The World-Herald's Steven Pivovar picks five darkhorse candidates to reach the College World Series.
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North Carolina State
The Wolfpack's only previous visit to Omaha came in 1968, but coach Elliott Avent's 2013 team has a legitimate shot at ending the season at TD Ameritrade Park. Carlos Rodon anchors the rotation. He went 9-0 last season while striking out 135 hitters in 11423 innings. N.C. State lost three of its top four hitters but likely won't struggle to score runs. Few teams have as dynamic a leadoff hitter as Trea Turner, who hit .336, drove in 43 runs and stole 57 bases. Plenty of veterans from the team that lost in the super regional last June provide hope of ending the CWS drought.
Topping a 45-win 2012 season will be a tall order, but coach Gary Henderson's squad has the potential to wind up in Omaha for the first time. A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino are the most dangerous hitters in a lineup that must replace three key power hitters but boasts plenty of other weapons. Kentucky will rely heavily on its pitching and defense. The Wildcats set a school record with a .976 fielding percentage and have one of baseball's top double-play combos in J.T. Riddle and Matt Reida. Staff ace Corey Littrell won nine games in 2012.
The Ducks came close to getting to Omaha last season, and coach George Horton has enough experience back that they are capable of making another run. Eight-game winner Jake Reed moves to the top of the rotation, and the Ducks should get a lift as Christian Jones, who won seven games in 2011, returns from elbow surgery. Jimmie Sherfy can make things exciting as a closer, but the bullpen will be deeper, and the defense is capable of protecting leads.
The Yellow Jackets are hardly ever short on talent, but the program has had trouble getting over the hump since making the CWS in 2006. An offense that could be one of the nation's best provides hope that this could be the season that Tech makes a deep postseason run. Brandon Thomas and Sam Dove headline a group of seven returning regulars, and the Yellow Jackets are hoping for improvement from center fielder Kyle Wren, who slumped last season. If Tech is to make a run at Omaha, it'll need better pitching. Buck Farmer is the staff ace, and passed up a chance to turn professional to return.
After snapping a postseason drought of 48 years in 2010, the Lobos have made three straight regional appearances under coach Ray Birmingham. He has a lineup that should again be one of college baseball's most productive, as New Mexico returns its top four hitters from a team that ranked fifth nationally in batting average (.326). Third baseman D.J. Peterson might be the best hitter (.419, 17 homers, 78 RBIs in 2012), and catcher Mitch Garver and left fielder Ryan Padilla provide plenty of support. Birmingham's big concern is developing an unproven but talented pitching staff.
— Steven Pivovar