College baseball is finally underway once again! Its time for our 2016 ACC Atlantic Division Baseball Preview.
1) Louisville Cardinals (47-18 overall, 25-5 ACC, 1st Atlantic)
Last year the Louisville Cardinals took the ACC by storm in their first season in the conference. The Cardinals raced out to a 25-5 record in the ACC unseating the Florida State Seminoles place in ACC Atlantic Division supremacy. However, this young Cardinal team lost steam in the ACC Tournament, getting eliminated from ACC Championship contention after getting shutout by Florida State in the conference tournament. The Cardinals then failed to make the trip to Omaha in the NCAA Tournament as only two ACC teams, Miami and Virginia advanced to the College World Series.
Despite falling short of winning the ACC and reaching the College World Series, the Cardinals are expected to be the favorites in the ACC. Despite getting drafted in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft (35th overall) by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kyle Funkhouser returns to head the Cardinals pitching staff that posted a 2.47 team ERA a year ago. Funkhouser along with Lincoln Henzman and Zack Burdi closing out the bullpen, Louisville’s pitching staff should be just as formidable as it was a year ago.
Among other returning starters, the Cardinals return sophomore dual player pitcher/1B sophomore Brendan McKay, outfielder Corey Ray, and infielder Nick Solak. McKay is a threat on the mound and at the plate. making 13 starts and 20 appearances going 9-3 and posted a 1.77 ERA. At the plate he hit four home runs driving in 34 RBI and hit .308 as a freshman.
Ray had a breakout season as a sophomore hitting 11 home runs, driving in 56 runs hitting .325. Ray also swiped 34 bags in 44 attempts including a walk-off steal of home to finish off a sweep of Wake Forest.
Solak returns for his junior season and had a breakout season as a sophomore hitting .328, three home runs and 40 RBI. Louisville has started the 2016 campaign 4-0 and is in great position to repeat as ACC Atlantic Division champions.
Key Returning players: Kyle Funkhouser, Lincoln Henzman, Zack Burdi, Brendan McKay, Corey Ray, Nick Solak
2) Florida State Seminoles (44-21, 17-13 ACC, 3rd in Atlantic)
The defending Florida State Seminoles were knocked off of their Atlantic Division perch last year by the upstart Louisville Cardinals, but it didn’t stop them from winning their sixth ACC Tournament Championship in program history and first ACC Tournament Title since 2010, behind the strong arm of freshman Boomer Biegalski. The Seminoles will look to reclaim the Atlantic Division title however without the 2015 ACC Tournament MVP. Biegalski was drafted in the 14th Round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics and later signed a professional contract with the A’s later that summer.
Redshirt Senior Mike Compton, Junior Jim Voyles and Sophomore Drew Carlton all return this season however and hope to fill the void left by Biegalski in the Seminoles starting rotation.
Compton last season posted a 4-4 record with a 3.55 ERA, 70 strikeouts and 12 walks in 71 innings pitched as a redshirt junior. Voyles, who pitched primarily out of the bullpen last season put up some stellar numbers in relief posting a 2.63 ERA with 27 strikeouts and 10 walks in 27.1 innings pitched. Carlton, who made 12 starts in 18 appearances as a freshman last year, including starting in his last 11 appearances posted a 5-5 record with a 4.05 ERA. Not much of a strikeout pitcher last year sending only 60 batters down on strikes in 71.1 innings pitched, also walked 19 batters and gave up 76 hits last year as well. While Carlton doesn’t have to be a big strikeout pitcher with the likes of Compton, who averaged nearly a strikeout per inning, he needs to work on locating his pitches better to cut down on his walks as well as hits, which he gave up an average of more than one hit per inning last season.
In addition to losing Biegalski to the draft, the Seminoles also lost stud junior outfielder DJ Stewart to the draft as well. Stewart was selected in the first round (25th overall) by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2015 MLB Draft. Junior outfielder Ben DeLuzio and senior infielders Quincy Nieporte and John Sansone will look to fill the void in the lineup left by Stewart’s bat.
The Seminoles offense does not look to be hurting too much though so far as they exploded for 50 runs in their three game sweep over Rhode Island last weekend to start the season.
Key Returners: Quincy Nieporte, John Sansone, Mike Compton, Ben DeLuzio, Drew Carlton, Dylan Busby Key Losses: Boomer Biegalski, DJ Stewart
3) NC State Wolfpack (36-23, 15-14 ACC, 5th Atlantic)
The 2015 NC State Wolfpack made a Statement with some exciting play last year in the ACC Tournament upsetting two-seed Miami in extra-inning walk-off fashion before ultimately falling short in the ACC Championship by a dominant Boomer Biegalski and the Florida State Seminoles. They look to make another Statement to the rest of the ACC and the country during the 2016 season.
The No. 8 Wolfpack return all of their key players from last year including senior infielder Ryne Willard, junior infielders Andrew Knizner, and Preston Palmeiro as well as sophomore outfielder, Brock Deatherage.
On the pitching front, sophomore Brian Brown returns to lead the pitching rotation for Elliot Avent’s ball club. Cory Wilder and Johnny Piedmonte also return to round out the rotation.
Brown was phenomenal last season as a freshman posting a 7-3 record with a 2.03 ERA in 15 starts and 78 strikeouts in 79.2 innings pitched. Brown will try to build upon his stellar freshman campaign and avoid a sophomore slump.
Juniors Wilder and Piedmonte will round out the rotation for the Wolfpack. Wilder had a solid season last year posting a 2-5 record with a 3.50 ERA starting in 14 of 15 games. Wilder has a strong power pitching arm recording 79 strikeouts in 64.1 innings but tends to sometimes resemble his name-sake walking 59 batters as well.
Piedmonte made 12 starts and 15 appearances last season posting a 1-2 record with a 3.26 ERA. The red-shirt junior struck out 40 batters and walked 14 in 49.2 innings of work. The tall 6-8 righthander is more of a contact pitcher that complements the power arms of Brown and Wilder, allowing an average of about one hit per inning.
After dropping their season opener to Old Dominion in Myrtle Beach, the Wolfpack have won three in a row and with a solid core of returning starters, both position players and pitchers, NC State may see themselves challenging Louisville and Florida State at the top of the Atlantic Division come season’s end.
Key Returning Starters: Ryne Willard, Andrew Knizner, Preston Palmeiro, Brock Deatherage, Brian Brown
4) Clemson Tigers (32-29, 16-13 ACC, 4th Atlantic)
For the first time in 22 years, someone other than legendary baseball coach Jack Leggett will be managing the Clemson Tigers baseball club. Leggett had won 955 games as head coach of the Tigers before being dismissed following last season which saw Clemson finish 32-29 overall and an early first round exit from the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
The saying goes that you never want to replace a legend. Instead you want to replace the guy who replaced the legend. Well the guy replacing the legend just so happens to be Monte Lee who is coming off of seven successful seasons as the head coach of the College of Charleston that includes four NCAA Appearances (Three Regional Appearances, One Super Regional Appearance) and a Southern Conference Championship in 2014.
Lee has been welcomed to the Tigers with open arms. Speaking with Elaine Day at Clemson Athletics, she said that “Everyone loves him.” Junior Infielder Weston Wilson told Day that everyone felt “free” on Opening Day and that Lee wants all the players to play loose with an offensive mindset. All the players are really excited about that mentality heading into the season.
The Tigers are led by junior catcher Chris Okey, redshirt-sophomore Reed Rohlman, junior infielders Eli White and Weston Wilson as well as sophomore southpaw Charlie Barnes. Even with a solid core of veterans, the Tigers also have a strong crop of freshman that are coming in looking to make an impact this season.
Freshman outfielder Seth Beer, a highly touted prospect has already made an impact this season hitting a grand slam in the second game of their opening weekend series against Maine and freshman southpaw Jake Higgingbotham won the Sunday starter job giving up two runs in five innings picking up the win.
Senior Clate Schmidt who beat cancer over the summer, is back as a starter and picked up the first win of the Montee Lee era at Clemson.
Despite losing key starters such as Matthew Crownover, Tyler Krieger, Zach Erwin and Steve Duggar, the Tigers, under the new leadership of Lee with a good core of veterans and a strong freshman class, should be able to improve from last year and make a run at a potential deep run in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments respectively.
Key Returners: Chris Okey, Reed Rohlman, Weston Wilson, Eli White, Charlie Barnes Key Losses: Matthew Crownover, Tyler Krieger, Zach Erwin, Steven Duggar
5) Boston College Eagles (27-27, 10-19 ACC, 7th Atlantic)
What is a team that finished in last place in the Atlantic Division and lost their best player, Chris Shaw to the MLB Draft this pas summer showing up in 5th place in the Atlantic Division preview? Two words. Notre Dame.
Last year the Fighting Irish came out of nowhere surprising everybody in college baseball by finishing tied for second last year in the Atlantic Division with Florida State and reaching the NCAA Tournament. Do I think the Eagles are going to make that kind of run? No, but I do think that Boston College is going to surprise a lot of people in the ACC this year and become “this year’s Notre Dame” in 2016.
What makes me think that Boston College is going to make some noise in the ACC this year? Let’s compare the Eagle’s hot start this year (7-0) to the Irish’s hot start from a year ago. Last year, Notre Dame started 10-1 before conference play began. People thought that the Irish would eventually come back down to earth once conference play started but that never happened as they ended up going 17-13 in conference play last season.
Despite the loss of Shaw, Boston College still has a strong group of returning players such as senior captain Joe Cronin, junior Johnny Adams, senior lefty Jesse Adams, and junior right-handers Mike King and Justin Dunn who will lead the pitching staff.
Sophomore Donovan Casey will also be expected to be a huge part of this BC lineup, hopefully filling in the role of Shaw’s bat. Casey was third on the team last year with a .298 average with 50 knocks including seven doubles, two triples, one home run and 20 RBI.
So far this season both the pitching and hitting have been fantastic, outscoring opponents 52-16 through seven games.
While performance in early season non-conference games is not always a good indicator to how well a team plays the rest of the season into conference play, as a BC fan, one must be encouraged by the Eagles’ hot start.
Key Returners: Joe Cronin, Johnny Adams, Jesse Adams, Mike King, Justin Dunn, Donovan Casey Key Loss: Chris Shaw
6) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (37-23, 17-13 ACC, 2nd Atlantic)
Was 2015 a fluke season for the Fighting Irish? Perhaps, but Mik Aoki’s club is out to prove that last season was no fluke as they look to build upon the successes that they experienced last season. Last season, the Fighting Irish won their first ACC Tournament game ever as well as reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Junior right hander Ryan Smoyer returns this season for the Irish, leading an experienced and versatile pitching staff. Smoyer last season went 9-1 with a 2.27 ERA in 79.1 innings, making 11 starts in 17 total appearances. Smoyer, who will be starting full-time this season barring any performance set backs is not a power pitcher and prefers to pitch to contact after only striking out 33 batters last season. Those strikeout numbers look to go up this season as he has already struck out 7 batters through his first two starts. Sophomore Brandon Bielak also returns after having a stellar freshman season. Bielak last season went 6-3 with a 3.55 ERA. Bielak, a little bit more of a power pitcher than Smoyer struck out 62 batters last season in 88.2 innings pitched.
Second Baseman Cavan Biggio returns for his junior season as well. Biggio hit just .258 last year but showed some pop with nine home runs, 26 RBI and a total of 24 extra-base hits from the leadoff spot. Fellow junior, Kyle Fiala returns to man the hot corner once again for the Irish. Fiala, possibly Notre Dame’s best hitter, hit .301 with four homers and 28 RBI.
With pitching clearly their strong suit, the Irish offense needs to step up from last season. With Clemson, Boston College, NC State all improving, its going to be difficult for Notre Dame to replicate the same Irish luck and magic that propelled them to a second place finish in the Atlantic Division last year.
Key Returners: Cavan Biggio, Ryan Smoyer, Kyle Fiala, Brandon Bielak, Ryan Lidge, Zak Kutsulis
Key Losses: Ryan Bull, Robert Youngdahl, Scott Kerrigan
7) Wake Forest Demon Deacons (27-26, 12-18 ACC, 6th Atlantic)
Despite the 2015 ACC Player of the Year, Will Craig on the Wake Forest roster, the Demon Deacons struggled last season to a sixth place finish in the Atlantic Division. With Craig returning for his junior season, Deacons head coach Tom Walter hopes the team as a whole can produce a better showing in 2016.
The return of Craig who hit .382 with 13 home runs and 58 RBI in 2015 is a huge boost to the Deacons chances this season. But as we found out last year, Craig, the two way player, can’t do it all alone. Juniors Nate Mondou and Ben Breazeale need to step up and help shoulder the load as well. Mondou hit .338 last season with 10 home runs and 57 RBI while Breazeale hit just .274 with two home runs and 12 RBI in just 27 games after missing a month and a half due to an injury.
Redshirt Senior Aaron Fossas is coming off of Tommy John Surgery last season so his status remains unclear, although it is expected that he will be back before the end of the season.
Despite getting off to a strong 5-1 start to the season, the pitching staff remains a big question mark and will be the reason why the Demon Deacons will struggle again in 2016.
Key Returners: Will Craig, Nate Mondou, Ben Breazeale, Aaron Fossas