The World-Herald's Steven Pivovar picks five locks to reach the College World Series.
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Pitching got the Razorbacks to Omaha last season, and it's what will power their bid to return. Ryne Stanek won eight games last season and gives Arkansas a power guy at the front of the rotation. Switch-hitting Dominic Ficociello, who moves from first base to second, is the team's most reliable hitter, but the Razorbacks will need some stepped-up efforts from guys who were role players season ago to help take pressure off their pitching staff.
The Tar Heels missed making the field in Omaha last year but return a veteran lineup anchored by third baseman Colin Moran, first baseman Cody Stubbs and center fielder Chaz Frank. Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson combined to win 22 games as weekend starters last season. North Carolina lost an All-America closer (Michael Morin), but the bullpen again appears to be a strength. Mason McCullough, whose fastball flirts with 100 mph on his best days, appears set to take over for Morin. McCullough won't have to do it alone, as coach Mike Fox has plenty of quality relievers to fit any situation.
The Commodores took some lumps last season as they had to reload after losing the bulk of their 2011 CWS lineup. It should pay off this season as Vanderbilt returns six starters. Omaha veterans Mike Yastrzemski and Connor Harrell headline the group while providing solid pop in the middle of the lineup. Weekend starters T.J. Pecoraro, Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede each posted a losing record in 2012 but do not lack for talent. Beede was an unsigned first-round draft pick out of high school, while Ziomek is coming off a strong showing in the Cape Cod League. THe Commodores have a solid closer in Brian Miller, and the bullpen could get a big lift from several pitchers who were part of the nation's top recruiting class.
Bulldogs haven't been to Omaha since 2007, but coach John Cohen has a veteran team capable of getting them back in 2013. Cohen's lineup includes 11 players who started 27 games or more last season. Mississippi State hit only 21 homers last season, but Hunter Renfroe and Wes Rea are power hitters who should benefit from having the left-field fence at Dudy Noble Field moved in 13 feet. Replacing All-American Chris Stratton is a prime pitching concern. Senior Kendall Graveman should step into the No. 1 slot in the rotation, and the Bulldogs have a quality bullpen led by closer Jonathan Holder.
New coach Chad Holbrook has a tough act to follow as well as some holes to fill, but the Gamecocks have enough talent returning to make a fourth straight trip to Omaha. Colby Holmes and Jordan Montgomery give Holbrook a righty-lefty combination at the front of the rotation, and Tyler Webb is set to move into Matt Price's spot at closer. One of South Carolina's shortcomings last season was an offense that ranked 213th in batting average (.265) and 177th in scoring (5.1 runs per game). This group should be improved, with Omaha veterans such as L.B. Dantzler, Joey Pankake and Tanner English assuming larger roles.
— Steven Pivovar