It’s time, once again, for the leading lights in college baseball to gather in an outrageously pitcher-friendly park in Omaha (Nebraska: It’s like if the moon had corn!) and declare a champion: Two brackets of four teams will play a double-elimination tournament, and the winners will meet in a best-of-three series for the national championship.
This should excite you, because college baseball is the greatest untapped entertainment resource in sports. It’s like pro baseball, only it’s more chaotic, it’s played by kids who haven’t had the humanity beaten out of them yet, and it’s full of weird uniforms, weird antics, tons of bunting, and, er, creative pitching deployment. So if you’re late to the party, don’t worry: What follows is a quick introduction to the eight remaining teams, as well as a subjective measure of how “college” they are. Games begin at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday. Prepare accordingly.
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The Razorbacks were a dark horse entering the tournament, but they followed their fifth-place SEC finish and no. 2 Stillwater Regional seeding1 with a perfect regional round. They then won a tough super regional series, 2-1, and now find themselves with a favorable opening draw against Virginia.
Just for the sake of clarity: The NCAA tournament is divided into 16 regionals, each featuring four teams seeded 1 through 4, and usually held at the site of the no. 1 seed. These are “regional seeds.” In addition, the committee designates the top eight teams as “national seeds” or “overall seeds.” They generally host super regionals and can’t play each other until the College World Series. It’s confusing, but so is the balk rule.
The book on Arkansas is this: There’s huge star power in outfielders Andrew Benintendi (.380/.489/.715, with 19 homers and 23 stolen bases in 63 games) and Tyler Spoon (.331/.370/.500), but not a lot of pitching depth. Arkansas’s 4.06 team ERA ranked 102nd nationally; three of the eight teams in Omaha ranked in the top 10, six in the top 30, and the next-lowest team, Virginia, ranked 56th. That’s going to be a problem for the Hogs, because in this tournament, losing the opener means needing to win four straight games in five days. This pitching staff is built for, at most, three or four tough games a week.
Key player: Sophomore CF Benintendi. He was probably the best position player in the country this year, slugging .715 despite being only 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. He parlayed that breakout sophomore season into being picked seventh overall in this week’s MLB draft, by the Red Sox.
How college are they on a 1-10 scale? 4. Their relatively conservative uniforms and pro-style offense (only 28 sacrifice bunts, tied for 209th in the country) balance out a pitching staff that could go Johnny Wholestaff from the word go.
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Last year’s national runner-up was decimated by attrition and injuries: Eight players were drafted in 2014, including three on day one, and the Wahoos’ best pitcher (Nathan Kirby) and position player (Joe McCarthy) both missed significant time this season. Kirby just returned from a lat strain this week, while McCarthy missed most of the season with a back injury and hasn’t been the same player since he came back.
Virginia was the no. 3 seed in the Lake Elsinore Regional and saw the draw open up after that: The Cavs had to play Southern California teams, but the neutral-site regional didn’t offer any team a true home-field advantage, and Virginia capped off a 3-0 weekend with a 14-10, 11-inning comeback win over Southern Cal. And instead of staying in California to play no. 1 national seed UCLA, Brian O’Connor’s men were able to go home and host Maryland, whose stunning upset of the Bruins was perhaps the tournament’s biggest surprise so far.
The Wahoos are playing with house money at this point, and their luck could continue: Virginia could get to the winners’ bracket in Omaha without playing a no. 1 seed.
Key player: Junior LHP Kirby. The low-slot changeup artist is one of the college game’s best pitchers when he’s on, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to be on much this year. If and when he pitches, he’ll have a chance to exorcise the demons of a disastrous championship series start in Omaha last year.
How college are they? 7. They’ve dropped 50 sacrifice bunts, they have a .377 team slugging percentage, they wear camouflage uniforms, and their best player is a finesse lefty sidearmer. That’s pretty college.
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The Gators are one of four remaining national seeds, and are perhaps the overall favorite. They boast the nation’s top defense, they outscored their opponents almost 2-to-1 on the season, and, in five tournament games — all wins — they’ve outscored their opponents 53-12.
Somewhat bizarrely, the Gators’ first five opponents (Florida A&M, South Florida, Florida Atlantic, Florida State, and Miami (Florida)) all have “Florida” in their names.
Anyway, in eight years under former Clemson assistant Kevin O’Sullivan, the Gators have been the best team in the country not to win a national championship. Here’s what they’ve done in the past five years:
- 2010: No. 3 overall seed in the country; went 0-2 in Omaha; eliminated by Florida State
- 2011: No. 2 overall seed; made it to the national championship series; went 0-2 against division rival South Carolina
- 2012: No. 1 overall seed; went 0-2 in Omaha; eliminated by Kent State
- 2013: No. 3 seed in the Bloomington Regional; went 0-2; eliminated by Valparaiso
- 2014: No. 2 overall seed; eliminated from tournament without winning a game
This obviously can’t go on forever. Florida’s just too talented and plays too clean a game to keep bouncing out in embarrassing fashion. Plus, this is obviously the easier side of the bracket, particularly if the Gators can get past Miami in the opener.
Key player: Sophomore LHP A.J. Puk. No other team has a 6-7 lefty who throws in the mid-90s and has this kind of curveball. Midseason, Puk was suspended and briefly charged with felony criminal trespassing when the — I’m not making this up — criminology major climbed a construction crane on campus. His charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor, and since his reinstatement, he’s been peak Puk, and peak Puk is as good as anyone in the country.
How college are they? 1. Six Gators went in the top 10 rounds of this week’s draft. Most of O’Sullivan’s go-to arms are power guys, and he mostly gets out of the way and lets his team’s talent take care of things.
Miami (Florida) (49-15)
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The Hurricanes’ pitching talent isn’t quite where Florida’s is, but we should all take a moment to ponder a .311/.422/.465 team batting line, along with 88 stolen bases at an 81.4 percent success rate. This is the best offense left in the tournament — and when we get to LSU, you’ll understand how big of a statement that is. And with senior lefty Andrew Suarez, who went no. 61 overall to San Francisco this week, spearheading a unit that produced the no. 20 team ERA in the country, it’s not like pitching is a huge red flag either.
Miami has David Thompson, who tied with Benintendi and Eastern Kentucky’s Kyle Nowlin for the national lead in home runs this year; Zack Collins, a catcher who hit .303/.448/.593; and Jacob Heyward, who is Jason’s younger brother. The Saturday-night game against Florida is going to be one of the tournament’s best.
Key player: Senior LHP Suarez. This end of the bracket is all about winning Game 1, particularly for the two Florida teams. If Miami does that, it will be on the strength of Suarez.
How college are they? 5. There’s some normal The U uniform weirdness, as well as a curious offensive note: 11 Hurricanes took 100 plate appearances or more this year. Eight of them had an OBP above .400, and nine of them slugged .400 or better. I wouldn’t have that team lay down 56 sacrifice bunts, but head coach Jim Morris sure did.
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The Horned Frogs lost Brandon Finnegan and still put up the second-best team ERA in the country this season. You could have argued that any one of four pitchers was the team’s best starter at different points in the year, and perhaps no back end of the bullpen has a 1-2 punch like Trey Teakell and Riley Ferrell. The College World Series is a marathon, and to win it, a team needs quality pitchers who can throw multiple innings without getting freaked out in big games — and it needs them by the bucketload. Fortunately for the Frogs, that’s what they’ve got, led by senior sinkerballer Preston Morrison.
After going 0-2 in the Big 12 tournament and therefore backing into the no. 7 national seed, the Horned Frogs took a circuitous route to Omaha. They lost a game to NC State early in the regional, then beat Stony Brook and took a rematch with the Wolfpack to set up a winner-take-all rubber match. NC State jumped all over Alex Young and Ferrell en route to an 8-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth, then collapsed completely and suddenly: four errors, four walks, and two balks in the eighth, ninth, and 10th innings led to eight TCU runs, and the Horned Frogs escaped.
They then needed all three games, plus a total of eight extra innings, to beat Texas A&M, with the run that sent TCU to Omaha coming in the 16th inning, as Garrett Crain blew through a stop sign coming around third and scored on a throwing error when he should’ve been out by 20 feet.
Though, after TCU went 15 innings against Virginia last year, that’s what we should expect.
Key player: Junior RHP Ferrell. Typically one of the nation’s best closers, Ferrell has been a disaster this postseason. In four NCAA tournament appearances, he’s retired a total of five batters. He’s allowed multiple runs in three of those appearances, and in the fourth, he came in with the winning run on base and allowed the only batter he faced to drive that run in. Ferrell has allowed nine earned runs all year, and seven of them have come in the past two weeks. His continued struggles represent an existential threat to TCU.
How College Are They? 10.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
The tournament’s top remaining seed is one of only a handful of offenses I’d expect to be able to pick through TCU’s pitching staff, then come back and do the same to Vanderbilt. LSU hit .316/.380/.460 as a team this season, stole 126 bases, and suffered 109 fewer strikeouts than Miami. The Tigers go nine deep, including no. 2 overall draft pick Alex Bregman, a shortstop who keeps getting words like “scrappy” and “gamer” and “winner” heaped on him because he’s small and plays hard. And that’s all well and good, but Bregman isn’t one of the best players in the country because he tries hard — he’s one of the best players in the country because he can flat-out rake, and you should throw tomatoes at anyone who attempts to praise him without using the phrase “preposterously talented hitter” or something like it.
LSU also has one of the top freshman pitchers in the country in righty Alex Lange, as well as a season-long hole in the no. 3 starter spot, which actually might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because it allowed Paul Mainieri to audition several players for a key role in a tournament that takes more than two starters to win.
Key player: Senior C Kade Scivicque. Bregman is probably LSU’s best player, but Scivicque is a solid defensive catcher who hit .347/.391/.518 in the toughest league in the country, so I don’t think it’d be crazy to say that he provided more value.
How College Are They? 3. This is a team of professional-quality players, but the Tigers’ offensive prowess gives you the kind of crazy, distorted numbers that you get only in college. Plus some of the names — Scivicque, Parker Bugg, Chris Sciambra — are of the genre of crazy college names. So not totally college, but not totally not college.
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Vanderbilt won the national championship last year, and I picked the Commodores to repeat at the start of the year. They weren’t ever really in trouble between then and now, but they still fell just short of grabbing one of the eight national seeds.
Since the tournament started, however, the Commodores have been on another level. They finished a 3-0 regional weekend with a 21-0 demolition of Radford, then went on the road to no. 6 Illinois and delivered a two-game sweep without first-round pitcher Walker Buehler so much as warming up in the bullpen.
Vanderbilt has five players who went in the first three rounds, including two top-10 picks. They hit and defend well enough to ride a pitching staff from which head coach Tim Corbin can pick one of at least half a dozen guys with a mid-90s fastball and a knockout curve. It’s not just Carson Fulmer, Buehler, and freshman closer Kyle Wright doing this, either — the Commodores were no. 1 in the country with a 9.7 K/9 ratio. Put another way, Vanderbilt, as a team, strikes out about as many batters per inning as Matt Harvey.
This team has depth and experience, and, insofar as it matters, is peaking at the right time.
Key player: Junior SS Dansby Swanson. The no. 1 overall pick is a five-tool stud with a great head of hair.
How college are they? 6. Under Corbin, Vanderbilt has earned a reputation for avoiding the kind of pitcher abuse that makes many top arms reluctant to go to college, and as a result, the Commodores have recruited and developed pitching incredibly well: Buehler and Fulmer make seven pitchers who played for Vanderbilt under Corbin and went on to be drafted in the first or sandwich rounds of the draft. And while the Commodores laid down 39 sacrifice bunts this season, 15 of those came from Tyler Campbell and Karl Ellison, who are weak enough hitters for that strategy to make sense.
However, Vanderbilt has an Al Capone cosplay uniform, and its bench players do coordinated stretching routines in the outfield between innings, so they’re anything but buttoned-down.
Cal State Fullerton (39-23)
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A 17th trip to Omaha isn’t bad, considering Fullerton, the university, is only 57 years old. The Titans are one of the game’s blue-blood schools, with four national titles to their name, and head coach Rick Vanderhook was involved in three of those — one as a player, two more as an assistant coach. But this is his first trip to Omaha as the lead man, and this one comes courtesy of a thrilling extra-inning win at Louisville, a game that turned on a controversial David Olmedo-Barrera home run that just scraped the foul pole.
Fullerton has a very defined style of play: Offensively, it’s what’s known as the West Coast offense, which involves lots of bunting and hit-and-run play. It spread like water from an overflowing toilet across the country and is only just now being beaten back as a new crop of coaches in the Southeast realize that it’s probably not a good idea to give away an out by bunting literally every time there’s a man on first and fewer than two outs. Fullerton struggled mightily to score runs at times this season, and part of that is due to this being a pedestrian offensive team (.265/.365/.355 team battling line). But they also gave away 66 outs on sacrifice bunts (16 of them by Josh Vargas, who has a .448 OBP) and hit only 20 home runs. There’s a strain of thought that trying to score runs one at a time — which, it’s worth noting, bunting doesn’t actually help you do — is as equally valid a method of offense as a high-power, high-OBP approach, like it’s a matter of taste or strategy. It’s not, though considering how similarly intellectually bankrupt arguments are sustained under the banner of Gotta Hear Both Sides in so many other places across our culture, I don’t expect to actually persuade anyone by saying all this. Still, it’s worth acknowledging that the Titans probably have the weakest offense left in the field anyway, and that on top of that they give away outs in bushels.
The good news for the Titans is that their pitching philosophy is as brilliant in concept and execution as their offensive tactics are self-sabotaging. The directive to Titan pitchers is this: Don’t walk anyone, ever. And they don’t, really. Some of that is Thomas Eshelman’s doing (more on him in a minute), but it’s a teamwide thing. Fullerton had the nation’s best strikeout-to-walk ratio this year, at 4.91. To illustrate how incredible a number that is, TCU was second with a 3.86 mark. These guys never walk anyone.
Key player: Junior RHP Eshelman. Eshelman, the Houston Astros’ second-round pick, is one of my favorite college players ever. I’m just going to share some facts about him, vis-à-vis the College World Series.
- In 370.2 career innings, he’s issued 18 walks. There have been 24 College World Series bids distributed in that time.
- He’s issued those 18 walks to 14 different teams. Only 19 different teams have made it to Omaha in the past three years.
- Teams that have made it to Omaha and drawn a walk off Eshelman since 2013: Louisville, Texas Tech, UC-Irvine, UCLA.
How college are they? 10. Random California school with a distinct style of play and a coach who throws his ace out for 143 pitches one weekend, then the next weekend brings him back on one day’s rest to close out a super regional? It doesn’t get more college than that.