ACC Baseball Season Preview: Atlantic Division Teams Have CWS Hopes

1. Louisville Cardinals (50-17)

Despite perennial powerhouse, Florida State Seminoles winning the last eight Atlantic Division titles, it looks like the Louisville Cardinals could be the team to dethrone the Seminoles this season and deny FSU’s ninth straight Atlantic Division championship.

Louisville is picked to finish second in the Atlantic Division with 84 points (4 first place votes) behind Florida State who finished with 91 points (7) in the ACC Baseball Preseason Coaches Poll. The Cardinals are heading into their first season in the ACC after winning the inaugural American Athletic Conference regular season title. Louisville lost to the University of Houston in the AAC Championship game, 10-4 but was able to advance to Omaha and the College World Series where they lost to Texas, 4-1 in the losers bracket of the double elimination tournament.

Louisville returns 19 letter winners and lose just nine players from last year’s squad. Seven of the nine non-returners from last year’s team were taken in the 2014 Major League Baseball Amateur Player Draft including right-handed pitcher Nick Burdi (MIN, 2nd Round, 46th overall), and outfielders Jeff Gardner (WAS, 8th Rd, 244 overall) and Cole Sturgeon (BOS, 10th Rd, 314).

Burdi made 32 appearances last year for the Cardinals and recorded a 3-1 record with 18 saves and an 0.49 ERA. Gardner started in all 65 games that he appeared in for the Cardinals last year where he was second on the team in hitting with a .313 average and a team high .525 slugging percentage. Gardner also led the team in doubles (20), home runs (9) and RBI (68). Gardner also hit two triples in 2014 as well.

Sturgeon started in all of Louisville’s 67 games last season where he led the team in hitting with a .323 average and triples with seven. Sturgeon also hit two home runs and 35 RBI in his final season at Louisville.

The four other Louisville draft picks include RHP Jared Ruxer (LAA, 12th, 359), LHP Joe Filomeno (TEX, 15th, 456), INF Grant Kay (TB 27th, 817) and LHP Kyle McGrath (SD, 36th, 1077).

While the production of Burdi, Gardner and Sturgeon will be missed, the Cardinals have 10 other letter winners returning as well as 16 freshman. Expect sophomore infielder Nick Solak to take more of a starting role this season for Louisville after hitting .351 with two home runs and 25 RBI in 45 games (27 starts) and 97 at-bats.

Don’t be surprised to see redshirt freshman Blake Tiberi get some significant playing time at third and first base this season after having a great season in summer ball for the Vermont Mountaineers of the NECBL. For the Mountaineers, Tiberi hit .372 with two home runs, seven doubles, one triple and 13 RBI. Tiberi was also a starter for the North All-Stars in the 2014 NECBL All-Star Game.

Look for sophomores Colin Lyman and Corey Ray to step up to fill out the outfield left by Sturgeon and Gardner. Lyman hit .263 with four doubles, two triples and 16 RBI in 55 games (31 starts) and 114 at-bats in his freshman season. Ray hit .325 with five doubles, two triple, one home run and 17 RBI in 43 games (19 starts) and 77 at-bats. Also expect junior Danny Rosenbaum take on an even bigger role this season after hitting .294 with two home runs and 24 RBI in 54 games (37 starts)

Infielder Zach Lucas returns for his senior season after he didn’t come to terms and sign a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates who drafted him in the 29th round with the 881st pick in last year’s MLB Draft. The senior captain hit .270 with 13 doubles, two triples, five homers and 44 RBI in 67 games and 65 starts.

On the pitching side, the Cardinals return junior Friday night starter Kyle Funkhouser to lead the rotation as well as junior captain, Anthony Kidston who is expected to slide into the Saturday starter position after the departure Ruxer to the draft.

Funkhouser was fantastic on the mound last season, posting a 13-3 record with a 1.94 ERA, 122 strikeouts in 18 starts and 120.1 innings pitched. The First Team Louisville Slugger All-American also held opposing hitters to just a .201 batting average against as a sophomore. Funkhouser was also named a First Team Preseason All-American by Perfect Game.

Kidston meanwhile posted a 9-1 record with a 3.40 ERA, 69 strikeouts in 14 starts and 76.2 innings pitched. He also held opponents to just a .215 average against.

The Cardinals have been ranked anywhere from No. 9 to No.12 in Preseason Top 25 Polls by three publications, Perfect Game (No. 9), D1Baseball (No. 11) and Collegiate Baseball (No. 12) so far leading up to this upcoming season.

With six players named to Perfect Game’s Top 100 Class-by-Class Ranking, (Funkhouser No. 2 junior, Lucas No. 20 senior, Mike White No. 68 senior, Zack Burdi No. 22 sophomore, Ray No. 62 sophomore, Brendan McKay No. 20 freshman), the Louisville Cardinals should have what it takes to take down the Florida State Seminoles for the top spot in the ACC Atlantic Division.

2. Florida State Seminoles (43-17, 21-9 ACC, 1st Atlantic)

Picked to finish first in the Atlantic Division in the ACC Baseball Coaches Pre-Season Poll, the Seminoles look to win their ninth straight Atlantic Division Title. It won’t be easy though as ACC newcomer, Louisville will look to knock of the Seminoles from their Atlantic Division perch.

Ranked No. 11 in Collegiate Baseball’s Top 40 Preseason Poll, the Seminoles lost eight players to last year’s MLB Draft including Saturday Starter Luke Weaver who was selected 21st overall by the St. Louis Cardinals. Weaver went 8-4 with a 2.62 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 16 starts and 106.1 innings pitched in his final season at Florida State.

To no one’s surprise Florida State also lost redshirt sophomore Jameis Winston who declared for the 2015 NFL Draft following the football team’s blowout loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl in the Semifinals of the College Football Playoff. Winston did a fine job on the mound for the Seminoles last season, recording seven saves and an 1-0 record with a 1.08 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 24 relief appearances and 33.1 innings pitched.

However Florida State does return 16 letter winners from last season including reigning ACC Player of the Year DJ Stewart and starting pitcher, Mike Compton. Stewart finished in the ACC Top 10 in eight offensive categories last season including leading the ACC in batting average (.351), on-base percentage (.472) and slugging percentage (.557). The junior outfielder also finished with 19 doubles, seven homers and 50 RBI in 2014.

On the pitching front, Compton will return to lead the Seminoles pitching staff. Last season, the redshirt junior made 15 starts posting a 7-3 record with a 3.23 ERA, while striking out 50 batters in 83.2 innings pitched.

Stewart and Compton along with the 14 other returning letter winners and 17 newcomers should allow the Seminoles to compete once again for their ninth straight Atlantic Division title.

3. Clemson Tigers (36-25, 15-14 ACC, Tied for 2nd Atlantic)

Picked to finish third in the Atlantic Division in the ACC Baseball Preseason Coaches Poll the Tigers will find themselves once again behind Florida State and ACC newcomer coming into this season. The Purple and Orange finished last season tied for second in the Atlantic Division last year with Maryland in the Terrapins final season in the ACC before they departed for the Big Ten.

Clemson returns five of nine starters in the field (including the DH) as well as four of five starting pitchers from last season. They also return a total of 23 of 32 letter winners from last season.

Among the returnees are Perfect Game Preseason Third Team All-Americans, junior right fielder Steven Duggar and sophomore catcher Chris Okey. Duggar had a team high 25 steals, good for second best in the ACC along with a team high, three triples. The junior outfielder also hit .296 with one home run and 36 RBI in all of Clemson’s 61 games last year. Duggar was also rated the No. 27 Top College Prospect for the 2015 MLB Draft by Perfect Game.

Last season Okey hit .248 with nine doubles, one triple, and a team high four home runs and 41 RBI in 61 games last year for the Tigers. He and Duggar were two of five players to play in every game for the Tigers in 2014. The sophomore catcher also hit .286 with four doubles, one homer, six RBI and a .407 on-base percentage in 22 games over the summer for the USA Collegiate National Team.

The Tigers also return their leading hitter, junior shortstop Tyler Krieger and junior lefthander Matthew Crownover to lead their pitching staff. Kreiger hit .338 with 18 doubles, two home runs and 32 RBI last season. Kreiger also added 19 stolen bases and a .410 on-base percentage in 57 games for Clemson in 2014.

Crownover returns to take over the role as “Ace” of the pitching staff left by junior right-hander Daniel Gossett who was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the second round with the 61st overall pick in last year’s MLB Draft. Crownover has big shoes to fill this season as the leader of the staff as Gossett went 7-2 last year with a 1.93 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 107.1 innings pitched and 15 starts including 2 complete games.

Crownover led the team in wins in last year however with an 8-6 record and a 2.90 ERA. The junior southpaw also struck out 90 batters and held opposing hitters to a .251 batting average in 99.1 innings pitched in 17 appearances and 16 starts so he should do a fine job in taking over as the leader of the pitching staff left by Gossett.

Senior centerfielder Tyler Slaton also returns after hitting .274 with nine doubles, three triples, three homers, 11 steals and 25 RBI in all 61 games last season.

4. NC State Wolfpack (32-23, 13-17 ACC, 5th Atlantic)

After a somewhat disappointing finish in the ACC Atlantic Division last season the Wolfpack look to improve upon last year’s 13-17 conference record. Picked to finish 4th in the Atlantic in the ACC Baseball Preseason Coaches Poll, the Wolfpack will look to sophomore third baseman, Andrew Knizner to carry the load and to improve upon his already impressive breakout freshman season.

The All-ACC Third Teamer and Freshman First Team All-American from last season, Knizner was named as a Preseason First Team All-American by Perfect Game. Knizner figures to be one of the most exciting sophomores in college baseball after he hit .330 with 11 doubles, four home runs and 47 RBI starting in 52 games as a freshman. If he can avoid the sophomore slump, NC State should be in good shape to improve this season.

5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (30-26, 15-15 ACC, 4th Atlantic)

After improving upon a 9-20 ACC record in 2013, to an even 15-15 ACC record last season, the Deacs look to continue to improve this season as well. Picked to finish 5th in the Atlantic this season in the ACC Baseball Preseason Coaches Poll, the Demon Deacons return several starters and key players from last season including Nate Mondou, Will Craig and Aaron Fossas.

Craig, who was named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American last season is a two way player who played himself into the starting third baseman’s spot and can come into pitch occasionally as well. At the plate, Craig hit .280 with six doubles, 36 RBI and a team leading eight home runs as a freshman last season.  He showed promise on the mound as well, making seven appearances, one start, and posted a 1-0 record with a 4.05 ERA.

Mondou, another promising sophomore for the Deacs had an almost equally impressive freshman season as well. The sophomore utility man hit .279 with 11 doubles, 22 RBI and was second on the team in homers with seven. The two sophomore power bats will look to carry the Demon Deacon lineup.

After losing their entire starting rotation to the draft and graduation, there is some uncertainty surrounding the Deacons pitching staff. One of those pitchers that could take over the rotation is Fossas.

The Redshirt Junior emerged the closer last  season picking up 10 saves while posting a 5-1 record with a 3.51 ERA in 41 innings pitched. Fossas was used as a starter during summer ball however for the Plymouth Pilgrims of the NECBL where he posted a 3-1 record with a 2.70 ERA in 40 innings pitched as a starter. It will be interesting to see whether the Demon Deacons decide to continue to use him as their closer or as a starter and make him the leader of their pitching staff.

6. Boston College Eagles (22-33, 10-20 ACC, 6th Atlantic)

After finishing in 6th place in the Atlantic Division with a 10-20 record in the ACC, the Eagles were picked to finish last in the ACC Baseball Coaches Preseason Poll for 2015. The Eagles however will be lead by Preseason Perfect Game First Team All-American junior Chris Shaw.

As a sophomore, Shaw earned First Team All ACC honors while leading the Eagles in hitting (.329), slugging percentage (.502), RBI (45), hits (68), doubles (18) and home runs (6). Shaw also had a successful stint in the Cape Cod League this past summer as well where he led the league with eight home runs and was second in RBI with 34 and tied for second in doubles with 10.

2014 saw Shaw string together the third longest hit streak in Boston College history (16) and he finished the season with at least one-hit in 22 of his final 24 games. If the Eagles are going to see themselves soar out of the Atlantic Division basement to new heights, they are going to need Shaw to start 2015 right where he left off.

7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (22-31, 9-21 ACC, 7th Atlantic)

Picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic Division in the ACC Baseball Preseason Coaches Poll, the Irish return 23 letterwinners to this year’s squad, which finished last in the Atlantic Division just a year ago with a 9-21 ACC record and 22-31 overall.

But that is the tough life of a cold weather school playing baseball in a predominantly southern school baseball conference. That is another thing that Notre Dame has in common with fellow private Catholic school rival, Boston College.

The Irish don’t have to accept their fate as an Atlantic Division basement dweller though. With a fairly strong incoming freshman class with two players listed on Perfect Game’s Top 100 Freshman ranking (Peter Solomon, No. 87 and Brad Bass, No. 95) and a fast athletic, outfield, Notre Dame could be a surprise team this spring.

Junior outfielder Kyle Richardson has shown tremendous speed and has the ability to become an elite defender. He just needs to work on his hitting. Over the summer, Richardson showed some progress at the plate hitting .250 with three home runs and 19 RBI for the North Adams SteepleCats of the NECBL.

Seniors Blaise Lezynski and Mac Hudgins will pace the offense for the Irish this season. Lezynski hit a team high .296 with one home run and a team best 12 doubles and 32 RBI. Expect Hudgins to take on a bigger role this season as well after hitting .288 on the year, good for second best on the team, six doubles, two triples and 10 RBI.

Senior right hander Scott Kerrigan will lead the pitching staff once again this season after finishing 2014 with a 3-1 record and a 1.87 ERA in 14 appearances and nine starts.  Junior southpaw Michael Hearne will also help lead the staff after he finished his sophomore campaign with a 5-6 record and a 2.51 ERA in 19 appearances. nine starts and 86 innings pitched.







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