College Baseball 2021 – a UK perspective

Like all of you reading this, I am ecstatic to see Major League Baseball return in a much more recognisable form than the version we saw in 2020. That being said, there has also been some top quality baseball going on since before most teams reported to Spring Training. Today, I am going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of college baseball. NCAA baseball has some of the most rabid and passionate fans in the sport and that rubs off on the players with bat flips and K struts galore.

There are three divisions in the college game and D1 alone has nearly 300 (that’s not a typo) schools that take part but I’ll give you an inside look at the top teams and names to look out for which will hopefully whet your appetite for more! All of these teams will be hoping to come out on top at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska at the end of June.

The current No.1 ranked team is the Arkansas Razorbacks. The ‘Omahogs’ have been coached by Dave Van Horn since 2003 and they have, arguably, the most talented roster he’s ever presided over. They have never won a College World Series and have only ever been runners-up twice – most recently in 2018 – but this year’s squad are on course for something special.

The Razorbacks are riding a juggernaut offence which is spearheaded by utility man Brady Slavens and infielders Cayden Wallace and Christian Franklin. This offence just this week exploded for a 26-1 demolishing of lowly state rivals Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and the Hogs must now have shares in the state of Mississippi after sweeping Mississippi State and taking two out of three from Ole Miss including an 18-14 victory which will take some beating for the game of the year.

Current major leaguers to play at Walker-Baum Stadium include Brian Anderson, Andrew Benintendi and Dallas Keuchel. These names couldn’t deliver a World Series but hopes are high that the current crop of talent can break the duck. They will certainly take some stopping.

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One team with the facilities to potentially stop them is the Vanderbilt Commodores, more commonly known as the Vandy Boys. The school from Nashville are the current holders of the College World Series having won the 2019 version and have a pitching rotation that could shut down Arkansas.

This is headed by 1-2 punch better than any in the game in Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter. The former is an intimidating presence on the mound with his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame and blazing fastball and wipeout slider. The son of former NFL player and current coach Tracy Rocker was tipped to go into the draft in 2018 straight out of high school but opted to pull on the black and gold of Vandy. He sits with a 7-1 record currently so I think they’re happy with that decision.

The other half of this two-headed monster is another son of a former athlete in Jack Leiter whose dad is former All-Star and World Series-winning pitcher Al Leiter. Jack is 7-0 in 2021 with a freakishly low 0.55 ERA. He followed in his dad’s footsteps by throwing a no-hitter on 21 March against South Carolina. In this performance, he walked the leadoff man and was perfect the rest of the way with 16 strikeouts… yeah. He followed that up with seven more no-hit innings in his next start against Missouri before being pulled and watching the combined no-hitter fall with two outs in the ninth. How’s that for an encore?

There is a real possibility that these two could go first and second in the MLB draft this summer which would be a first for college teammates. Coach Tim Corbin has also been in charge since 2003 and, in that time, has guided the team to two World Series titles and produced top pitching talents like David Price, Walker Buehler and Sonny Gray as well as others like Dansby Swanson, Brian Reynolds and Mike Yastrzemski. He has the talent this year to retain the title.

The surprise package Texas Longhorns have blasted their way into third in the rankings with a ten-game win streak capped with sweeps over Kansas State and Nevada but, with series’ against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and TCU to come, it can be argued that their real tests are yet to come. That being said, they cannot be ignored with Ivan Melendez having an impressive six-game home run streak during that time. Can the Longhorns keep up this form? That remains to be seen but they have certainly turned more than a few heads so far in 2021.

The school is tied for second-most championships in history with six along with Louisiana State but are without one since 2005. They sit behind USC (University of Southern California) who dominated college ball in the 70s to help them rack up 12 titles but they haven’t won it all since 1998 and, before that, it was 1978! This shows how competitive baseball is at this level with very few teams having an abundance of titles or long periods of dominance

Behind them in the current rankings sit one of the establishments of college baseball – Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have never won a College World Series but have, arguably, the best ballpark in all of college baseball. Dudy Noble Field aka ‘the Carnegie Hall of College Baseball’ holds almost 16,000 crazed Mississippians. It holds the top three spots for the highest attendance at an NCAA on-campus game with the record being 15,586 in a game against their bitter rival Ole Miss in April 2014. They have barbeques in the ‘Left Field Lounge’ area of the stadium and the smell of grilled meat drifting across the field on a warm, sunny afternoon/evening in Starkville is this writer’s idea of baseball heaven!

It is not just the park that makes the Dawgs so good, they are another team with a legitimate roster this year that can challenge just about anyone on their day. They were undoubtedly stung badly by Arkansas coming into ‘The Dude’ and sweeping them on the last weekend in March but they have bounced back with sweeps of their own against Kentucky and Auburn. The offence is led by Kamren James, Tanner Allen and Luke Hancock while they have a ‘pen as stingy as just about anyone in the league. Chase Patrick, Houston Harding and Landon Sims are all lights-out this season.

This weekend, they are taking on those old foes from Oxford – Ole Miss. University of Mississippi to give them their official title but the Rebels are Ole Miss to all in college sports. The former stomping ground of Lance Lynn and Drew Pomeranz is another school whose support and stature has not quite been rewarded with success at the highest level.

One of the oldest baseball schools in the country, their baseball team can be traced back to 1893 and the current squad is coached by Mike Bianco who has been in charge since 2001. This year’s squad are led offensively by Tim Elko and Kevin Graham while Drew McDaniel and Wes Burton are solid arms. Bonus is that their first baseman Cael Baker looks like a 80s wrestler!

Like their in-state rivals, the Rebs have a wonderful ballpark in Swayze Field. Their Twitter bio proudly proclaims it “the best atmosphere in college baseball” and it really is hard to argue. The crowd gets raucous, particularly the student section in the right field bleachers who launch their beers in the air on every home run and where shirts are strictly optional. Their series at Dudy Noble this weekend will be the first between the two teams this year and is a mouth-watering proposition.

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Honourable mention time now. Firstly to the Virginia Tech Hoakies and their ‘hammer time’ home run celebration which is one of the best celebrations in all of sports. To Texas A&M Aggies fans for their ‘ball chant’ when they chant the number of wide pitches thrown in a row until a strike is thrown. It has made many a poor young pitcher fall apart like a $10 suit. Finally, we cannot forget about the great college baseball hotbed that is Florida. Neither the Seminoles nor Gators are hitting their usual heights so far this season but are both still ranked in the top 25. Throw into the mix the Miami Hurricanes and UCF Knights, and the Sunshine State still has its fair share of college powerhouses

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So, check it out. Live games are hard to come by on UK TV or even streaming services but some schools will do live streams and/or radio commentary on their websites and I have discovered a YouTube channel called ‘Wheels’ who does comprehensive highlights of the big games. In terms of preview and analysis, is a superb reference point and the creators and editors of it Kendall Rogers and Aaron Fitt are great follows on Twitter. Scores can also be followed on the ESPN app. Have a look, pick a team or just enjoy the noise of the aluminium bat on ball and enter the wonderful world of college baseball.

Feature photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Baseball

Mark Strange is a feature writer for the Bat Flips & Nerds team. You can follow him on Twitter @realmarkstrange

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