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April 5, 2007

SCS.comThere have been some outstanding performers nationwide in the first half of the season. Some names you may already know, and some, well you need to start getting to know them.


Batmakers have to be pretty happy right now, because their products are being put to full use by many teams and players around the country.

A number of teams have been lighting up their scoreboards and giving their fans many a souvenir. Florida State leads the nation with a .372 average. Ironically, while the rest of the nation seems to be on a power surge, the Seminoles have hit only 21 homers, but nine of those homers came this past weekend in their series win at Duke. Arizona State (23-10, 4-2 Pac-10) might have the best collection of pure hitters in college baseball, with three .408+ hitters, and seven .359+ hitters, which has the Sun Devils at an overall .360 clip. No wonder they’re the favorite in the Pac-10. Oklahoma State (.353) might not be too far behind in that aspect. #11 Kentucky (.353) and #23 Mississippi State (.349) pace the usually pitching-friendly SEC. The two teams got together for an entertaining series on the weekend that was won in dramatic fashion by the Bulldogs.

The country is paced in home runs by a rather unlikely name - Florida Atlantic. The Owls hit only 41 homers in 2006, but have blown past that total in just over half of this season. The team got off to a 17-4 start, in large part to a quintet of potent bats in their arsenal. Their bats cooled off recently in back to back sweeps against Sun Belt front-runners Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy. It could be that the bats just needed a little break. The Owls’ bats resurfaced this past week, in a 3-1 showing vs. Harvard and Sun Belt foe Arkansas State, as they hit eight homers in those four games.

There are way too many outstanding individual performers at this point to give them all mention, but there are a few that have set themselves apart. Arizona State’s lineup is full of great hitters, but sophomore Brett Wallace might be the best of them. He’s hitting .481, with 11 homers and 45 RBI for the Sun Devils. He’s currently the only player in the nation to be in the top 10 in those three categories, and he’s also in the top five in hits, runs, total bases, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage.

Florida State’s Tony Thomas, Jr. has plenty to say about that, though. The junior second baseman has been at the top of several offensive categories all season long, and has been spearheaded the Seminoles’ success, in the order and in the stat sheet. The junior second baseman leads the nation in average (.500), hits (64), runs (55), and is second in doubles (17), and also has solid numbers in power (7 homers), run production (30 RBI), and speed (16-18 in steals). Thomas had his best week of the season this past week, going 11 for 19, with five homers, eight RBI, and nine runs scored. One of the prime reasons why he’s had a breakout year is his discipline at the plate, which has improved astronomically. He showed a great deal of ability and potential at the plate in his first two seasons, but struck out 75 times as a freshman and 66 as a sophomore. This season, he’s struck out only 18 times in 28 games. He may well have taken lessons from new shortstop Mark Hallberg, who led the nation in the plate discipline category last season at Illinois-Chicago. If there was an award for Most Improved Player, he would get it, hands down. As is, he may walk away with some Player of the Year awards, if he keeps his torrid pace up.

In the power category, Texas’ Kyle Russell is atop the charts in long balls, along with Louisiana Tech‘s Brian Rike. Russell and fellow sophomore Bradley Suttle are two big reasons why the Longhorns are on a roll. Along with his home run total, Russell is batting .363 with 40 RBI. Suttle certainly isn’t to be overshadowed though, not with his .415 average, eight homers, and 39 runs driven in. Rike doesn’t get the same amount of publicity as those guys, but Rike’s been rakin’ all season long. The junior outfielder is hitting .350 with 48 RBI, which has him tied atop another category, with Kentucky’s Sean Coughlin (.373/5/48).

Speaking of the SEC, it’s had a number of hitting stars in the first half. Kentucky’s got a few, including the conference’s leading hitter. Mike Brown is stroking at a flashy .459 clip, with 42 runs scored. The Wildcats have a couple of guys pushing .400, in newcomers Brian Spear (.398) and Sawyer Carroll (.387). Florida’s Matt LaPorta (.430/13/29) has been on a tear in the last few weeks, and has apparently regained his 2005 form, which is a big reason why the Gators are surprising right now. Don’t worry though, the SEC West has a few fine hitters as well. Mississippi’s Justin Henry is hitting .437, and Mississippi State (18-7, 5-4) has broken into the top 25 this week with the help of junior catcher Ed Easley (.426/7/32), red shirt freshman Brandon Turner (.426/1/26), and junior first baseman Mitch Moreland (.384/3/28).

Going to the Big 12, Oklahoma State has five guys hitting .371 or better, led by Tyler Mach (.442/7/41). Keeping it in the Big 12, Texas A&M has a number of guys to thank for its resurgence, and one of them is Blake Stouffer and transfer Brandon Hicks. Stouffer, one of the few veterans on a new-look A&M squad, is hitting .398 and is one of the nation’s leaders in RBI with 41. Hicks is batting .370, with six homers, 36 RBI, 42 runs scored, and 18 stolen bases.

Along with Wallace, ASU has the top four hitters in the Pac-10: Wallace, Tim Smith (.418), UNC transfer Matt Spencer (.408), and JC transfer Kiel Roling (.392). Another D-I transfer is tearing it up in the Pac-10 as well, in CS-Fullerton transfer David Cooper. The sophomore has shined for Cal thus far (.370/8/35). A less heralded hitter tearing it up out west is Cal Poly’s Grant Desme (.393/11/41). He leads the Big West in hits (48), runs (35), doubles (10), homers, and RBI, and is fourth in batting average.

The ‘mid-majors’ are chock-full of great hitters. FAU’s Robbie Widlansky is one of the quintet of dangerous hitters, and he sports a .426 average, which is second in the Sun Belt, and he has hit nine homers and driven in 45 runs, which ties him for fourth in the country. But, the leading hitter in the conference is Florida International’s James McOwen. The junior has been one of the Sun Belt’s best hitters since he got to FIU, and this year he’s one of the nation’s best, coming in at a sizzling .466 clip.

The Missouri Valley has three guys hitting over .426, in Southern Illinois’ Mark Kelly (.458), Evansville’s Jim Viscomi (.446), and Bradley’s Ryan Curry (.426). Viscomi and Kasey Wahl (.402/6/37) are key reasons why the Purple Aces have a good shot at defending their conference title.

Old Dominion’s Mike Zahm is hitting .415, with 17 doubles and 43 RBI for the Monarchs, who lead the CAA. Bobby Verbick of Sam Houston St. is tops in the Southland and high in the national rankings in average (.432), doubles (16), hits (54), and RBI (44). But, he’s going to be pressed for the SLC POY award by reigning winner Colin DeLome of Lamar, who’s at .405/8/41 and his teammate, the SLC’s 2005 Hitter of the Year, catcher Michael Ambort (.393/5/39), who’s rebounded nicely from a shoulder injury that kept him out of all but six games in 2006.

Wofford’s Brandon Waring has been one of the top power hitters in the country, and one of the top hitters period. Currently, he is hitting .389, and his total of 13 long balls is third in the country. The Terriers are probably going to finish near the bottom of the Southern Conference, but the junior is a big bright spot for them.

Louisville’s Boomer Whiting is hitting .419, which is pretty good, but what’s even better is his 37 stolen bases, which is tops in the country.

The best freshman in the country at this point appears to be North Carolina’s Dustin Ackley. He may be not only the top freshman in the country, but he’s also quickly become one of the top players in the country. Ackley currently ranks second behind FSU‘s Thomas in batting average (.475) and leads the conference in RBI (40). Ackley is also second in the conference in hits and tied for third in doubles. He’s far and away the leading candidate for national freshman of the year at this point.

Hey, Don’t Forget About Us!

There are a few pitchers who have withstood the hitting barrages. UNC-Charlotte’s Adam Mills has tossed two shutouts and four complete games already, and is third in the nation in strikeouts with 85. Mills has a 7-1 record and a 1.20 ERA. The 49ers are off to a school-record start at 22-5-1 and Mills’ arm is a big reason why. Old Dominion’s Anthony Shawler is putting up some pretty impressive numbers as well. Check out this line: 7-0, 2.83 ERA, 75 strikeouts, four complete games, two combined shutouts. And that’s all in only eight starts.

Tulane is off to a nice start, and Rick Jones has a couple of big-time pitchers to thank for that. Sean Morgan is 6-1 with a 1.84 ERA, and he has the nation’s fourth-highest strikeout total with 79, in only eight starts (53.2 innings). He and Virginia transfer Shooter Hunt (6-2, 1.53, 50 Ks in 53 IP) have the two leading ERAs in Conference USA among starting pitchers.

As mentioned before, FSU’s weekend rotation has combined to go 22-1. The hitters have gotten the most attention, and justifiably so, but good hitting usually means little if you don’t have the arms to follow it up. Ace Bryan Henry is 7-0 with a 2.44 ERA. #2 pitcher Michael Hyde, a fellow senior, is tied for the national lead with eight wins and has a 2.79 ERA. Junior Ryan Strauss has stepped into the #3 slot, which was a question mark for the Seminoles entering the season, and has been excellent. Strauss is 7-0, and leads the starters with a 2.08 ERA. He has been a part of two shutouts, one against Boston College, and the other against Indiana earlier in the season. The Seminole pitching staff has accounted for five shutouts already. There are a couple of other studs in the ACC as well in Virginia’s Jacob Thompson (7-0, 1.75) and North Carolina’s Robert Woodard (6-0, 2.17).

Texas and Texas A&M are both having fine seasons, in part due to some fine arms. Longhorns’ junior Adrian Alaniz looks revitalized after having an up and down 2006, and it’s showing in his numbers: 8-1, 1.75 ERA, 50 Ks. A&M’s Kyle Nicholson has sparkled as both a starter and a reliever: 7-1, 1.32 ERA, 46 Ks, three saves in 15 appearances. Elsewhere in the region, Wichita State’s Travis Banwart has put together a great season for the Shockers: 6-2, 1.08 ERA, 55 Ks/50 IP. Banwart has allowed only six earned runs all season long.

Out west, UC-Irvine has a couple of good ones in their stables. Starter Wes Etheridge is a perfect 8-0, with a miniscule 1.23 ERA. And closer Blair Erickson, who has been one of the nation’s top closers for the last four seasons, is one save away from tying the NCAA career record of 49. The nation’s leading K-man resides in San Diego, in Toreros’ sophomore hurler Brian Matusz, who has piled up 96 punchouts. Barry Enright of Pepperdine is having a third spectacular season in a row, as he’s posted a 7-1 record thus far, with a 1.61 ERA. Enright has walked only seven batters and struck out 45 in 67 innings. Arizona State junior hurler Josh Satow is 7-2 with a 2.00 ERA and three complete games.

And, before I forget, some guy named Price that resides in Nashville has already racked up six double-digit strikeout performances. I hear he’s going to make a lot of money pretty soon.

More names will be added to this list as the season progresses. Chances are I’ll miss a few of them, because there are just too many to make note of every one of them, as was the case here, but I’ll do my best not to leave anyone out, big or small, east or west.

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