When you spent most weekends between the months of February and June at college baseball games, the individual games and performances can run together. There’s really just no way around it.
But that’s precisely what makes those individual moments that do stand out so much more special. When you look back on any individual season, either as a fan or journalist, it’s not the tonnage of innings watched, number of pitches observed, or the number of times you left a stadium after a final out was recorded.
Rather, it’s those moments that remind you of why you love the sport the way you do that end up mattering. And that’s what we’re here today to celebrate. What follows are my end-of-season awards, handed out in a variety of categories, from among the games I covered throughout the 2017 season.
Best game: Indiana 5 Michigan 4 (13 innings)- Big Ten Tournament
It wasn’t just the length of the game (4:28, at the time the record for a Big Ten Tournament game, although that record would later be broken by the Iowa/Minnesota game that sent the Hawkeyes to the championship game). It wasn’t just the number of innings. It wasn’t even just because this was a tightly-contested game between two teams that were clearly regional-caliber teams.
Those things all contributed to this game coming away with this award, but more than anything else, what sticks out to me about this game was that even as the game dragged on, there was no dip in the quality of play. The lead changed hands three times over the last three innings of regulation, both teams got good bullpen innings once things went into extras, and neither team kicked the ball around late as a result of tired legs or wandering attention.
It also turned into a good redemption story, as IU’s Alex Krupa came through with the walk-off single after having walked to the plate for that at-bat with an 0-for-5 day to his name. Additionally, I’ll also remember this as the game where Mac Lozer surrendered the first earned runs of his season, allowing Indiana to get back into the game and eventually force extra innings. You go to baseball games to see things you didn’t expect, and given how well he’d thrown all season, that certainly qualifies.
Honorable mention: TCU 11 Texas A&M 10 (15 innings)
This game was longer than the aforementioned Big Ten Tournament game, but unlike that game, the quality of play just wasn’t there for much of the contest. Although there were some outstanding relief performances, most notably from A&M’s Kaylor Chafin and TCU’s Sean Wymer (both hints at what they would do all season long for their respective teams), some of that was due to hitters trying to be the hero and getting out of their approaches at the plate.
Also, it hurt the aesthetics of this one that the feverish five-run rally in the bottom of the ninth for TCU to send the game to extras was brought on not by masterful performances at the plate from the Horned Frogs, but rather, a meltdown from the A&M bullpen. Walks, wild pitches, and errors were plentiful.
Most exciting player: Greg Deichmann
To me, defining the most exciting player on the field is easy to do but difficult to quantify. You simply know who it is when you see them. It’s the person whose at-bats bring your full attention back to home plate after you’ve been more focused on that hot dog in front of you for the last two hitters. It’s the guy whose mere presence just makes the moment feel even bigger.
The person who most fit that bill this season to my eyes was Greg Deichmann of LSU. Sure, he wasn’t as much of a raw athlete as teammate Antoine Duplantis and he wasn’t as magnetic a personality (or polarizing a personality for fans of rival SEC schools) as Kramer Robertson, but when he took the field with the Tigers as part of the tournament at Minute Maid Park, each and every one of his at-bats was appointment viewing.
It was still pretty early in the season, but by that point, teams already knew that he was the power bat that you had to be most careful with in the LSU order. And yet, he collected five hits over the three games, and he connected for a home run off of Baylor’s Montana Parsons in the team’s 4-0 win over Baylor. Every time he stepped to the plate, you knew there was a chance that he was going to do something pretty incredible, and he came through over that weekend.
Result that meant something in hindsight: Arkansas winning two of three vs. Missouri
The Razorbacks’ series win over the Tigers in late-March hinted at a couple of things that would occur over the course of the rest of the season.
From an Arkansas perspective, it showed me that the woes of 2016 were clearly in the rearview mirror. The series win backed up their result from the opening weekend of conference play (a sweep of Mississippi State) and got them off to a scorching 5-1 start in SEC contests.
After a tough 2016 season, it was exactly the type of start to league play that the Hogs needed and it signaled, loud and clear, that this was a different team. After a series-clinching 9-8 win that featured the Arkansas pitching staff holding off a late Missouri rally, head coach Dave Van Horn told me that it was exactly the type of game that would have gotten away from his team in 2016. Instead, they won it, and they kept on winning, earning a spot as one of 16 regional hosts by the end of the season.
For Missouri, after they had gotten off to such a hot start, it showed that while this was an improved team, it was still a team that perhaps wasn’t quite ready for prime time. When it was all said and done, their SEC series wins, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, were all teams that ended up missing regionals, while nearly all of their series losses, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt, were teams that ended up in regionals. Their series loss to Mississippi is the one exception, and to be fair, at the time, the Rebels looked like a clear regional club.
There are plenty of reasons for the Missouri faithful to be excited about the Steve Bieser era, but with this series loss to Arkansas, it was clear, in that moment, that it was time to pump the brakes a little bit in year one.
Honorable mention: Mississippi going 0-3 in the Minute Maid Park tournament
The Rebels came into the tournament at Minute Maid Park flying high. They were 7-1 on the young campaign, including series sweeps of East Carolina and UNC-Wilmington (remember that, at the time, those were thought to be two near-locks to make regionals).
That didn’t help them much in Houston, though, as the Rebels went 0-3 with losses to Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU by a combined 14-4 score. At that point you had wonder, as talented as all of their freshmen were, if it was going to be an up-and-down season in Oxford.
As the season wore on, it became clear that that’s exactly what it would be. There were certainly some ups, including series wins over Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Texas A&M, but there were also some downs, such as a series sweep at the hands of rival Mississippi State and a series loss to Auburn to end the season that all but ended the team’s hopes of reaching a regional, barring a deep run in Hoover, which ended up not coming to fruition.
The young Rebels were quite talented, and they’ll return plenty of it heading into 2018, but in 2017, they just simply weren’t able to play well enough against the best competition they faced, and we saw that first-hand in Houston.
Result that meant little in hindsight: Tennessee’s series win over Memphis
Perhaps I was being a bit of a prisoner of the moment, but I really thought we could glean a lot from Tennessee’s series win over Memphis.
I really thought a lot of UT’s young talent on display, and figured they could very well be a catalyst in giving the Vols a real chance to be a postseason team.
In the end, it was a mixed bag for those youngsters. Garrett Stallings and Zach Linginfelter established themselves as the likely future of the pitching staff in Knoxville, and Pete Derkay proved to be an on-base machine. But others struggled as the season wore on, and from an offensive standpoint, it was lineup stalwarts like Jordan Rodgers and Jeff Moberg that ended up being far and away the most dangerous bats in the order. That pair combined for 18 of the team’s 33 total homers, and were two of the three UT hitters with a slugging percentage higher than .400 (the other was junior Benito Santiago).
In the end, UT ended up well out of contention for a regional berth, and head coach Dave Serrano resigned prior to the end of the regular season.
Even though they lost two of three games, I also came away thinking that Memphis could be a real factor in the American Athletic Conference race. I thought it was good news that they hung right in with an SEC team (one that at least I thought could be a regional team). I also liked plenty of individual pieces from their team. I liked Chris Carrier as a veteran power bat in the middle of the order, I liked Trent Turner as a guy to support Carrier, I really liked what freshman Alec Trela showed, I thought Drew Crosby might have had what it takes to be a steady force in the rotation, and I really liked Jonathan Bowlan’s potential as a mid-90s arm out of the bullpen or even potentially as a starter if his stuff could hold up.
As it turns out, most of these ended up being good reasons for optimism. Carrier hit 16 homers. Turner had eight homers, good for a tie for second on the team. Trela had eight homers and also led the team with 20 doubles. Bowlan had a 3.75 ERA as a swingman and led the pitching staff with 78 strikeouts, and while Crosby’s 5.48 ERA wasn’t pretty, he did throw a lot of important innings for the Tigers. But when it was all said and done, they didn’t have a ton of depth behind that core of guys, and that led to a 30-29 overall record with an 8-16 mark in league play.
Most impressive team performance: Missouri State’s offense in series win over Dallas Baptist
Granted, DBU didn’t have quite the pitching staff that they’ve had in years past, but it was still somewhat shocking to see the MSU offense hitting mammoth homers left and right against Patriots pitching.
In the Friday opener of the series, a 5-1 MSU win, the Bears hit three homers. In the second, it was a Blake Graham solo shot. In the fifth, it was a Justin Paulsen two-run homer, and in the seventh, Matt Brown connected for a solo homer.
In the first inning of what turned out to be an 11-8 Bears win in game two of the series, Paulsen got the scoring started with a two-run home run to right, well beyond the 420-foot marker behind the right-center field fence, as part of what turned out to be a five-run frame. In the second inning, Paulsen came up again and connected for a solo shot, this one off of the building out behind the right field fence.
In the fourth, Jeremy Eierman launched a solo homer to left that cleared the hill out behind the fence. Finally, in the eighth, Aaron Meyer capped off the home run derby with a three-run shot.
The Bears didn’t waste any time in the finale of the series, either, as eventual first-round pick Jake Burger connected for a two-run homer to dead center field. Then, in the sixth, Eierman added a two-run homer, which was immediately followed by a Meyer homer to right-center.
Needless to say, I left Springfield blown away by the ability of the MSU lineup to lay waste to the DBU staff with the home run ball.