It’s only fitting that the last two teams standing from this year’s 64-team NCAA tournament field did their best work in the loser’s bracket of the College World Series.
Arizona and Coastal Carolina each survived three straight win-or-go-home games last week in Omaha, eliminating two of the postseason’s steadiest teams on Saturday to secure their spots in the finals. The comebacks were right on theme for a week in which the No. 1 and No. 3 national seeds were the first teams eliminated at the College World Series, and only one of the last four teams standing was ranked highly enough to host a regional in the opening round of the tournament three weeks ago.
Now, with the pre-tournament favorites all watching from home, one program is guaranteed to cap off an improbable run with college baseball’s grand prize.
The Wildcats are a traditional power with four national titles to their name, while the Chanticleers are making the most of the program’s first trip to Omaha. But neither team was expected to sniff a national championship this season, and both scraped their way to this point with the help of some of the tournament’s most unlikely finishes (not to mention, as you can see below, some of the nation’s weirdest dugout rituals). That has given both sides an air of invincibility as the stakes increase again this week.
For those who haven’t abandoned all trust in predictions this postseason, here’s a look at what to expect from the best-of-three finals, which will be played Monday, Tuesday and, if necessary, Wednesday night (all games are at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN).
They can’t keep getting away with this, right? Right? The Wildcats needed to sweep two doubleheaders to climb out of the loser’s bracket and survive the Lafayette Regional, then won a pair of one-run games over SEC regular season champion Mississippi State in Starkville to reach the program’s 17th College World Series. After toppling No. 3 seed Miami 5–1 in their opening game in Omaha, they were pushed to the brink by a 1–0 loss to Oklahoma State. But Arizona then shut out UC–Santa Barbara to get another crack at the Cowboys on Friday, when they pulled away late for a 9–3 win. The next day the Wildcats jumped on Oklahoma State ace Thomas Hatch early in a 5–1 win to clinch a berth in the finals.
Key to victory
The Wildcats’ pitching staff has been without equal in the postseason, thanks in large part to No. 1 starter Nathan Bannister, but he left his last start early with an arm injury, and the fatigue of starting two games in three days at Arizona’s regional may be catching up with him. With 18 strikeouts and just two earned runs over 15 innings in his two starts in Omaha so far, junior righthander Bobby Dalbec would make a strong case for the Most Outstanding Player Award with another solid start in the finals. He can help out on offense too: He serves as Arizona’s third baseman and cleanup hitter on days he isn’t pitching. At this stage, the Wildcats don’t need many runs to feel good about their chances every night.
Lefthander Cameron Ming has been Arizona's one-man bullpen for large stretches of the tournament. This month, he has been called upon for outings as short as three pitches and as long as 79, and he has handled 10 of the 13 1/3 innings of relief required of Wildcats pitchers in Omaha so far. After Bannister left 2 2/3 innings into his start on Friday, Ming took the mound and allowed just two hits over the next five frames as Arizona pulled away to force Saturday’s winner-take-all game. Expect to see him early and often in this series, as Wildcats coach Jay Johnson has not been shy about keeping the ball in the hands of his best pitchers.
The Chanticleers stunned NC State with a rain delayed ninth-inning rally to claim the Raleigh Regional and produced more late-game heroics—this time a walk-off single off the bat of Mets fourth-round draft pick Michael Paez—in the Super Regional round to knock off LSU. After edging top-seeded Florida in its College World Series debut, Coastal Carolina yielded three unearned runs in a 6–1 loss to TCU before sending Texas Tech home in the loser’s bracket and exacting revenge on the Horned Frogs in back-to-back wins on Friday and Saturday.
Key to victory
The Chanticleers jumped on Florida with six extra-base hits (four doubles, two triples) in their Omaha opener, and the quick-strike nature of their offense has made teams especially wary of giving them second chances with errors or walks. Coastal Carolina has four players with at least 15 home runs this season (Zach Remillard, G.K. Young, Connor Owings and Paez), but it doesn’t have to clear the fence to make use of the spacious confines of TD Ameritrade Park. Those dimensions have also been kind to No. 1 starter Andrew Beckwith. The junior righthander has thrown two complete games at the College World Series, allowing one run in each and frustrating opposing lineups with his variety of sidearm deliveries.
Catcher David Parrett came into Omaha hitting .130 on the year and having been and having lost his role as the starter during the regular season. Thrust into the lineup by Coastal Carolina manager Gary Gilmore ahead of Thursday’s elimination game against Texas Tech, Parrett drove in three runs from the No. 9 spot in the order and followed that up with a double in each of the wins over TCU. His redemption story gave the Chanticleers a second wind, and now he’s a safe bet to keep lurking at the bottom of the order as an unlikely game-changing threat.
There’s no competing with the depth and breadth of Arizona’s madness, but the Chanticleers can get weird, too.
Coastal Carolina in three. As their wins over LSU and Florida proved, Coastal Carolina's power hitters have the right approach for handling elite pitching. Very few teams have found a way to solve the relentless bats in the heart of the Chanticleer's order, and Bannister’s uncertain status could force Arizona to dip uncomfortably deep into its pitching staff. It all adds up to a crowning achievement for a program that has slowly built toward this defining moment for over a decade.