the top two starting hurlers on this club.  They'll need to show significant improvement to get their team into the top half of the conference though.  A couple of key relievers also return for Adams and the Bruins.

Bottom Line: This is a UCLA team that could end up being quite good this year.  But, like all Gary Adams coached teams, there's also the possibility they could greatly underachieve.  I've never been sold on an Adams coached team, so I'm refraining from picking them in the top half of the conference.  But if Whisler has the huge year he's capable of, then UCLA could very well be the sleeper team in the conference.

7. Washington Huskies (42-18, 15-9, 3rd, NCAA Regionals)

The Huskies are coming off a very successful campaign in which they won 42 contests and lost in the championship game of their regional.  Six starting position players return led by shortstop Brent Lillibridge (.388-13-47).  Lillibridge was UW's (and Team USA's) starting center fielder last year, but is expected to move to shortstop this season.  Other top returning hitters include catcher Aaron Hathaway (.350-5-38) and second baseman Greg Issacson (.322-9-38).  The Huskies will have to find a way to replace the big bats of departed Chad Boudon and Mike Wagner who combined for a whopping 37 homers last season.

Pitching is the major question mark for Washington.  All three starting pitchers from a year ago are gone, so there are some major holes to fill.  Senior Trevor Gibson (3-0, 4.02) has starting experience while junior David Dowling (7-2, 5.11) did pitch 56 innings out of the bullpen last year and may move into the rotation.  UW does possess one of the top closers in the country in Will Fenton who saved 12 games last year while not allowing a single run in 32 innings.

Bottom Line: The Huskies could go either way this season.  Despite the losses of Boudon and Wagner, there is still plenty of talent in the starting lineup.  I see pitching as the big problem right now with three starters that have to be replaced.  There are some really good hitting teams in this conference, so Washington will have to find some quality starting pitching if they want to get back to the postseason.

8. Oregon State Beavers (25-28, 7-17, T8th)

Oregon State suffered through another difficult year last season and things probably won't get much better for them in this competitive conference.  The Beavers return five starting position players led by shortstop Tony Calderon (.362-4-43) and right fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.330-7-33).  Their leading home run hitter from a year ago, Seth Pietsch (12 homers, .348), was drafted.  On the mound, OSU's top two starting pitchers in Ben Rowe (4-7, 6.56) and Jake Postlewait (5-1, 3.43) return along with most of their top relief pitchers.  This was a staff though that compiled a team 6.34 ERA.

Bottom Line: I'm hard pressed to see this Beaver team contending in the Pac-10 this season.  Rowe and Postlewait are both seniors with lots of experience, but they aren't All-Conference performers and there isn't a whole lot of firepower in this offense.

9. Washington State Cougars (19-37, 7-17 T8th)

The Cougars will likely continue to toil at the bottom of the conference.  They hit only .271 as a team last year and just four starters return.  First baseman Grant Richardson (.318-13-50) is their top hitter while outfielders Jay Miller (.341-2-36) and Jeremy Farrar (.279-8-27) both put up solid campaigns a year ago.  On the mound, top starter Tony Banaszak is gone, but fellow starters Aaron MacKenzie (5-5, 5.56) and Bryce Chamberlin (4-6, 7.65) are back.  WSU's team ERA last season was a dismal 7.16.

Bottom Line: Not enough hitting, not enough pitching, and they can't start playing home games until early April.  It's going to be another tough year.

The Pac-10 should be one of the top two or three conferences in the country again this season.  On paper, Stanford looks to be the only true College World Series contender right now.  I believe Arizona and Arizona State are very close though.  Both of those clubs should put up a lot of runs again, but need to answer some pitching questions before they are considered top ten quality.  The second tier of teams in the conference (USC, Cal, UCLA, Washington) is a total crap shoot, in my opinion.  This speaks to the overall quality depth of the conference this season.  All four could potentially qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  Cal and UCLA both have a ton of hitting coming back.  USC will build their team around the top 3-4 hitting combo in the conference, but have some other major holes in the lineup.  Washington was a pleasant surprise last year with how well they performed, but have to replace three starting pitchers.  Never count out the Huskies though.

Individually, 2004 will be a hitting year for the Pac-10.  It all starts with Stanford, Arizona, and Arizona State.  Those three teams should be among the very best hitting teams in the country.  Take a look at last summer's Team USA team and the Pac-10 influence on it:  Dustin Pedroia, ASU (#2 hitter, shortstop), Danny Putnam, Stanford (#3 hitter, left fielder), Jeff Larish, ASU (#4 hitter, first baseman), Jeff Clement, USC (#5 hitter, catcher), Brent Lillibridge, Washington (#6 hitter, center fielder).  Not to mention Sam Fuld who has been the starting center fielder for Team USA for two years ('01 and '02) and Joey Metropoulos of USC who led the Cape Cod League in home runs.  From a pitching standpoint, there really aren't any dominating juniors or seniors in the conference (at least right now).  This should also contribute to a big hitting year for the conference.  There are some very talented sophomore pitchers, however, in Stanford's Mark Romanczuk and Matt Manship, ASU's Erik Averill and USC's Bobby Paschal and Brett Bannister.


Notes: The "Super Sixteen" is my ranking of the top 16 teams in the country.  I always release me preseason ranking before any of the major polls, so I don't become biased.  For reference, I correctly predicted nine of the 16 Super Regional teams in my preseason poll last year (with national champion Rice at #4).  Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball both had 11 of their preseason top 16 reach the super regionals (with Rice at #2 and #4 respectively).  Their preseason polls should be released sometime within the next two or three weeks.

1. Rice (58-12, National Champions)
    * All three of the Owls' starting pitchers return and all three will likely be first round draft picks this June.  They are Jeff Niemann (17-0, 1.70), Wade Townsend (11-2, 2.20), and Philip Humber (11-3, 3.30).  #4 starter/closer Jeff Baker (8-0, 3.22) is also back and would be the ace pitcher of just about any other team in the country.  At the plate, Rice has some holes to fill with only three starters returning.  Returning are outfielders Chris Kolkhorst (.351-3-47) and Austin Davis (.344-6-63) along with shortstop Paul Janish (.294-4-44).  Despite lots of question marks with their lineup, when you have the caliber of starting pitching that Rice has, you probably won't need to score more than three runs to win most games.

2. LSU (45-22-1, Tied for 7th place at CWS)
    * The Tigers should return to the nation's elite this season.  Eight starting position players return from a very potent offense.  Leading the way is a trio of outfielders in Ryan Patterson (.350-16-51), Jon Zeringue (.339-13-45), and Cape Cod MVP J.C. Holt (.299-5-36).  First baseman Clay Harris (.332-16-62) is also a big run producer.  LSU has back their top two starting pitchers: Nate Bumstead (11-4, 4.42) and Justin Meier (8-3, 2.83).  Also returning is their 2002 ace hurler Lane Mestepey (11-5, 2.59 in '02) who missed all of last year with an injury.

3. Stanford (51-18, 2nd place at CWS)
     * see above

4. Cal State Fullerton (50-16, Tied for 3rd place at CWS)
    * Like Rice, Cal State Fullerton will rely on strong starting pitching to carry them in '04.  Their top three starting pitchers are back from a 50-win team in Jason Windsor (11-2, 1.98), Dustin Miller (9-2, 3.33), and Ryan Schreppel (5-3, 2.45).  Ricky Romero (3-0, 3.20) is another pitcher to keep an eye on this year as he may start or assume the role of closer for the drafted Chad Cordero.  At the plate, five starters return led by DH P.J. Pilittere (.380-3-31), outfielder Danny Dorn (.348-7-54), and catcher Kurt Suzuki (.350-2-28).  The Titans will need to find hitters to replace the firepower that Shane Costa and Kyle Boyer could bring to the table.

5. Miami (45-17-1, Tied for 5th place at CWS)
    * Literally everyone is back for a Miami team that reached the College World Series last season.  All nine starting position players return led by Freshman of the Year shortstop Ryan Braun (.364-17-76).  On the mound, all three starting pitchers are back.  J.D. Cockroft (11-3, 2.72) should lead the way.  In addition, 2002 ace pitcher Dan Touchet is back and ready to go after missing nearly all of last season.  Miami also returns their two closers from last season.

6. Georgia Tech (44-18, Regionals)
    * The talent is once again there for GT to compete with anyone in the country.  They do have a history of underachieving in the postseason, however.  Last year, the Jackets garnered a national seed only to go 0-2 at their regional.  This season, Georgia Tech brings back eight starting position players.  Their top hitters include Micah Owings (.306-15-42), Tyler Greene (.316-8-43), and Jeremy Slayden (.294-8-40).  On the mound, Owings (9-3, 3.99) is the only starting pitcher back, but there are plenty of talented arms on this staff to find two more successful starting pitchers.

7. Long Beach State (41-20, Super Regionals)
    * Jered Weaver, Jered Weaver, Jered Weaver.  The ace of the Dirtbags staff went 14-4 last season with a 1.96 ERA and then put together an amazing summer as the ace of the Team USA rotation (48 IP, 2 ER).  It's basically a guaranteed win for LBSU on Friday nights this year.  Fellow ace Abe Alvarez was drafted, but remaining starting pitcher Cesar Ramos (6-4, 2.85) returns.  Pitching will have to carry this team again.  Six position player starters are back led by right fielder Brad Davis (.306-3-26) and first baseman Mike Hofius (.290-4-38).

8. Auburn (42-21, Regionals)
    * The Tigers got an undeserving national seed last year and then lost in their own regional.  Lots of talent is back though led by the return of seven starting position players.  First baseman Karl Amonite (.330-12-56) and second baseman Tug Hulett (.373-2-39) are their top hitters.  On the mound, two starting pitchers are back plus ace closer Steven Register (2.94, 16 Saves).

9. Texas (50-20, Tied for 3rd place at CWS)
    * The Longhorns will have to deal with the loss of their top four hitters from a year ago.  Four starters do return led by catcher Taylor Teagarden (.315-5-41) and first baseman Curtis Thigpen (.311-6-38).  There should be a lot of new, young faces in their lineup when the Longhorns come to Sunken in late February.  Pitching will be Texas' strength.  #1 starter J.P. Howell (10-2, 2.52) returns as does All-American closer Huston Street (1.33, 15 Saves).  Sam LeCure (5-0, 3.74), J. Brent Cox (6-0, 2.25) and Justin Simmons (5-6, 4.29 ... 16-1 in 2002) are all candidates to fill the remainder of the starting rotation.

10. Nebraska (47-18, Regionals)
    * The Cornhuskers were the Big 12 regular season champs last season, but were upset in their own regional.  22-homer guy Matt Hopper is gone, but six starters do return.  Left fielder Curtis Ledbetter (.348-13-54) is the top offensive returnee.  Ace pitcher Aaron Marsden was drafted, but Nebraska's other two starting pitchers are back led by Quinton Robertson (10-2, 4.23).

11. Mississippi (35-27, Regionals)
    * The Rebels were unranked at the end of last season, but I see big things for them in 2004.  Five starting position players return including Team USA members Stephen Head (.337-6-44) and Seth Smith (.333-5-35).  Two starting pitchers are back as well.  In addition, pitcher Alan Horne, a first round draft pick out of HS who missed most of last year with an injury, should be good to go.  Finally, Head doubles as Ole Miss' closer and he's one of the best (1.40, 12 Saves).

12. Clemson (39-22, Regionals)
    * 2003 saw the Tigers drop significantly after their deep '02 CWS run.  But, Clemson looks to be one of the most talented teams in the country this year.  Six offensive starters are back led by outstanding third baseman Brad McCann (.347-9-67) and shortstop Russell Triplett (.335-7-32).  All three starting pitchers return including ace hurler Tyler Lumsden (8-2, 3.77).  The Tigers also return numerous key relievers.

13. Baylor (45-23, Super Regionals)
    * Hitting was the calling card for the Bears in '03 (when they finished one game shy of the CWS), but pitching should be their strength this season.  Ace pitcher Sean White has graduated, but Baylor's two other starting pitchers - Sean Walker (8-5, 4.77) and Mark McCormick (6-2, 5.32) - return.  Top-flight closer Zane Carlson (2.61, 11 Saves) plus the entire bullpen will be back.  At the plate, a lot of their heavy hitters have moved on, but third baseman Michael Griffin (.350-11-76) is one of the best in the country.  Three other starters return.

14. Arizona (35-23, Regionals)
    * see above

15. Florida State (54-13-1, Super Regionals)
    * The Seminoles were the #1 national seed each of the last two seasons, but both times lost in the super regionals.  2004 will be a rebuilding year, at least by FSU standards.  All three starting pitchers are gone along with their closer.  Most of the bullpen returns, but whoever starts will be new to the job at the collegiate level.  At the plate, five key starters have left.  Third baseman Eddy Martinez-Esteve (.371-9-43) and shortstop Stephen Drew (.327-11-59) are their top returning hitters.

16. Arizona State (54-14, Super Regionals)
    * see above

Others to consider (in alphabetical order) : Mississippi State, North Carolina, N.C. State, Notre Dame, South Carolina.

A lot of familiar faces at the top of the preseason "Super Sixteen," including many 2003 CWS participants.  In fact, you'll notice that the top five teams in the "Super Sixteen" played in the College World Series last June.  So for all the talk about increased parity around college baseball, don't be surprised to see the usual baseball powerhouses fighting it out in Omaha again this year.

It was pretty obvious that Rice, Stanford, Fullerton, and Texas were the top four teams at the CWS last season.  As evident by the rankings, I believe Rice, Stanford, and Fullerton will be among the nation's elite again this year.  Texas has a lot of unproven young talent, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're right back in Omaha again.  Meanwhile, this is the year for LSU.  The Tigers haven't won a CWS game since their championship in 2000, but that should change this season.  Miami wasn't supposed to reach the CWS last year, but they did and now everyone is back. 

Looking at the conferences, the SEC should rebound this season.  Last year was the first time in awhile that the SEC didn't have a true national title contender.  This should worry west coast baseball fans as despite not having a dominant team in their conference last year, the SEC still garnered two of the top four national seeds (LSU #2, Auburn #4).  Well, it appears the SEC is back this season.  Will this mean even better treatment for the Southeastern Conference come selection day while the Pac-10 and Big 12 again take it on the chin?  We shall see. 

LSU looks like a bona fide national title contender on paper while I've put Auburn and Ole Miss in the "Super Sixteen" (with Mississippi State and South Carolina just outside).  In terms of the Big 12, I think this conference may be lacking a true national title contender right now.  Again, Texas is young, but still very talented.  Nebraska and Baylor should be right there with the Longhorns. 

The ACC ... well, they always put together some good teams but they never do anything when it matters (i.e. win a championship or in the case of last year, get to Omaha).  Hence, no ACC teams in my top five (and none really deserve to be, in my opinion).  Georgia Tech clearly looks to me to be the top team in that conference.  Clemson should challenge.  Florida State won't be among the elite anymore, but they're still Florida State.  N.C. State has a ton of pitching returning and should make some appearances in the "Super 16."  Finally, watch out for North Carolina.  They reached the super regionals last year and have an amazing freshman class. 

Rice should dominate the WAC again.  Fullerton and Long Beach are the cream of the crop in the Big West with Riverside once again fielding a strong team.  In no particular order, I'll say the Pac-10, SEC, and ACC will be the top three conferences this season. 

Generally speaking, this is the year for collegiate pitching.  A ton of pitchers (more than usual) in the collegiate game have a chance to be drafted early in the first round this season.  It all starts with the Rice trio, certainly the most talented starting rotation I've ever seen at this level.  And to no surprise, the west and the south look to once again lay claim to fielding the top teams in the country.  Strap in, it's time for some baseball.

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