If you think the Heat-Spurs series is the most exciting championship being contested this weekend … well, you’re fooling yourself. Out in Nebraska, eight college baseball teams will be vying for a trophy far less celebrated than the Stanley Cup, with a media presence a fraction of the size of the NBA Finals. But if you like baseball, or sports, or America, you’ll love a week’s worth of insane, high-intensity baseball, featuring some of the big leagues’ stars of the future and some really likable kids with funny names. The College World Series combines the high skill of the professional game, the adorable unpredictability of Little League, and the insane intensity of March Madness. There’s nothing quite like it in sports, and in a moment of great fortuitous corporate synergy, every game will be televised, live, on the ESPN family of networks.
Good, now that I’ve sold you, let’s meet our contestants.
Indiana (48-18): The Hoosiers are the first Big Ten school to make it to Omaha since Michigan in 1984. Considering that conference’s success in other sports, that might seem strange, but big-time college baseball is almost exclusively a warm-weather sport. Stony Brook’s run to Omaha last year was improbable less because a SUNY campus sent a team to contest for a major championship, and more because a team from New York made it that far at all. That this Big Ten school made the College World Series (Indiana won the conference tournament this year for the first time since 1949) is an even bigger surprise. Indiana is one of several dark horses in the tournament, with a deep offense and some starting pitching good enough to absolutely roll up heavily favored Florida State, in Tallahassee no less, in the super regional. In the weaker half of the draw, Indiana is absolutely a threat to advance.
Player to Watch: Aaron Slegers, RHP
Slegers stands 6-foot-10, and according to this New York Times story, he is often mistaken for Cody Zeller around the IU campus, which is really going to suck for him once Zeller flames out in the pros. Slegers, a fifth-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, is more of a pitch-to-contact type, which runs counter to what one would think about a pitcher his size. It’s really hard to win this tournament without banking at least one killer performance from a starting pitcher, and if the Hoosiers are going to get one, odds are it’s going to come from Slegers.
Louisville (51-12): Going into the tournament, I’d have bet big on Vanderbilt going all the way. But the Cardinals continued to make it a good year for the state of Kentucky for reasons that have nothing to do with bourbon. While these Cardinals might not have the charisma of Teddy Bridgewater, Shoni Schimmel, and Peyton Siva, they can sure run. Louisville stole 150 bases in 63 games this season, second in the nation and almost half again what any other team in the final eight has done. Not only that, but they can hit — six starters boast an OBP of .390 or higher, headlined by junior DH Jeff Gardner. Gardner’s U of L bio declares him to be a former Math Olympics champion, which means he probably already knows that when you divide 101 total bases by 158 plate appearances, you get a team-high .639 slugging percentage.
Player to Watch: Coco Johnson, OF
Johnson led the Cardinals in OBP this season, and true to form, he reached base in all four plate appearances in the deciding game of the super regional. Two of those times on base came as the result of being hit by a pitch, bringing Johnson’s team-leading total to 23, tied for seventh in the nation and a terrifying number when you consider that he played only 55 games. That’s a big part of Louisville’s game — as a team, the Cardinals have been hit by 128 pitches, most in the country. Hey, we got ice.
Mississippi State (48-18): It’s been an up-and-down season for the Bulldogs — ranked in the top 10 before the season, Mississippi State won its first 17 games before falling to finish barely above .500 in conference play. State relies on an offense led by Hunter Renfroe, the no. 13 overall pick who Keith Law called “one of the top athletes in the college crop.” Mississippi State also boasts an impressive bullpen — relievers Jonathan Holder, Ross Mitchell, and Chad Girodo combined to go 23-1 with a 1.36 ERA, a performance so good, all you need to mention are the rudimentary stats. Which is good, because starting pitching is definitely not a strength. If the Bulldogs make it to the final, it will be on the strength of their bullpen.
Player to Watch: Jonathan Holder, RHP
Look at Holder’s stats and you understand why the Bulldogs’ sophomore closer is an All-American: almost two strikeouts an inning and a .153 batting average against. Look at Holder’s photo and you’ve got to take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself one question: “Am I really the first person to notice that he looks like Kenny Powers? If I make a Kenny Powers joke, are people going to think I’m clever, or am I treading on ground that’s not only been seeded and cultivated, but torn up by tanks and irradiated by a nuclear disaster?” Go look up “Jonathan Holder Kenny Powers” on Google and you’ll get 51 million results. Don’t be that guy.
Oregon State (50-11): The Beavers make it back to Omaha for the first time since winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. With two All-American starting pitchers in Matt Boyd and Andrew Moore, and as the only remaining national seed left in this half of the bracket, Oregon State might be in line for a third title in as many trips to Omaha. Here’s a partial list of the teams Oregon State swept this year: Stanford (scoring six runs in five innings off Mark Appel), Southern Cal, Arizona (the defending national champion), and Cal (who went to Omaha in 2012). Plus a series win over UCLA, who they might face in the final. The combination of good starting pitching and a favorable draw probably makes Oregon State the most likely team to win it all.
Player to Watch: Ben Wetzler, LHP
Behind Boyd and Moore is a junior lefty who’s short on velocity by major league standards, but high on pitchability. Wetzler won the rubber match of the super regional against Kansas State, and if he can keep up his current form, it’s going to be tough for any of the three other teams in this bracket to beat Oregon State twice.
North Carolina (57-10): Real talk: North Carolina, which went into the tournament as the no. 1 team in the country, is lucky as hell to still be here. Not only did the Dirty Feet of Chapel Hill need three games to beat Florida Atlantic, they blew a four-run, ninth-inning lead, then had to overcome a two-run deficit in the ninth and a three-run deficit in the 12th before finally winning in 13 innings. In the process, head coach Mike Fox used all four of his starting pitchers in one game, including Hobbs Johnson, who was called in to pitch in relief a day after going six innings, and Kent Emanuel, the Houston Astros’ third-rounder who wound up throwing 238 pitches in seven days. As a result, neither Emanuel nor Johnson nor Benton Moss lasted more than 2⅓ innings in their super regional starts, as two rainouts allowed Fox to rest his bullpen enough to sandwich an 8-0 blowout loss between two one-run white-knuckle wins against South Carolina. Odds are Emanuel gets the Game 1 start against NC State, but I’ll be impressed if he can lift his arm high enough to put on his uniform.
Player to Watch: Skye Bolt, OF
You have to admire someone who had the funniest name in a super regional that included guys named Belcher, Saiko, Zolk, and Pankake. But despite his unfortunate name, the fact is that Bolt’s game defies adjectives. UNC’s lineup has five (FIVE!) players who slugged .500 or better this season, and Bolt is one of the more exciting players the Tar Heels can trot out there. A switch-hitting right fielder with speed, Bolt hit .330/.429/.508 as a freshman, and he’s settled in quite nicely behind Colin Moran in the order.
North Carolina State (49-14): This one’s for the state title, too. The Wolfpack navigated 17 innings against Rice to get to Omaha, and now that they’re here, it’s a tall order to overcome the hated Tar Heels, whom they face on Sunday afternoon. North Carolina had six players drafted before the first Wolfpack player came off the board, but NC State has an extra two days to rest a largely ramshackle pitching staff, which is big considering North Carolina’s issues in that arena. Their offensive hopes rest largely on sophomore shortstop Trea Turner, who hit .378/.460/.571 to follow up a .338/.432/.459 freshman campaign. Turner led the nation with 57 stolen bases on 61 attempts in 63 games last year. He was only 27-for-33 as a sophomore, but again, he slugged .571, so cut the kid some slack.
Player to Watch: Carlos Rodon, LHP
There are college workhorses, and then there’s Rodon, a 6-foot-3 234-pounder who throws four pitches, among them a mid-90s fastball, and is as likely as anybody to go no. 1 overall in next year’s draft. Rodon threw 133 pitches in 8⅓ innings in the opener against Rice, and he figures to have his hands full against Moran, Bolt, Zolk, and the rest of the North Carolina lineup. If you get a few breaks here and there, you can ride one workhorse starter to a title, and since Rodon is probably the best pitcher left in the tournament, you figure that has to be NC State’s plan. In case you’re wondering, Rodon’s already faced North Carolina twice this year: He gave up two runs in 6⅔ in a 7-3 win in April, then pitched 10 innings of one-hit ball, striking out 14, in an eventual 18-inning loss in the ACC tournament. Do yourself a favor and tune in on Saturday afternoon.
Louisiana State (57-9): LSU is a powerful argument against the crippling emotional hangover. It could have been in this spot last year, but they were beat at home by Stony Brook in a rain-soaked super regional and lost Kevin Gausman to boot. But now the Tigers are just rolling, and it’s not hard to see why: two of the better starters in the tournament in Ryan Eades, who went no. 43 overall to the Twins last week, and sophomore Aaron Nola, who’s even better. Freshman shortstop Alex Bregman’s .380 batting average just edges Turner’s for the best among remaining players, and senior first baseman Mason Katz slugged .630 to join Bregman and Nola on the Baseball America All-American team. Where North Carolina has staggered to Omaha, LSU has more or less cruised, winning every regional and super regional game and dropping only one game on the way to an SEC title. The Tigers are going to come out of this bracket unless they lose twice in five games, which would seem more likely if they’d lost more than one series all year.
Player to Watch: Aaron Nola, RHP
When I said Carlos Rodon was the best pitcher left in the tournament, I didn’t mean to insinuate that Nola wasn’t an absolute beast. LSU’s ace has a low-90s fastball, a good curveball, and a tattoo on his back that shows the way to Dry Land. In Game 1 of the super regional against Oklahoma, LSU coach Paul Manieri sent his ace out against Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma. And Nola, thanks to a two-hit complete-game shutout, brought the no. 3 overall pick back to his house, had him stuffed, and hung him above his fireplace as a trophy.
UCLA (44-17): This is the Bruins’ third trip to Omaha in four years, but this year brings somewhat different circumstances. Last season, they came in ranked no. 2 overall and boat-raced Stony Brook in the opener before scoring one run in their next two games, season-ending losses to Florida State and Arizona. In 2010 they were the no. 6 overall seed and rode Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer all the way to the finals. But the school that produced Chase Utley, Troy Glaus, and Jackie Robinson is still looking for its first national championship. And if they’re going to get it now, they’ll have to navigate some combination of Nola, Eades, Rodon, and that killer UNC lineup. So how does that happen? Pitching. Nobody on UCLA had a .300 batting average or a .400 OBP, and cleanup hitter Pat Valaika, a ninth-round pick, led the team with a .404 slugging percentage and five home runs. So they’re going to turn to starters Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig to keep them in games long enough to turn it over to a pretty excellent bullpen. UCLA was ninth in the country in team ERA, but that means less when six of the other seven teams in Omaha right now were in the top 15. Credit to UCLA for making it after something of a down year, but I’d be surprised to see the Bruins win more than one game here.
Player to Watch: David Berg, RHP
Speaking of excellent bullpens, the 20-year-old sidewinding righty is one of the best relief pitchers in the college game: 46 appearances, 71⅓ innings, 73 strikeouts against eight walks and 49 hits, and a 0.88 ERA. Those are silly numbers, even for a college closer. Keeping games close enough to let Berg decide them is going to be a tall order. That said, the expanded role of the relief ace in the college game means that having your closer as your best player isn’t as much of a handicap as it would be in the majors.
Final Prediction: LSU over Louisville, 2-0