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Thursday, May 2, 2013
Five deep sleepers for Omaha

By Teddy Mitrosilis
ESPN.com

The college baseball world is somewhat asleep this week, as some programs around the country pause for final exams. We aren't devoid of good series, just somewhat limited.

So as the calendar flips to May, we will pause from the conference races and look ahead.

We will look ahead to the College World Series, in fact. We know the favorites: North Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU, et al, have been terrific all season. They will be national seeds in the NCAA tournament, and if they don't advance to Omaha, their seasons will be seen as disappointments.

But who are the "deep sleepers" for Omaha?

Since "sleeper" can be defined in any number of ways, there's one concrete rule: No sleeper can be ranked in the Top 25 of the latest USA Today coaches' poll (sorry, Stanford). Other than that, there are no rules, although riskier picks are encouraged.

Here's a look at five "deep sleepers" for Omaha:

New Mexico

Lobos head coach Ray Birmingham said at the beginning of the season the College World Series was his club's goal. He even had signs made with Omaha and an arrow on them so he could place them on the field during practice, setting them so the arrow was pointing northwest toward Nebraska, as a reminder to his players of what they were working for.

It's a bit of voodoo that hasn't worked out exactly to Birmingham's plan, as New Mexico, while impressive at 27-17 and 17-4 in the Mountain West, hasn't steamrolled its schedule like I thought it could. But there is one constant about the postseason: It's wild and unpredictable, and if you're going to bet on anything, bet on talent. The "best" team does not always win the postseason, instead becoming victims of the format.

If the Lobos have anything, they have talent. DJ Peterson is one of the best hitters in the country, batting .403 with 13 homers and 20 doubles this season (yes, those numbers are inflated to a degree by playing in New Mexico). Mitch Garver has a .450 on-base percentage and a .527 slugging percentage. The Lobos rank fourth in the country with a team OBP of .419.

New Mexico's pitching staff hasn't totally come together this season, but Sam Wolff -- whose 3.81 ERA is also more impressive than that considering his home ballpark -- has the ability to win Game 1 in any regional, which thus gives the Lobos more than a slim chance to surprise.

Gonzaga

We said risky picks are encouraged, right?

Gonzaga is 28-14 overall and a WCC-best 15-6, and this pick can be summarized in two words: Marco Gonzales.

The lefty has a 2.77 ERA with 66 strikeouts and 16 walks in 78 innings so far this season, and he's a borderline first-round prospect for the 2013 MLB draft. The good news for Gonzaga: Its stable of quality arms doesn't end with Gonzales.

Tyler Olson leads the team in ERA at 2.25 and has allowed only 68 hits in 80 innings. Derek Callahan is a capable third starter who has a 3.56 ERA and throws a ton of strikes, and Arturo Reyes (1.73 ERA in 41 2/3 innings) is a horse out of the bullpen.

The problems for the Bulldogs come at the plate, and it's more than possible they get shut down in their first two regional games and go home. But much like Wolff's role for New Mexico, I believe in Gonzales' ability to beat not only good teams, but the best teams in the country. And that's the starter kit for winning in the postseason and making an Omaha run: stealing a game on the mound and then riding the momentum and good fortune.

Florida

Bet on talent? Then we're going to take a flier on the Gators, who've been one of the most disappointing teams this season considering how high the preseason expectations were. Florida has been marred by injuries and inconsistent performance, but it's quietly 25-20 and 12-9 in the SEC after eating dirt early on.

The signature moment, and perhaps a turning point, this season: sweeping South Carolina at home April 11-13. Since then, the Gators have midweek wins over Florida Gulf Coast and USF, and they won two of three against Missouri and Tennessee in consecutive weekends en route to an 8-2 record in their past 10 games.

Florida has received strong bullpen work from Johnny Magliozzi (2.01 ERA and 10 walks in 44 2/3 innings) and Daniel Gibson (2.10 ERA in 34 1/3 innings). Jonathon Crawford has battled through a frustrating season. But you can be sure that no SEC team wants to see Crawford and his low-90s sinker in their regional, because when he's commanding it to both sides of the plate and throwing his slider for strikes, he can be dominant.

Florida goes to LSU this weekend for three games. Win that series, and the Gators may graduate from "deep sleeper" status and vault back into the Top 25.

Arizona

There's a first order of business for the defending national champions: The Wildcats need to get into the NCAA tournament. I think they will. At 28-15 and 9-9 in the Pac-12, Arizona is firmly on the bubble, but the Pac-12 deserves a half-dozen teams in the postseason (Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and Stanford).

If Andy Lopez's group gets in, they will be dangerous. The Wildcats rank eighth in the country in on-base percentage (.411) and possess a pitching staff that hasn't played up to its ability. Konner Wade has been solid, with a 3.48 ERA in 77 2/3 innings, but he hasn't set match and gasoline to the league like we thought he could this season. Still, he's capable of ruining your afternoon.

Tyler Crawford (3.79 ERA in 54 2/3 innings) and James Farris (4.21 ERA in 72 2/3 innings) gave Lopez some rotation stability in a season in which he admits has been a lot like drawing straws to determine who to hand the ball to. Of course, Arizona still has Mathew Troupe (2.48 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 29 innings) at the back of the bullpen, the brand of multi-inning weapon few teams can deploy.

I don't believe much in the "experience" factor, because we've seen unaccomplished teams and inexperienced players turn June on its head plenty before. But I do believe in Lopez's ability to manage his team through a regional -- which takes a certain tact -- and I believe Arizona can win one best-of-three series to get to Omaha. Any team is capable of winning one series.

Miami

The Hurricanes are usually a quality offensive team. These Hurricanes? They can't hit. Their team OBP (.354) is lethargic, and there isn't one real power threat in the lineup. So why are they a deep sleeper for Omaha?

Two reasons: Jim Morris' club has some pitching and the ability to hang around games and series.

At 29-18 (11-13 ACC), Miami needs to finish its season strong against St. John's, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech to give itself a legitimate tournament case. Playing well in the ACC tournament would help.

But if the Canes do get in, they have Bryan Radziewski -- and his 0.95 ERA, 73 strikeouts and 16 walks in 56 2/3 innings -- to throw in Game 1. Chris Diaz  and his 1.53 ERA, 51 strikeouts and 13 walks in 76 2/3 innings -- could go in Game 2. Andrew Suarez (3.11 ERA in 63 2/3 innings) and Javi Salas (3.31 ERA in 65 1/3 innings) are quality third and fourth starters, and Eric Nedeljkovic (0.83 ERA, 25 strikeouts and two walks in 21 2/3 innings) has been nails at the back of the bullpen.

Miami doesn't have a great series victory on its schedule -- taking two-of-three from Clemson is solid -- but it avoided being swept by North Carolina, Florida, Florida State and Virginia by winning one game in each series. Sound like a backhanded compliment?

It's not; there's real value in the ability to salvage games. One victory guarantees you a Game 3 in the postseason, at which point teams with quality depth on the mound begin to have an advantage. Put the Hurricanes in a Tallahassee, Fla., or Columbia, S.C., Regional, or wherever, and they have the ability to pitch out of it.

A bullet for each of this weekend's best series:

The Dirtbags visit Goodwin Field

• Long Beach State-Cal State Fullerton is one of the most underrated rivalries in the country, one that is largely a West Coast secret. The reason for that is simple: The Big West isn't one of college sports' most heralded conferences, and Long Beach State hasn't been a viable threat to Fullerton since Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria were in school.

The Dirtbags aren't in the Titans' class this season, either -- Fullerton is ranked No. 4 in the nation at 36-7 overall, while Long Beach State is unranked at 21-21 -- but it has been a mostly positive season for head coach Troy Buckley in Long Beach. His club is 9-6 in Big West play and trails Fullerton by three games. Oh sure, the odds of the Dirtbags sweeping Fullerton this weekend are almost zero, but what matters is they are finally within reach of their rivals again. Even better days are ahead for Long Beach State.

We all wish we lived in Columbia, S.C.

• No. 2 Vanderbilt at No. 9 South Carolina.

Do you need more than that to be excited about this series? The Commodores (39-6, 19-2 SEC) have a six-game lead over the Gamecocks (33-12, 13-8) in the SEC East, but forget about that -- the talent gap in these two clubs is not that wide.

Vanderbilt ranks 12th in the nation in ERA (2.58 ERA) and is equal to North Carolina, LSU and every other elite team in terms of talent and potential. There's no question Tim Corbin's Commodores can win a national title this season. South Carolina is coming off a series victory in Baton Rouge last weekend, a huge boost for a good team that has fought injuries and questions all season. If a series comes down to Sunday, South Carolina freshman Jack Wynkoop (2.66 ERA in 47 1/3 innings) matches up well with anyone.

The rising Sun Devils

• Mark Appel and No. 25 Stanford visit Tempe this weekend to play No. 16 Arizona State, a team the Cardinal trail by 2.5 games in the Pac-12 race.

Tim Esmay's Sun Devils have won five in a row and eight of their past 10, coming on strong in the past month. They took two-of-three from UCLA and Oregon at home and swept USC and Utah on the road. If they beat Stanford twice this weekend and Arizona twice in two weeks, the Sun Devils will have won series against four of the other five teams in the top half of the conferences (ASU lost two at Oregon State in March).

That's a sneaky good résumé and could give Arizona State a solid shot at hosting a regional.

The SEC's perplexing series

• No. 14 Arkansas travels to No. 23 Kentucky this week, and it's been an odd season for both teams.

The Razorbacks went 0-4 in the Coca-Cola Classic at the beginning of the season (losing to Gonzaga, Pacific and ASU twice) but swept South Carolina on the road. They took two-of-three from Mississippi State and lost two-of-three to Ole Miss. They won a series at Alabama and lost one at home to LSU. Arkansas is a talented team driving in perpetual stop-and-go traffic.

Kentucky was swept by LSU (understandable) and lost two-of-three at home against Tennessee (not so much). The Wildcats beat Ole Miss at home and Florida on the road; they were swept by South Carolina on the road. Now here comes Arkansas to Lexington, Ky. I can tell you both of these teams are pretty talented. However, I don't have even the slightest idea of who's going to win.

Prospect watch: Mason Katz, 1B, LSU

At 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds, Katz isn't a highly-touted pro prospect; he lacks projection. But what the senior doesn't lack is the ability to hit and hit for power.

Katz is hitting .379/.465/.692 this season with 13 homers and 10 doubles. Most impressively, for all that power, Katz has only 28 strikeouts compared to 26 walks.

With Florida at home this weekend, and it will be another SEC weekend for Katz to show he can rake. He's probably a Day 2 draft pick in June, and he's a tough profile for the professional game. But some team will take him fairly early, send him out to full-season ball and see if he can hit his way to the big leagues.

Today in Omaha: High around 40 degrees, scattered rain and snow showers, 44 days until CWS Game 1.