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Wednesday October 18th, 2017 3:42AM

Fear the Frog: TCU pegged as college baseball's team to beat

By The Associated Press
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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — TCU has made it to the College World Series three straight years, and the Horned Frogs have brought back eight everyday players, their top two starting pitchers and the closer.

No surprise, they'll open the season No. 1 in every major national poll.

"When you return the majority of a team out of a club that finished in the final four of the country, you're probably going to end up ranked highly," coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "You can not talk about it and run away from it. Or, as the Cubs did this past year, you can kind of embrace it."

The Horned Frogs have done everything but reach the CWS finals since making their first appearance in Omaha in 2010. Last year, they beat Texas Tech and Coastal Carolina in the CWS and needed one more win to go the best-of-three championship round. They then lost two straight to Coastal Carolina , which went on to win the national title.

TCU, 49-18 overall and third in the Big 12 last season, opens at home with a three-game series against Penn State and will play 21 of its first 25 games in Texas.

Luken Baker is back after leading an offense that batted .302 and averaged seven runs a game. Like Schlossnagle, Baker shrugs at the Frogs' No. 1 ranking.

"It doesn't really mean anything," he said. "It's just a bigger target that we have to embrace and take on. We're excited to come out and get after it. As long as we stick to the process and stick to the plan, we can have an even better season than we did last year."

As a freshman, the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Baker hit .379, drove in 62 runs and slugged 11 homers to share the team lead with Josh Watson. Baker pitched until he injured his arm in April, and he doesn't plan to be on the mound at all this season. He'll play first base or be the designated hitter.

The Frogs' only loss from the everyday lineup was outfielder Dane Steinhagen, but they get back Nolan Brown, a .302 hitter in 2015 who took a medical redshirt because of a hand injury. Brown will play center field, and Austen Wade will move to right.

Jared Janczak (7-4, 2.61 ERA) and Brian Howard (10-2, 3.19) are the top returning starting pitchers. Much is expected from freshman left-hander Nick Lodolo. He was the top unsigned draft pick after being taken No. 41 overall by Pittsburgh. Closer Durbin Feltman (3-0, 1.56) is coming off a strong freshman season. He went 9 for 9 in save situations and struck out 49 in 34 2/3 innings.

Ten other teams to watch:

— EAST CAROLINA: Pirates came within one win of advancing to the CWS for the first time and are American Athletic Conference preseason favorites. OF Dwanya Williams-Sutton's .360 batting average led conference. P Evan Kruczynski (8-1, 2.01) had 95 Ks in 116 2/3 innings.

— CAL STATE FULLERTON: Titans have back three all-conference pitchers and are favored to win seventh Big West title in eight years.

— FLORIDA: Gators were overwhelming pick to win first national title last year but went 0-2 in Omaha with a pair of one-run losses. They lost eight players to the draft, but there's plenty of returning players and incoming talent to make another run at a championship.

— FLORIDA STATE: All three weekend starters and most of the everyday lineup are back, and infielder Drew Mendoza is one of the top freshmen in the country.

— LSU: Eight everyday players return along with top starting pitchers Alex Lange and Jared Poche' and bullpen ace Hunter Newman. Tigers looking to atone for getting swept by Coastal Carolina in home super regional.

— MARYLAND: Terrapins are favored to win the Big Ten after slipping to seventh place last year. SS Kevin Smith is pegged to have a big year after being named D1Baseball.com's Breakout Summer Prospect.

— OREGON STATE: Beavers have almost everybody back, and they're extremely motivated after last year's 35-win team was left out of the NCAA Tournament field.

— SOUTH CAROLINA: Defending SEC East champ Gamecocks return seven position players, and P Wil Crowe is back from Tommy John surgery.

— UC SANTA BARBARA: Gauchos knocked off No. 2 and No. 3 national seeds on their way to CWS last year, and they bring in one of nation's top recruiting classes.

— VANDERBILT: OF Jeren Kendall and P Kyle Wright are among best in nation. Commodores had to cope with death of freshman pitcher Donny Everett on eve of regional and failed to reach super regionals for first time since 2012.

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP Sports, AP Online Baseball , College Sports, AP Sports - College Baseball
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