The Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic has been known by a number of names throughout its history.
It’s been the Astros College Classic, the Minute Maid Park College Classic, and the Houston College Classic at different points in the past, but regardless of name, it’s always one of the very best college baseball tournaments out there. The 2018 field of teams, featuring Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt from the SEC taking on Houston, Louisiana, and Sam Houston State, will ensure that its legacy will continue.
Mississippi State got to a super regional in 2017, all the while dealing with four or five years’ worth of pitching injuries in one season. Led by ace Konnor Pilkington, the workhorse of last year’s staff, a healthy MSU pitching staff on its own should give the Bulldogs a chance to be improved, to say nothing of an offense led by veterans like Hunter Stovall, Hunter Vansau, and Jake Mangum.
Kentucky looks poised to be even better than they were last year, which is saying something, because the 2017 season ended in the program’s first-ever trip to a super regional. Their presumed rotation of Sean Hjelle, Justin Lewis, and Zack Thompson, in some order, could be the best non-Florida rotation in the country, and Tristan Pompey is an exciting, proven player with SEC Player of the Year potential.
Vanderbilt boasts exciting players on offense in Julian Infante, Connor Kaiser, Ethan Paul, and Alonzo Jones, and a proven ace at the front of the rotation in Patrick Raby. And on top of that, they’ll be able to fill in any gaps in production with the country’s top-ranked recruiting class.
Houston will be led in the rotation by two battle-tested pitchers with different sets of experience, in Trey Cumbie and Aaron Fletcher. Cumbie, the 2018 American Athletic Conference preseason Pitcher of the Year, served as a swingman as a freshman before developing into a workhorse starting pitcher in 2017. Fletcher, meanwhile, has exclusively served as a reliever in his career, with a 1.89 career ERA over 76 innings to show for it. Offensively, the Cougars will be led by Joe Davis, one of the American’s biggest power bats.
Louisiana will miss the presence of veteran starting pitcher Gunner Leger, but don’t shed too many tears for the Ragin’ Cajuns, because they’ve got a dynamic one-two punch in the rotation ready to go in Hogan Harris and Nick Lee, in addition to a guy like Dylan Moore, a proven arm at the back of the bullpen. The Cajuns will also get a boost in this tournament from one of the best-traveling fanbases in the country. The last time UL played in this tournament, their fans turned up in big numbers, and more importantly, were engaged and loud throughout the weekend.
Sam Houston State made a huge statement in getting to a super regional last season, and they could be even better in 2018. They return everyone on the pitching staff, save for staff ace Heath Donica, but his departure will be made up at least in part by the return of Riley Gossett, who was outstanding in 2016 before missing all of 2017 due to injury. Offensively, the lineup should embody head coach Matt Deggs’s “pack” mentality, as they don’t have a superstar, at least not yet, but should be better than the sum of their parts.
It should be nothing less than another great weekend of college baseball. All six teams expect to be in regionals, there will be plenty of future pro talent on display, and with a good mix of local programs and programs that aren’t regulars in the event, the crowds should be strong.