And then there were eight. The road to Omaha has officially hit Omaha, and we are set for the always-scintillating College World Series to begin.
With the MLB draft recently in the books, much of the focus in Nebraska will be on players such as Nick Burdi, Brandon Finnegan and others who will soon be playing professional baseball. However, the amount of young talent that will be on display at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha is going to immense.
Let's take a look at some of the most impressive youngsters to keep your eye on.
Nathan Kirby, LHP, Virginia
It took Nathan Kirby one offseason to go from inconsistent to near unhittable. The left-hander has always been oozing with talent, but as a freshman, he struggled with a lack of confidence, laboring to a 6.06 ERA in 24 appearances.
But this season has been a direct contrast. In 16 starts, the sophomore is 9-2 with a 1.73 ERA, a 0.87 WHIP and 104 strikeouts in 104.0 innings. The individual highlight of his—and perhaps all of college baseball's—season came when he struck out 18 during a mesmerizing no-hitter against Pitt.
Kirby transitioned that success into the postseason with a gem against Arkansas in the regionals, striking out nine and allowing just three baserunners through eight shutout innings.
Cavaliers coach Brian O'Connor—much like anyone else who has seen Kirby consistently embarrass hitters this year—gushed about his young superstar, via the Daily Press' Norm Wood:
That kid has absolutely exceeded our expectations of handling the week-to-week grind of being a starter in our league and beyond.
I think Nathan Kirby has made the biggest jump from one year to the next on the mound of anybody since we've been the coaches here. Now, he had the talent coming in. He was a left-hander coming in that threw 90 to 94 miles per hour. He was very highly thought of by the professional people out of high school, but there's more to it than that. There's the composure and the poise and the presence that you have to have on the mound, and he now has all that.
Kirby struggled in the super regionals against Maryland, giving up seven hits and five runs through just 4.2 innings, and the Roanoke Times' Douglas Doughty noted the rarity of the occasion:
Alas, the sophomore has established himself as one of the best pitchers in America and O'Connor's bona fide ace for a reason. There's little doubt he'll bounce back with another gem in Omaha.
Eric Gutierrez, 1B, Texas Tech
As Scott Lacefield, Texas Tech's associate director of athletics communications, noted, Eric Gutierrez has been the model of consistency for the Red Raiders:
Sometimes consistency can be boring, but that's not the case with Gutierrez.
In 64 games this season, the sophomore first baseman is hitting .312/.410/.557. He leads the team in hits (74), runs scored (46), home runs (12) and RBI (58). In six games this postseason, he is hitting .300 with three doubles and two RBI—and has reached base in every contest.
Gutierrez, who leads all freshmen and sophomores in home runs, is not only one of the most dangerous underclassmen in the nation, but also one of the most dangerous hitters—period.
Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville
Not only does he possess the College World Series' best name, but Kyle Funkhouser is also pretty darn good on the bump, too.
In 17 starts this year, the sophomore righty is 13-2 with a 1.73 ERA. He can struggle with his command—59 walks and a 1.21 WHIP—but he has electric stuff. Featuring a fastball that touches the upper 90s, Funkhouser has 117 K's in 114.1 innings, while batters are hitting a meager .198 off him.
ESPN Radio's Jared Stillman offered up his prediction for the youngster in Omaha:
That won't be easy, as his first start will come in the team's first-round game against Vanderbilt Saturday, as The Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer confirmed:
There aren't many stiffer tests in college baseball right now. The 'Dores have scored a whopping 48 runs in six postseason games, including 27 in a three-game super regional against Stanford. Back in May, they scored seven on 11 hits against the Cardinals, although Louisville ultimately prevailed in that one.
Still, Funkhouser has one of the best arms in America, and he'll be up to the task of silencing Vanderbilt's bats.
Bryan Reynolds, OF, Vanderbilt
Except for maybe this one.
One of the best freshmen in the country, Bryan Reynolds is hitting a robust .343/.401/.494 to go with four home runs, 52 RBI and 13 stolen bases. His 24 doubles are sixth-most in the country—and most for a freshman.
The switch-hitter is only getting better—he is coming off a series against Stanford in which he collected eight hits (.667 average), reached base 10 times and drove in three runs.
He's more than just a threat in the batter's box, too. Reynolds has the speed and arm strength to play all three outfield positions. Against Stanford, he recorded 10 putouts, including a highlight-reel diving catch to rob Brant Whiting of extra bases.
Reynolds is one of the most exciting young players in the country, and he'll be worth the price of admission—or your cable bill—next week.