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Big 12 Baseball 2012: Kansas State Is Best Local Hope For Toppling Texas A&M From Supremacy

The 2012 Big 12 baseball season is off and running, and Kansas is one of the big surprises so far. Read on for the first of a two-part preview of the teams and how the conference race shapes up for this year.

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If you are like me, you've been so caught up in the annual late-season build up to March Madness (where has the college basketball season gone, anyway?) that you probably missed the start of the college baseball season. Why so early, you might ask? The major-league season is still a month away, for heaven's sake.

Perhaps one reason is because the college teams play so many games that if they didn't start this early, they'd be playing games into July, almost two months after the regular school year had ended. Beginning this early in the year certainly doesn't help the so-called cold-weather teams.

The Kansas Jayhawks, for example, the northern most team in the changing configuration of the Big 12 (along with Kansas State), play their first 10 games this season on the road. The Jayhawks' home opener at Hoglund Ballpark is not until March 6, more than three weeks after their season opener. So far, though, playing away from home appears to agree with Kansas, picked by many college baseball experts to finish at or near the bottom of the league in 2012. The Jayhawks are off to a 5-2 start through Tuesday's games.

Texas A&M, reigning Big 12 postseason tournament champs and co-champions with Texas in the regular season, is ranked at No. 5 in the country in all but one of the four national college baseball polls. Oklahoma and Baylor are ranked in the top 20 in all four polls, and Texas' highest ranking is 21st in the USA Today/ESPN weekly poll.

Texas Tech has jumped out to a surprising 8-1 start to the season and leads the Big 12 through nine games. The Red Raiders are ranked in the No. 24 spot in the Collegiate Baseball poll this week, the first time they have been ranked among the nation's 25 best since 2005.

The standings at this early stage of the season are somewhat irrelevant given that the level of competition, for the most part, is not nearly as strong as what the teams will face deeper into the nonconference schedule and, certainly, against Big 12 opponents. As a snapshot, however, Kansas State stands at 3-4 and Missouri is 2-4. A&M, the preseason conference favorite, is 7-1 at this stage, and Baylor is a half-game back at 7-2. As surprising as Texas Tech has been, the Red Raiders' in-state rival from Austin has struggled early on. Texas has dropped five of its first eight games.

Today is the first of a two-part series previewing Big 12 baseball for 2012 and how the teams stack up this year. Today we look at the four teams I project to finish in the second half of the conference this season. The second article, on Thursday, will feature the teams picked to finish one through five in the conference race this year.

As a reminder, Iowa State does not participate in Big 12 baseball. The university dropped its baseball program from NCAA competition after the 2001 season.

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys lost four players to the 2011 MLB draft, including first-baseman Zach Johnson, the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and league-leader in RBIs last season, the 15th-round pick of the Houston Astros. Also going in the draft were pitchers Chris Marlow (San Francisco Giants) and Mike Strong (Milwaukee Brewers). OSU got a big break, however, when slugging third-baseman Mark Ginther, who was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 14th round, decided to return for his senior season. Ginther was second on the Cowboys and third in the conference a year ago with 10 home runs.

Catcher/outfielder Jared Womack hit eight home runs and drove in 46 runs in 2011. The only other returning position starters are shortstop Hunter Bailey, who possesses strong defensive skills, and outfielder Gabe Weidenaar. The pitching staff is full of new faces. Andrew Heaney is the lone returning starter. Another starter, Jason Hursh, will likely miss the 2012 season because of offseason Tommy John surgery. Two transfers are being looked upon to fill out the starting rotation.

7. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech is coming off its best season since 2005. The Red Raiders were 33-25 last spring under third-year head coach Don Spencer, and have six starters back for another season in addition to 11 of their 16-member pitching staff. Tim Tadlock has joined the coaching staff at his alma mater as an assistant after six seasons on the staff at Oklahoma. The Red Raiders return almost all of their offensive firepower from last season, starting with the team's leading hitter, third-baseman Reid Redman (.320), who was a selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2011 MLB draft. Center-fielder Barrett Barnes led the team in home runs (10) and drove in 38 runs a year ago, and Jamie McGruder, Tech's second baseman, is especially proficient at getting on base, according to the Red Raider coaches.

The team's best pitcher, senior John Neely, is back after posting a 9-1 record and 2.97 ERA in 30 appearances in 2011. The other members of the Red Raiders' starting rotation (sophomores David, Paiz, Trey Masek and Duke von Schamann) are back as well. With an upgraded stadium and plenty of talent, Texas Tech is hoping for continued improvement in 2012.

8. Missouri Tigers
After finishing eighth in the conference in the 2011 regular season, Missouri surprised everyone by advancing to the championship game in the conference tournament before falling to Texas A&M. Both teams are in their final season as members of the Big 12. Mizzou's best hitter, designated-hitter Jonah Schmidt, and best pitcher, Phil McCormick, are gone from last year's team. Outfielders Blake Brown (.267 average) and Brandon Champange (.294) and second-baseman Eric Garcia (.276) will be asked to step up on offense.

On the mound, right-hander Eric Anderson and southpaw Rob Zastryzny may not be what the Tigers have been used to from its starters in recent years, but each is capable of keeping Missouri in games. The bullpen will undergo a complete reworking this season, with juniors Dusty Ross and Jeff Emens the key figures in relief. The problem is, both players had ERAs north of 4.00 in relief last season. The Tigers lack the talent and experience of the top teams in the Big 12, but they showed last year they should not be taken lightly.

9. Kansas Jayhawks
The day Kansas held its first baseball practice in late January this year, the outside temperature was 20, even 30 degrees cooler than it was in Oklahoma and Texas. That could be an important contributing factor to why the Jayhawks traditionally lag behind their southern Big 12 rivals in preseason preparation and game conditioning. The Jayhawks return six position starters from last season's 26-30 team (9-18 in the Big 12). Among the returnees are third-baseman Zac Elgie, the team's best returning hitter at .297, and first-baseman Jake Marasco (.286 average in 2011).

Senior catcher James Stanfield, who batted .320 in his junior season, was named to the 2012 preseason All-Big 12 team. T.J. Walz, the Jayhawks' No, 1 starter a year ago, has moved on, but coach Ritch Price's team has a group of upperclassmen who have pitched multiple seasons for the crimson and blue. This includes junior right-handed starter Tanner Poppe. With KU's first victory this season, Price, in his tenth year in Lawrence, will become just the second coach in school history to reach the 300-win mark (Floyd Temple, 1954-81, 438 wins, is the other).