The regular-season Academy Awards
It is not late February, around the time when all that's real and fake in film saunters across a Hollywood platform to accept famous ornaments of recognition. But it is the time of year for college baseball's stars.
The regular season has reached its final days, after which we will have conference tournaments and a selection show before beginning the three-week march to Omaha.
Yes, there are some big series left this weekend, including UNC-Virginia and Oregon-Oregon State, but let's do our part in celebrating the best of the 2013 regular season by handing out some awards -- some Academy Awards, in fact.
These are real categories from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, adapted for college baseball.
Best Actor in a Leading Role, Part I
Description: Presented to the position player who delivered the most extraordinary performance.
Winner: Kris Bryant, junior 3B, San Diego
Bryant played his ball in the West Coast Conference -- the SEC that ain't -- but his single-minded assault on the season defies any perceived slights that could be tossed his way due to his league. Bryant has hit .338/.496/.876 through 54 games with -- hold on, let me stop laughing -- 30 home runs.
He's 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, a gale force of pure power that is unrivaled across the college landscape and will earn him a spot among the top five selections in the 2013 MLB draft despite some questions about his natural position. He leads the nation in slugging percentage by almost 50 points, and even though his walk total is artificially inflated from being pitched around, his 57 free passes to 37 strikeouts is a remarkable rate for a hitter with his power.
And that is what has been most sensational about Bryant this season, beyond his goofy home run total. At the plate, he's a death trap you can't escape. He does not give in to urges and instinctively wave at pitches outside the strike zone, as if they sashayed by in heels. He does not blindly sell his soul for dingers. He negotiates, and if the price is high, he'll take the singles and doubles. Because above all, Bryant is a hitter, and he'll leave it to the professionals to figure out his ultimate defensive home on the diamond.
Best Actor in a Leading Role, Part II
Description: Presented to the starting pitcher who delivered the most extraordinary performance.
Winner: Jonathan Gray, junior RHP, Oklahoma
When Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said before the season that Gray reminds him of a "larger Roger Clemens," I did not believe him. How could either part of that sentence be true? How could Gray be compared to Clemens -- one of the best pitchers ever -- and, unless Gray had freakish size, how could he be bigger than the hulking Clemens?
Well, I hear ya now, Sunny. Gray is 6-4 and 240 pounds, and this has been his junior season: 94 2/3 innings, 57 hits, 112 strikeouts, 19 walks, 1.43 ERA. That ERA ranks in the top 15 nationally among starting pitchers, and Gray's strikeouts are tied for second behind only NC State's Carlos Rodon. His fastball cracks triple digits, and his slider cracks your will.
Does Mark Appel have a case? Sure. Scott Sitz? Absolutely. Thomas Eshelman? Yep. But I'm choosing Gray because of his overall package of innings, ERA and strikeouts. There have been many good pitchers this season, but when you think of dominant pitchers, it's difficult to think of one better than Gray.
Along with Dillon Overton, Gray has led the Sooners to a top-20 ranking in the USA Today Coaches' Poll, and they'll be one of the most dangerous teams in the postseason even if they don't host a regional. It's plausible for Gray to go from ignored by Team USA to All-American and College World Series participant to the No. 1 overall pick (top-three at worst) in the MLB draft. Quite a year.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Description: Presented to the player who delivered the most extraordinary secondary performance.
Winner: David Berg, sophomore RHP, UCLA
Berg has been full of ice -- I'll let myself out in a minute -- this season for the Bruins out of the bullpen but probably doesn't get the same attention as the closers for other highly ranked teams, most notably Oregon's Jimmie Sherfy, Cal State Fullerton's Michael Lorenzen and South Carolina's Tyler Webb.
But I'd argue Berg has been the most valuable relief pitcher in the country this season. He's made 35 appearances, pitched 56 1/3 innings and allowed only 37 hits and four walks to go along with 60 strikeouts and a 0.64 ERA.
UCLA coach John Savage entered the season believing freshman James Kaprielian would be able to grab the closer's job, a role that slipped from his grasp due to early-season arm troubles. Berg stepped in, and the Bruins are exponentially better for it, as Kaprielian is healthy and contributing to UCLA's bullpen depth. The Bruins are blessed with most of the physical gifts that have become prerequisites for contending for a national title -- mostly, an entire luxury inn of quality arms -- and Berg's emergence has allowed Savage to leverage his assets optimally.
Best Documentary Feature
Description: Presented to the story that best documented some aspect of reality.
Winner: South Carolina Gamecocks
For the past three seasons, South Carolina has existed in a dream world. Three championship series appearances at the College World Series, two national titles. It was a standard of excellence that began to feel customary for the Gamecocks, an ending preordained in the preseason of every spring. Then Ray Tanner retired to become South Carolina's AD, handing the baseball program over to Chad Holbrook, and the Gamecocks officially began a new era.
Here's the thing: South Carolina could easily make it four consecutive trips to the season's final series, yet there is something that feels tangibly different about this year's club. At times, the regular season has felt like a struggle -- which is remarkable considering the team is 38-14 and ranked No. 12 -- as it battled injuries and was swept by Arkansas, Florida and Vanderbilt (two games) on the way to losing 10 league games.
This is the new reality for the Gamecocks. The SEC beats up everyone in almost every season, and now the Gamecocks have to navigate the same prickly terrain. Not every season will feel like destiny to ticket holders. It's difficult to recognize a changing tide in real time, but that's what 2013 has felt like in spurts for the Gamecocks, at least for someone not embedded at Carolina Stadium every weekend. But with Holbrook's talent, it's possible South Carolina navigates these years of transition without the end product being much different.
Description: Presented to the coach of the year in college baseball.
Winner: Rick Vanderhook, Cal State Fullerton
If you put Cal State Fullerton on the known quantity scale at the beginning of the season, how would it have rated? You knew what you were getting from two-way star Lorenzen. You knew there was talent in the starting rotation, but not necessarily who would emerge or how well they would perform. There were a couple of hitters you could feel confident about. Mostly, though, Cal State Fullerton had a lot of unanswered questions. Its range for this season was quite wide.
So that's why I'm going with Vanderhook instead of Mike Fox, Tim Corbin, Paul Mainieri, Pat Casey or some other coach with a great record, all of whom are solid choices. The Titans are 42-8 and ranked No. 5 in the country. They will be a national seed and play at Goodwin Field until Omaha if they make it that far. And the chances of that are pretty good, since the unit that won Vanderhook this award -- the starting rotation -- consists of three young pitchers who pitch as if Vanderhook has some supernatural powers that could eliminate them from this Earth were they to walk anybody. Maybe that's Vanderhook's hidden genius?
Description: Presented to the player or team that best visually represents the story.
Winner: North Carolina Tar Heels
From the moment preseason polls were plastered across the Internet, North Carolina was deemed a serious national title contender. Mike Fox was incredulous about this. Oh, he liked his team and, on some level, was simply hosing down the brushfire of attention and hype that was beginning to set his program ablaze. But he also thought about losing his starting catcher, shortstop and closer, among others, from last season's team.
"I know we're good, but why are people ranking us No. 1?" Fox asked me this spring. "Do you know?"
Well, this season has played out even better than most pollsters could imagine, with UNC going 46-6 and "slipping" to No. 2 in the country behind Vanderbilt this week. The Tar Heels may or may not have the best team in the country, but they look the part of a national championship team as well as anyone, hence this award. They have elite starting pitching, depth in the bullpen, speed, power and defense. The pipeline is strong, as many of their main contributors are underclassmen and will be back for at least another season.
You can't predict how the postseason will play out, but there were no surprises with North Carolina's regular season. We thought the Tar Heels would be really good, and they were.
Best Writing -- Adapted Screenplay
Description: Presented to the team or player who best adapted a story from another team's or player's style of play.
Winner: Oregon Ducks
The thread: George Horton. The needle: pitching.
The Ducks head into this weekend's rivalry series against Oregon State at 42-11 and ranked No. 6, and they have succeeded how most Horton teams do: on the beautiful brutality of great pitching. They rank 10th in ERA (2.62), with Tommy Thorpe, Cole Irvin and Jake Reed starting on the weekend and Jimmie Sherfy, Garrett Cleavinger and Darrell Hunter among the crew throwing up zeros out of the bullpen.
Oregon will score a few runs, but don't be mistaken: Its postseason will come down to pitching, because this has always been the epitaph of Horton's teams. He might as well be back at Fullerton and handing Jason Windsor the ball. At Fullerton, throwing strikes isn't an approach so much as a way of life, a life this season's Titans are living better than anyone and one Dave Serrano, a Horton disciple, is trying to bring to Tennessee. It seems as if Horton is the same as he ever was, only the colors and locale are different.
Best Music -- Original Score
Description: Presented to the best body of music written specifically for this story.
Winner: Mark Appel, senior RHP, Stanford
Appel needed a great season. After being selected with the No. 8 overall pick the 2012 MLB draft and turning down millions from the Pirates to return to Stanford, the right-hander plopped more than a few heavy dollops of risk on his senior season.
Everything has gone according to plan for Appel in 2013. In 91 1/3 innings, he has allowed only 68 hits and 20 walks while striking out 110 and posting a 1.97 ERA. He's shown mid-to-upper 90s velocity and two above-average secondary pitches. He's pitched with aggression and shown improved command. He has done all he can to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, a discussion he is currently leading. If the Houston Astros don't select Appel with the top pick, it will be a decision driven by financial considerations, not an appraisal of Appel's talent.
Appel had the season that was required, and he's worthy of being the top pick. If Stanford can sneak into the NCAA tournament field, the Cardinal become an immediate sleeper due to their ace.
Best Film Editing
Description: Presented to the coach who best navigated an unpredictable regular season.
Winner: Elliott Avent, NC State
Other coaches have dealt with more non-baseball issues this season, and other teams have been stricken with worse luck, but I give Avent the nod for carving a top-10 team out of the lumber he was given. NC State, at 39-13, is in the national seed discussion, although losing last weekend's series to Florida State was probably the deciding factor.
Even so, the Wolfpack have been better than I anticipated. I thought the only way NC State would be a top-10 team this season was if Carlos Rodon had a pitcher-of-the-year kind of season. He's been good -- a 3.84 ERA and leading the nation in strikeouts with 122 -- but did not meet the full expectations we had for him in his sophomore season, which were probably unfair to begin with. But that's what happens when you become the first freshman in ACC history to win Pitcher of the Year honors.
Rodon aside, NC State doesn't have one pitcher who has chewed up 50 or more innings. After No. 2 starter Ethan Ogburn, your guess is as good as Avent's for the third spot.
Trea Turner has had an exceptional season at the plate, as expected, after missing some time with an ankle sprain, but after him, who is NC State's best hitter? Who wins Game 3 or Game 4 of a regional?
The purpose of casting these doubts isn't to say NC State is devoid of quality players, because it isn't. The purpose is to ask: What kind of magic potion has Avent been sprinkling over his roster this season, and where can we get some?
Description: Presented to the overall best performance of the regular season.
Winner: Vanderbilt Commodores
This is your team of the year in the regular season.
Vanderbilt tore through the nation's toughest conference with a 24-2 record to date, and it hasn't lost a single series all season. In the SEC, the Commodores swept Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Missouri, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Kentucky.
Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede have been two of the nation's best starting pitchers since Opening Day. Tony Kemp, Mike Yastrzemski, Connor Harrell, Spencer Navin and Conrad Gregor are all the starting position players who have OBPs better than .400, with Vince Conde missing by two points. The bullpen is deep with power arms.
Really, what else is there to say about Vanderbilt at this point? It's a ruthless and grand machine barreling toward a national championship.
Today in Omaha: High of 83 degrees, 59 percent humidity and possible severe thunderstorms, 30 days until CWS Game 1.
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