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Previewing the 68th College World Series

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TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, NE is entering its 4th year as the home for the Men's College World Series after the tournament was moved from its previous home at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium.
TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, NE is entering its 4th year as the home for the Men’s College World Series after the tournament was moved from its previous home at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. (Photo: Dave Weaver/Associated Press)

          The season began with 302 Division-I baseball programs vying for one of eight spots in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, and the field has finally been narrowed down to those eight teams currently playing their best ball of the season. The 2014 College World Series field is an unusual one. For the first time in the tournament’s 68-year history, only two national seeds (teams seeded 1-8 nationally entering the postseason field of 64 teams) progressed to the College World Series, the least amount of teams to do so. In addition, aside from the Texas Longhorns, who hold the record for most CWS appearances (35) in the history of the tournament and are tied for second most titles all-time (6) with Louisiana State, no other team in this year’s field has ever won a national title. Texas Tech is making its first appearance ever in the tournament and Ole Miss is making its first CWS appearance since 1972. What follows is a preview of each team and our prediction to win the whole thing.

 University of California – Irvine Anteaters 40-23 (15-9), Big West 

         Aside from taking two out of three against Oregon State — the no. 1 overall seed in the country — in the Regional and winning both of their Super Regional games against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, the Anteaters went 2-8 over its final 10 regular season games, yet went 9-1 in their 10 prior games to the 2-8 cold streak. Led by Friday-night starter (a 3-game weekend series in college baseball starts on a Friday night and the team’s #1 starter will start the Friday night game) senior ace Andrew Morales (11-2, 1.53 ERA, 129.2 IP, 136 K, 30 BB – St. Louis Cardinals, 71st overall selection), freshman starter Elliot Surrey (8-4, 1.99 ERA, 108.1 IP, 75 K, 27 BB), and junior closer Sam Moore (0-3, 1.88 ERA, 43.0 IP, 38 K, 10 BB, 23 saves), the Anteaters held opposing hitters to a .242 batting average over the course of the season. While Irvine pitchers average only 2.10 walks per 9 innings, the team’s pitching staff does not consist of hurlers that can overpower opposing hitters as they average just 7.07 K/9 innings, the least amount among the eight teams competing in this year’s World Series. In addition, UC-Irvine lacks a potent offense necessary to compete with teams from the power conferences. During the season, the Anteaters posted a .272 batting average (7th among CWS teams), a .358 on-base percentage (8th), a .352 slugging percentage (8th) and hit a meager 12 home runs over the course of the season. The team had a 60.7% steal success rate and only attempted 61 steals over the course of the season. While a UC Irvine national championship run would certainly bring back sweet memories of Fresno State’s Cinderella title run in 2008, this group from southern California must emphasize and execute small ball by getting as many lead-off runners on as possible and promptly moving them over, especially since head coach Mike Gillespie is not a huge proponent of the stolen base. Irvine faces the University of Texas in its first game, a team with similar playing style that they can certainly eliminate if the Anteater hitters can put constant pressure on the Longhorn defense.

University of Texas Longhorns 43-19 (13-11), Big 12 

          On paper, the Longhorns do not seem like a team that can score runs as will. Despite the team slugging just .360 during the season and averaging just .34 home runs per game, the Longhorns went 13-0 when they scored 7 or more runs in a given game. Senior right-hander Nathan Thornhill (8-2, 1.57 ERA, 97.2 IP, 59 K, 35 BB), who was recently selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 13th round (#382 overall) of the MLB draft, has been Texas’ most reliable starter this year and will most likely get the nod to start UT’s opening game against UC-Irvine. In Texas’ half of the College World Series double-elimination bracket that features Louisville and Vanderbilt, Texas’ pitching staff has to be stellar since the team will have difficulty stringing together runs while facing the power arms of the two aforementioned schools.  If Texas wants success on offense, they must see production from senior center fielder Mark Payton, who isn’t your run-of-the-mill 3-hole hitter who drives in runs at will. At 5’8”, Payton relies on his small strike zone combined with his excellent plate discipline (he is tied for 2nd in the country in BB with 55 on the season) to drive the ball to all fields. At the heart of this Texas order, Payton needs to be the reliable situational hitter he is capable of being and create more favorable hitting situations for cleanup hitter Tres Barrera and the rest of the Texas offense. Since home runs are a rarity playing at TD Ameritrade in Omaha, this stadium and overall tournament favors the savvy Texas offense well because the Longhorns have proven time and time again this season that you don’t need a bevy of power bats to win a national championship. If Texas can get past UC Irvine in its first matchup this Saturday, look for the Longhorns to make some serious noise.

 University of Louisville Cardinals 50-15 (19-5), American Athletic 

          Although Louisville lost both of its games during the 2013 College World Series and only scored four runs during those two games, the Cardinals are the only team returning to this year’s CWS from last year’s field. Head coach Dan McDonnell’s club is well-balanced in regards to an extremely reliable trio of starting pitchers, prolific offense, and trustworthy bullpen. Sophomore fire-baller Kyle Funkhouser (13-2, 1.75 ERA, 114.1 IP, 117 K, 59 BB), whose fastball ranges from 92-95 MPH – topping out at 96 MPH with movement, will have a tall task when he squares off against Vanderbilt’s Tyler Beede (14th overall pick of the San Francisco Giants). What makes Louisville dangerous, especially on offense, is that they can beat you with the long ball (32 homeruns on the season) or with small ball (the Cardinals stole 132 bases during the season with a success rate of 79.5%). 6’4”, 220 lb. junior closer Nick Burdi is as lights out of a closer as you can find these days. Burdi’s fastball has touched 100 MPH on multiple occasions and has a complimentary power-slider that sits in the low 90s – he is in the discussion of best relievers in college baseball. He saved 18 games this year for Louisville, posting a 0.51 ERA while averaging 1.75 K/inning. To beat this experienced team, opposing clubs will have to score early and often to chase starters Funkhouser, Jared Ruxer, or Anthony Kidston and to avoid Burdi in the 8th and/or 9th. Out of the 15 games that Louisville lost this year, Louisville scored the first run of the game 4/15 times (26.7% of the time.) This accentuates the point that Louisville’s offense must produce early in games in order for its pitchers to pitch ahead, especially Burdi (2nd round selection, #46 overall, by the Minnesota Twins). With the ‘Ville’s recent experience playing deep into the postseason, expect the Cardinals to be one of the top contenders in this year’s field.

Vanderbilt University Commodores 46-19 (17-13), Southeastern 

          Despite a drop off from his sophomore campaign in terms of numbers (8-7, 3.58 ERA, 103.0 IP, 108 K, 47 walks vs. his 2013 season: 14-1, 2.32 ERA, 101.0 IP, 103 K, 63 BB) one thing is evident: Tyler Beede is perhaps the best pitcher in this College World Series, regardless of the position he was drafted and his command issues that have continually been a topic of concern since he arrived in Nashville in 2011. If Vanderbilt wants to win the 5 games they need to win the CWS, Beede has to be able to command his pitches instead of just controlling them. Also, Vanderbilt has the luxury to rely on their other starters as long as possible that have all pitched 75+ innings this season and all have ERAs of 2.51 and under (except for Beede, ironically), to let its offense do the work. Number 2 man Carson Fulmer is more than capable of carrying the load after Beede, as he was named to the US National team alongside Beede after posting a stat line that boasts a 6-1 record, 1.78 ERA, 76 IP, 81 K and 31 BB. Led by freshman standout outfielder Bryan Reynolds, sophomore second baseman Dansby Swanson, and first team All-SEC junior shortstop Vince Conde, Vanderbilt has utilized its roster made up of about 70% underclassmen to put together a complete team. If this young, yet mature Vandy team can limit its errors (0.97/game during the regular season and postseason thus far), the team from north central Tennessee has the ability to put together a string of wins for a top-notch program that has yet to win a national championship once in its 100 seasons of existence.

Texas Tech University Red Raiders 45-19 (14-10), Big 12

          Welcome to Omaha, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders from Lubbock are making their first-ever appearance in the College World Series in the program’s 65th season. In only his second year as Head Coach of the Texas Tech program, Tim Tadlock has already improved the Red Raiders’ win total from the previous season by 19 games. As a result, Tadlock was recently named the 2014 National Coach of the Year by the College Baseball Hall of Fame. The Raiders are averaging 6 runs per game, a .287 batting average, a .378 on-base percentage, and a .409 slugging percentage. The Raiders boast an above-average rotation (3.17 ERA, 6.52 K/9 innings) with an excellent defense (.981 fielding percentage – the 5th best in D-I baseball this season, 0.77 errors/game). Sophomores left fielder Tyler Neslony and first baseman Eric Gutierrez, and senior designated hitter Adam Kirsch account for a third of the team’s hits and 40.8% of the team’s RBI, yet there’s no doubt that any player on this team can help contribute. Since outs by strikeout isn’t the Red Raiders’ strong suit as well as having the weakest team ERA (3.17) of any of this year’s teams, the Red Raiders need to keep their walks in check (3.01/9 innings). The team certainly has starting pitching it can rely on but redshirt junior southpaw Chris Sadberry is not the starting ace pitcher that most casual fans have in mind to compete with the game’s best. Tech will have to rely on its sound defense and cut down on its runs allowed (3.48/game – the worst out of any of this year’s field) in order to make a run in Omaha this year.

Texas Christian University Horned Frogs 47-16 (17-7), Big 12

 

          The fact that the Horned Frogs were able to survive and go on to win their Super Regional, despite playing a 22-inning, 6 hour and 54 minute game in its regional against Sam Houston State, is a bit of miracle. However, it’s no miracle that the Frogs are where they stand right now. Head coach Jim Schlossnagle has arguably the most well put together team in the country. The team leads the entire nation in ERA (2.19), WHIP (1.02), 6th in K/9 innings (8.4), tied for 3rd in shutouts (14) and 2nd in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.78). It’s hard to believe if there is a better 1-2-3 pitching punch in the country than Brandon Finnegan, Preston Morrison and Tyler Alexander, all of whom have 95.2+ innings thrown this year and all with ERAs of 2.16 and under. Finnegan is a power southpaw, a rare commodity these days, while Preston Morrison seems to be a less talented, Americanized version of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka in terms of deceptiveness and a complete arsenal of pitches that vary depending on the his pitches’ different speeds and arm slots.  Not to mention closer Riley Ferrell (2-1, 0.68 ERA, 39.2 IP, 64 K, 13 BB, 15 saves) who, despite dealing with control problems from time to time, consistently sits in the mid-90s with his fastball and touches the high 90s frequently as well. TCU won’t destroy you on offense, but first baseman Kevin Cron — brother of Angels’ first baseman C.J. Cron, senior right fielder Dylan Fitzgerald, and sophomore left fielder Boomer White know how to put pressure on an opposing defense even without the eye-popping power numbers. TCU’s pitching staff has the potential to carry this team and if the offense executes with timely hitting, this Horned Frogs team is poised to make a very deep run.

University of Virginia Cavaliers 49-14 (22-8), Atlantic Coast 

          TCU and Virginia might as well be the same team, and that’s not just because they are the only two remaining national seeds in the tournament. The Cavaliers have a solid 1-2-3 punch in an all-sophomore rotation in ace Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz. These three have all compiled ERAs of 3.04 or lower. As a team, Virginia is 5th in the nation in ERA, 2nd in WHIP at 1.03, 12th in K/9 innings with 8.1, tied for 19th in shutouts with 8 and tied for 7th in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 2.92. First baseman Mike Papi, the 38th overall selection of the Cleveland Indians, provides most of the heavy lifting on offense along with sophomore OF/1B Joe McCarthy and junior leftfielder Derek Fisher who was the 37th overall pick of the Houston Astros, one pick before Papi. Unlike TCU, the Cavaliers rely more on the long-ball for their run-production, which could end up being an issue for Virginia playing in spacious TD Ameritrade. The one difference between TCU and Virginia is that TCU played a bit of a more challenging schedule coming out of the Big 12 rather than the ACC where Big 12 teams had a better overall winning percentage than the teams from the ACC this season (.604 vs .570). Regardless, Virginia has lived up to the hype of being an elite team in college baseball so far this season.

University of Mississippi Rebels 50-19 (19-11), Southeastern 

          Ace redshirt sophomore Christian Trent started 16 games this year, threw 102.0 innings, and had a big-fat zero in his personal loss column the entire season. Trent, junior Chris Ellis, junior Sam Smith and the rest of the Rebel pitching staff held opposing teams to a .247 batting average. Ole Miss was 16th in the nation in ERA, 22nd in WHIP at 1.21 and 10th in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 2.76. Perhaps the guy with the coolest name at the College World Series this year, junior first baseman Sikes Orvis, tied for 7th in the nation with 14 home runs, while senior catcher and clean-up hitter Will Allen was tied for 12th in the nation with 61 RBI on the season. It has been far too long since the Rebels were last seen in Omaha in 1972, which was their 4th World Series appearance at the time. Head Coach Mike Bianco has steadily grown the success of the program and this season marks the first 50-win season for the program since its founding in 1893. Ole Miss is a dark horse team that if it can clean up its errors (1.06 per game), they can compete with any team in this tournament and they are a team that can easily adapt its game from one dependent on home runs to win and convert to one that relies on extra base hits and situational hitting (which will be necessary since home runs account for 10.1% of Ole Miss’ runs) when the need is there, especially with this tournament. Ole Miss has the highest batting average (.303) and slugging percentage (.421) of this year’s CWS teams so as long as its offense and pitching are clicking, things will undoubtedly continue to be looking up for Ole Miss.

          Prediction: Pitching wins this tournament; there’s no way around it. Each one of these teams has an above-average offense at the minimum, yet the issue for some teams will be adjusting their offensive game if the need presents itself based on the configurations of the stadium and weather conditions. I believe that Vanderbilt will win its top half of the bracket while TCU will win its bottom half of the bracket. In a best-of-3 game series, we’re a bit concerned for Beede that nerves will get to him when he’s in the limelight and his control will falter on him. If Beede loses to Finnegan in that first game, we see TCU prevailing in the end when Preston Morrison takes the hill on the second day of the championship series. TCU takes home the brass.

 

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