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Top Stories of the Year

Publication Date: June 17, 2003

Man, This Is Fun

You know, you were going to get a remarkably dull piece on park factors for Rosenblatt Stadium for the rest of the year when the Omaha Royals are playing there, but I looked around this morning as I began writing this and realized that, for the first time in my memory, the three best teams in the country are the last three playing, the weekend looks like it's going to be a lot of fun no matter who wins the Stanford-Fullerton game tonight, and I felt like celebrating. Here, then, are my picks for the ten best stories of the 2003 college baseball season. These aren't in order of significance; they're in chronological order as much as possible with the season-long stories mixed in.

1. Arizona State starts off 28-1. With the exception of Long Beach State, the competition was not up to the level they would face the rest of the way (the team didn't level off, really, the competition just got tougher, and they stayed as a legitimate #5 or #6 in the nation), it was an awful lot of fun to watch that record soar as they plowed through January, February, and early March.

2. Rice wins 30 in a row to go to 33-1. Led by a trio of sophomore pitchers, the Owls plowed through the month of March, terrorizing a reasonably tough schedule. As will happen sometimes, they followed that stretch with a 4-6 couple of weeks, but returned to the habits of terrifying the opposition that they haven't left yet.

3. UC Riverside makes a run at the Big West title in only their second year back in Division I. In the early 90's, the university considered dropping the sport and did fall back to Division II. Last year, they rejoined Division I. This year, they stayed in the ISR top 15 for most of the year, swept Cal State Fullerton, and finished a strong third in the conference. They deserved better treatment in the postseason, but this was a season to be proud of.

4. Virginia comes back from the grave. Two years ago, beset by budget problems and lackluster onfield performance, UVa officials gave serious consideration to giving up the sport. The team was saved due to strong alumni support, and this year's team came out hot, going as high as second in the ACC. Although the team faltered a bit late, ending up sixth in the conference and missing the NCAA tournament, the season has to be considered a nice comeback for a set-upon program.

5. The snow bids are gone. Although there are still some definite problems with the selection process, for the second consecutive season the committee made no tournament picks for which the primary explanation was the geographical location of the selected team. It appears that the days of at large bids to mediocre third-place Big 10 teams are gone, so deserving Big 10 teams like this year's Minnesota squad deserve the recognition they get.

6. Augie Garrido passed Cliff Gufstafson to become the all-time leader in Division I coaching wins. There's a small taint due to the problem on the negative list below, but this is still a mark to be considered with considerable awe, as the final win over Florida State pushed him over the mark and he finishes the season at 1430 wins. Garrido's teams have won national championships in four decades, but catching this record required a serious stretch of sustained excellence, not just longevity. He's come to the record through the front door, building a national contender at Cal State Fullerton in the midst of great Southern California competition and then taking on the highest profile job in the sport and righting the ship after a few rough years.

7. Scoring is at historically low levels. Although scoring has uncharacteristically increased this year as the season has gone on, probably due to some unusual weather patterns throughout the nation this spring, this year's total of 6.08 runs per game matches the lowest totals since 1977. While this is mostly a neutral story, it is cause for celebration to see more of the best athletes moved to the pitching side of the ball in addition to the modifications to the bats.

8. Stanford makes their fifth straight appearance in the CWS. Think about this for a minute. They've had outrageously stacked regionals every year. They've had a top 10 opponent in the super-regional almost every year. They've been underseeded nationally almost every year. And still, every single year of the current format, Stanford has plowed through their regional and super-regional and taken their place in the CWS.

9. The College World Series improves the championship round format. Gone is the one-game crapshoot of past years, replaced by a much fairer two-of-three championship round. Each team gets at least one off-day before that round starts (Rice will get two this year), so there should be time to get the rotations set and ready to go. Combine this with the unusual success of the top teams this year, and I'm salivating over the prospects of this weekend.

10. The nation's three best teams are the last three standing in Omaha, and none of them are likely to be on probation this time next year. There are things to complain about with each of these programs, but they've been the best we've had this year, they're the sorts of schools where misbehavior would be cause for serious concern, and they've made it through the minefield to get here.

The Bad

Since they'll revoke my curmudgeon's card if I don't mention these, here are the five biggest negative stories about the game, either from this year or ongoing:

Pitch Count Watch

Rather than keep returning to the subject of pitch counts and pitcher usage in general too often for my main theme, I'm just going to run a standard feature down here where I point out potential problems; feel free to stop reading above this if the subject doesn't interest you. This will just be a quick listing of questionable starts that have caught my eye -- the general threshold for listing is 120 actual pitches or 130 estimated, although short rest will also get a pitcher listed if I catch it. Don't blame me; I'm just the messenger.

Date   Team   Pitcher   Opponent   IP   H   R   ER   BB   SO   AB   BF   Pitches
June 16 Rice Wade Townsend Texas 8.2 7 2 2 4 10 33 37 129


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