Primer: The College World Series pits the eight surviving teams in the NCAA tournament (64 teams) against each other in a double-elimination tournament. The teams are divided into two brackets and the winners of each bracket square off in a best of three series. The city of Omaha, Nebraska has hosted the tournament since 1950 and until 2010, it was played at the beloved Rosenblatt Stadium, a colorful bandbox that had a 335-foot power alley in left field. The tournament is now played in TD Ameritrade Park, a more modern park that heavily favors pitchers. In fact in 14 contests, just three balls left the yard last year in the CWS. As a result, pitching, speed, and defense have become critical, and the last two champions, Arizona and UCLA exemplified that brand of “small ball’ play.
UC Irvine: The Anteaters are the closest thing to a “Cinderella” team in this tournament. As a No. 3 seed in the Corvallis Regional, they bounced Oregon State, the top team in the country, and then snuck by a powerful Oklahoma State team in the Super-Regionals. The Anteaters dropped eight of their last nine regular season games, but right now they are a hot. They don’t have a lot of elite talent, but they have some polished hitters and arms and they stick to their game plan. The Anteaters have a bona fide ace in Andrew Morales, an undersized righty who paced the country with 136 strike outs this year. Third baseman Taylor Sparks is the anchor of their offense. He controls the strike zone and he has a smooth right-handed swing. Although his power numbers slipped this season, he hit just five home runs after hitting 10 the year before, he did have eight triples and 16 doubles. However the X-factor for UC Irvine is actually their coach, the legendary Mike Gillespie who has won over 1,000 games and a National Championship with USC in 1998.
Texas: The Longhorns have some solid bats in their lineup, like shortstop CJ Hinojosa and center fielder Mark Payton, but their trademark is their deep pitching staff. Their starters won’t blow anybody away, but they are all veterans that have been starting for three plus years together. Much like the UCLA team that was crowned champions last year, they pitch to contact, and this stadium should help them. Starters Nathan Thornhill, Parker French, and Dillon Peters all posted sub-3.00 ERAs this season. Like that Bruins team from last year, they could surprise people as both the BBCOR bats and this stadium fit their style of play.
Vanderbilt: In just about any game they play, Vanderbilt will be the most talented team on the field. Over the past several years they have developed a reputation for persuading their top recruits to bypass big league money and to head to school. Their ace, Tyler Beede, was a bit of an enigma this year, although he has the best stuff of any pitcher in the CWS, and the Giants were confident enough in his talent to take him No. 14 overall in last week’s draft. Sophomores Walker Buehler and Carson Fulmer have actually posted better results and both are good enough to be Friday starters on almost any team. Together they fanned a combined 183 batters in 170 innings of work and are on track to be first rounders in 2015. Second baseman Dansby Swanson is the catalyst of their lineup and reached base at a .414 clip while stealing 18 bags. Freshman Brian Reynolds has emerged as a middle-of-the-order threat and slashed .343/.401/.494. The Commodores will be very hard to beat when they are playing well.
Louisville: The Cardinals are the only team with Omaha experience in this tournament, although their returning pitchers logged just five innings in the tournament last year. However, that experience should still give them a slight edge. The Cardinals are a very athletic team that can hit home runs but also reek havoc on the base pads. Senior Cole Sturgeon is the leader of their team, and hit .331 this year while also throwing quality innings out of the pen. Their top starter is Kyle Funkhouser, who after playing a minor role last year, went 13-2 with a 1.73 ERA. They have a lock-down closer in Nick Burdi, the No. 46 overall pick in the draft, who posted a 0.53 ERA this year. Burdi boasts a triple-digit fastball and is a can’t miss player to watch in this tournament.
Texas Tech: Texas Tech has lost just one game in this tournament and breezed by the College of Charleston in the Super Regionals. In fact in five tournament games, their staff has hurled four shutouts. Their lineup also has some pop, and they have as much power as anyone in this tournament. Sluggers Eric Gutierrez an Adam Kirsch combined for 22 home runs and 40 doubles. The Red Raiders won 48 games this year and appear to be peaking at the right time.
Texas Christian: The Horned Frogs also feature a loaded pitching staff. It includes Big-12 Pitcher of the Year Preston Morrison, and first round pick Brandon Finnegan. Finnegan has an electric fastball and slider combo that enabled him to strike out 129 batters this year. Sophomore Riley Ferrell was a weapon out of the pen and he possesses premium stuff and competitiveness. Ferrell could slide into TCU’s rotation next year to fill in for Finnegan, but this year he was extremely valuable in his role as he saved 15 games while allowing just three earned runs all year. In a tournament where pitching really does win championships, the Horned Frogs are poised for success.
Virginia: The Cavaliers have more than just one program riding on their backs — they have an entire conference. Wake Forest was the last, and only, ACC team to win a National Championship back in 1955. But Virginia has as good of a chance to end the 59-year title drought as any team in that span. They are top National Seed remaining, No. 3 heading into the tournament, and they do not have any glaring weaknesses. Their offense never evolved into the juggernaut it was supposed to be, but it is still very good. Derek Fisher and Mike Papi went back-to-back in the Competitive Balance Round of the draft, going No. 37 and No. 38, respectively. Papi has been particularly hot of late on the year has hit .311 with 11 home runs. But pitching and defense are the bread and butter of this team. They have two arms that could go in the top ten picks of next year’s draft in Josh Sborz and Nathan Kirby. The Cavs have what it takes to end this streak.
Ole Miss: No team had more players drafted than Ole Miss did, nine, in last week’s draft. This speaks to the depth and talent that the Rebels have on their squad. This team is all about power, with a number of players in this lineup who can really slug. They connected for 42 home runs, 14 of which were hit by first baseman Sikes Orvis. The ability to hit the long ball will give this team an element that the other clubs lack, and it will be interesting to see how their power plays in this environment. Since the change in ballparks, teams that have scored over five runs are 21-0.
Top Players in College World Series
- Brandon Finnegan, LHP — TCU
- Tyler Beede, RHP — Vanderbilt
- Nathan Kirby, LHP — Virginia
- Mike Papi, 1B — Virginia
- Kyle Funkhouser, RHP — Louisville
- Carson Fulmer RHP, Vanderbilt
- Dansby Swanson, 2B — Vanderbilt
- Nick Howard, RHP — Virginia
- Nick Burdi, RHP — Louisville
- J.B. Woodman, OF — Ole Miss
National Champion: Virginia