Aggie Baseball 2008: Bombers keys for 2008

What are the keys for the Aggies to reach Omaha this year? Who will fill the shoes of Kyle Nicholson and David Neumann? What other areas are key to the success of this year's team? Lanny Hayes takes an in depth look at what the Aggies need to do for a successful 2008 campaign.

The 2008 edition of Aggie Baseball is finally upon us, and the hardcore fans can hardly contain their excitement. Though this squad brings in fewer issues on paper than other recent squads, there are still need areas that must be filled. Finding a good answer to each of these concerns will put A&M in contention for their first College World Series trip in nearly a decade, while failure to achieve them could result in a disappointing season.

Find a Front-Line, Friday Night Starter The likely depth of this year's pitching staff is well documented, as the Aggie bullpen should confidently 6-7 arms deep, but the early dossier shows a hole at the top of the rotation. The preseason consensus is that the Aggie starters are loaded with Saturday and Sunday type starter quality, but Rob Childress must find an arm that can give him 6-7 strong innings every Friday night and, ultimately, the series opening victory that often sways the weekend momentum.

Though that person doesn't jump out in the preseason roster, most fans need not be reminded that Kyle Nicholson was considered one of these Saturday/Sunday type guys entering the 2007 season. Childress has publicly sang the praises of senior Kirkland Rivers, who had a very good end to the '07 campaign and will toe the rubber in tonight's season opener.

Kyle Thebeau's best is clearly good enough to be the #1 guy, and he's shown flashes of that brilliance (see last year's College Station Regional championship game) but must achieve that greatness consistently to fill this role. These two top the odds list, but the preseason performance of Barret Loux has many insiders thinking that he can be this guy, but he'll have to grow up quicker than any freshman has ever had to.

Leading Off

One of the few weaknesses in last year's batting order was the lack of a true lead-off hitter. Though he has great speed, Ben Feltner proved to be much too impatient at the plate to fill that role in early '07. Brandon Hicks moved from the middle of the order to bat lead-off, and really did a very good job there, but it was placing a square peg in a round hole that just happened to work (Hicks would have batted 2nd or 3rd in a perfect world, as he did toward the end of the season), and the leadoff-by-committee approach of using Brian Ruggiano and Dane Carter in the postseason wasn't consistently productive. Centerfielder Kyle Colligan will likely be the first Aggie to bat tonight, and his plate style seems to be much more like Hicks' than that of more traditional lead-off types like Erik Schindewolf and Cliff Pennington.

While Colligan does possess above average speed and great baserunning skills, his OBP and K-to-BB ratio from '07 left much to be desired. Past numbers, as we all know, are no guarantee of future results and last year's offense held their own with Hicks atop the line-up. The one man who got more from Hicks' presence than anyone else was 9-hole hitter Parker Dalton, seeing more pitches to hit and doing good things with them. Ben Feltner will likely hit in Dalton's spot to begin the season, which offers A&M a great luxury when the line-up rolls over; allowing Colligan to be an run producer when Feltner's on base, not to mention giving Feltner those same extra pitches to hit.

Infield Defense

The Aggies left wins on the table in 2007 with ineffective overall infield defense. The .962 overall fielding percentage was one of the lowest in recent memory, but doesn't tell the whole story. Slow middle infield turns on double plays, difficult but makeable plays that end up as basehits, and defensive alignment mistakes all helped create issues but never saw the error column. Add the psychological aspect to the equation, and you had sufficient cause for pause. No opening day projected starter was starting at their current positions when the 2007 season ended, and some are playing in spots that they're historically not familiar with. The infield is unlikely to gel on day one, but ten to fifteen games deep should provide a good look at where the group stands. For A&M to be a major player in the national landscape, this group must come together in that time frame.

Conference Greatness

Critics of the 2007 season, though few and far between even outside the A&M community, point to the 13-13 conference record as more indicative of that team – and Childress' – prowess than the 48-19 final mark or Super Regional berth. A&M rode a ridiculous 28-2 non-conference record to overpower their conference woes and earn a host spot – losing their only two games to CWS participant Arizona State and national champion Oregon State.

A duplication of last year's results won't lead to a hosting situation this year, though, as the projected strength of schedule takes a slight dive – driven by some of the mid-week tilts. While anyone will certainly take a copy of the two non-conference losses for a 27-2 mark, A&M really needs to take down 16 conference games to really ensure a host spot. A 43-13, 16-11 mark should be enough to finish 3rd in the league and bring postseason baseball back to Olsen, but the slope gets very slippery below that number. A 23-6, 14-13 mark doesn't seem like a bad year – and it's not – but 37-19 with the strength of schedule (and thus a seemingly lower RPI) may put A&M on the NCAA bubble.

Numbers are hard to speculate in a vacuum; after all, the NCAA picks the best teams available, and who knows if the parity that's found college football and basketball makes its way to the diamond. Regardless, A&M needs to clear the .500 mark by a few games if they want to play at Olsen Field this June. The overall goal of hosting through the Super Regional round, however, may require an even higher feat (such as 45-11, 18-9).

The upside for the Aggies is the conference schedule certainly favors them. A&M's Big 12 slate features 15 home contests, including hosting five of the games against the conference's top two projected teams (as picked by the coaches), Missouri and Texas. Texas Tech, who has never won a series at Olsen Field, Kansas State and Oklahoma also grace the home schedule, along with a single contest against Baylor. A&M has struggled at Oklahoma State (just one win in last seven tries), but has more recent road success against Kansas and Nebraska to hang their hat on.

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