College World Series Breakdown
The expression “That’s why they play the game” never rang more true during this year’s NCAA Division I baseball tournament. That is why the College World Series field features the usual suspects like Florida, South Carolina and UCLA… and upstarts like Stony Brook and Kent State. The fact the America East and Mid-American Conferences can knock off established schools like LSU and Oregon and make it seem simple just demonstrates how strong and balanced the college baseball field is in Division I. Now, eight teams converge on TD Ameritrade Field in Omaha, ready to come away with the coveted national championship.
By far the biggest shock is Stony Brook, but at closer glance the Seawolves might be as good as advertised with their 52-13 record. Stony Brook has a .335 batting average, which is second in the nation in Division I, and that potent average enabled the Seawolves to beat Miami and UCF in regionals and then take out potent powerhouse LSU in three games. Travis Jankowski’s .422 batting average, 109 hits, 18 doubles and 11 triples make him a feared weapon at the plate, but the reality is almost the entire starting lineup bats .300 or better. Add a potent pitching staff led by Tyler Johnson’s 12-1 record and 1.94 ERA and you can see why Stony Brook is a force to be reckoned with regardless of conference status.
UCLA (47-14) is the first opponent for Stony Brook, as the teams get underway at 5 p.m. Friday in Omaha. The Bruins have made four trips to the College World Series (1969, 1997, 2010 and this year), but the team is still known as one of the feared powers in college baseball regardless of how few trips it has made to the Elite Eight. UCLA’s three-game sweep of USC in the final series of the regular season gave the Bruins enough strength to sweep Creighton and New Mexico in regionals and score a two-game sweep of TCU in the super regional round. Led by top slugger Jeff Gelalich (.365-11-46, 15 SB) and top pitchers Adam Plutko (11-3, 2.56, 92 strikeouts) and Nick Vander Tuig (10-3, 4.35, 69 K’s), UCLA has a well-rounded team ready for battle.
The second game of Friday’s action (9 p.m. Eastern) features third-seeded Florida State (48-15), the top remaining team from the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Seminoles are in the College World Series for the 21st time in the program’s history, and even-numbered years have been good to Florida State recently. The Seminoles have made trips to the series in 2008, 2010 and this year after not having been to Omaha since the 2000 season. What’s even stranger about this appearance is Florida State won a trip to Omaha without having won a single game in the ACC tournament. That 0-3 stretch set the stage for wins over UAB and Samford in regionals and a two-game sweep of Stanford in the super round. Although Jayce Boyd (.389-4-59) leads the Noles offense, James Ramsey (.382-13-57) is the true leader when it comes to homers and driving in runs. Brandon Leibrandt (8-2, 2.58) and Mike Compton (11-2, 2.86) are the top pitchers.
Florida State faces Arizona (43-17), which makes its 16th trip to the World Series but the first one since 2004. Arizona and UCLA, which shared the Pac-12 championship, are both in the tournament field, but Arizona makes the trip to the World Series having won a share of the title for the first time since 1992. Like Stony Brook, Arizona swings a hot bat (.333 average, fourth in Division I), and that was enough to score wins over Missouri and Louisville in regionals and a two-game sweep of St. John’s in the super round. If Andy Lopez can win twice in the World Series, he will have 400 victories as the Wildcats coach, and with a lineup that includes Johnny Field (.383-3-43, 11 SB) and Seth Mejias-Brean (.366-1-57) they have a fighting chance. Arizona is not a homer-hitting squad, though, and that could cost the team in games against opponents that hit for power. Kurt Heyer (12-2, 2.28) brings a blazing-hot walk/strikeout ratio (22/102) to the mound.
Saturday’s two games begin at 5 p.m. with Arkansas (44-20), one of three Southeastern Conference teams in the tournament. This is the Razorbacks’ seventh trip to the World Series and first since 2009, and their tournament run includes regional wins over Rice and Sam Houston State and a hard-fought three-game win in the super round against Baylor. Arkansas has trouble completing games, as the starting staff has no complete-game wins (or losses) this season. That is reflected in the pitching staff, led by Brandon Moore (5-2, 2.71), Ryne Stanek (7-4, 2.91) and D.J. Baxendale (7-5, 3.18). Of the three, Baxendale’s BB/K ratio (23/89) is the most impressive. Matt Reynolds (.338-7-43) leads the offense, which hits .273 as a team but has an average of one strikeout in every five at-bats.
This could be a problem against Kent State (46-18), the second team making its first trip to the College World Series. At first glance, you might think “how the hell did the Golden Flashes make it THIS far?” It’s no accident. Its .302 batting average is very strong and might give Arkansas fits in the first game. Kent State knocked off Kentucky twice in regionals, one of those games a memorable 21-inning thriller, and Kent State also knocked off Big Ten champion Purdue, proving this was no fluke. Further disbelievers were converted when the Golden Flashes sent Oregon packing in three games. David Starn (11-3, 2.21) has 123 strikeouts in 114 innings pitched, and Tyler Skulina (11-2, 3.63) is also hot on the mound. George Roberts (.368-8-64) is one of five regulars with batting averages above .300; Troy Summers has only a .217 average but he has stolen 20 bases in 25 attempts.
The last of the four inaugural games is the only one that features two SEC teams, and it is also a rematch of the finals from a year ago. Florida (47-18) squares off against South Carolina at 9 p.m., with the Gators making their third tournament appearance in a row and eighth overall. A no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman began tournament play with a regional bang, and two wins apiece against ACC powers Georgia Tech and North Carolina State soon followed. Starters Hudson Randall, Jonathon Crawford, Karsten Whitson and Brian Johnson all sport ERA’s between 2.61 and 3.56, and all four are threats to do well on the mound. Florida’s hitting is led by the powerful Mike Zunino (.322-19-64), recently taken third in the 2012 MLB Draft, and by Preston Tucker (.319-16-48). Daniel Pigott (.323-8-41) is the batting average leader.
South Carolina (45-17) goes for its third straight CWS championship in its 11th appearance at the tournament, and after some early struggles the Gamecocks have come around. Their .271 average is among the weaker teams at the tournament, but Christian Walker (.315-11-54) and Evan Marzilli (.288-2-30, 12 SB) help bolster the team’s prospects. Michael Roth (7-1, 2.50) and Colby Holmes (7-1, 2.80) are the pitching leaders, and Holmes (15/61) has a decent ratio of four strikeouts for every walk. Matt Price (4-4, 3.47) leads the squad with 82 strikeouts and an opponent batting average of .197. A lackluster SEC tournament, including a 7-2 loss to Florida, gave way to wins over Manhattan and Clemson in regionals and a two-game sweep of Oklahoma in the super round.