College World Series preview: Look out for LSU
The same outstanding pitching that carried most of this year's field to Omaha should be the hallmark of the 67th College World Series.
Bat restrictions put in place by the NCAA three years ago continue to impact the college game. There were 21 teams this season that posted ERAs under 3.00. Seven of them made it to the CWS. The eighth team, North Carolina State, wasn't far behind with a 3.09 ERA.
Further impacting the hitters is TD Ameritrade Park, the downtown stadium that opened two years ago in Omaha. It's a pitcher's park, as if they needed the help.
This year's field includes an interesting mix of teams. LSU (six titles) and Oregon State (two titles) are the only ones in the group that have won national championships, although North Carolina (six trips in eight years) and UCLA (three trips in four years) have become Omaha regulars the past few seasons.
Louisville and Mississippi State should remember each other from the last time they were here (both made it in 2007). Indiana may be wide-eyed since this is the Hoosiers' first CWS appearance. North Carolina State may as well be a newcomer since the Wolfpack hasn't been to Omaha since 1968.
As a reminder, the eight-team field is divided into two groups of four (Mississippi State, Oregon State, Indiana and Louisville open play Saturday on one side of the bracket and North Carolina, N.C. State, UCLA and LSU start Sunday on the other side). The winners of those respective double-elimination groups will meet in a best-of-three finals that begins on June 24.
Here's a look at the eight teams playing for the national championship, listed in alphabetical order:
The Hoosiers are the first Big Ten team to reach the CWS since Michigan in 1984. They bring the most power to Omaha, leading the field with 53 home runs. Most of that was provided by sophomore catcher Kyle Schwarber (.376, 18 HR, 54 RBIs) and sophomore first baseman Sam Travis (.313, 10 HR, 56 RBIs), although four other players have contributed five homers apiece. Sophomore righty Aaron Slegers (9-1, 2.13 ERA), junior lefty Joey DeNato (9-2, 2.76 ERA) and sophomore lefty Kyle Hart (8-2, 3.01 ERA) represent an impressive starting trio. Freshman lefthanded pitcher Will Coursen-Carr (5-0, 1.80 ERA) has stepped up down the stretch and made a big impact, earning the victory on successive weekends to clinch the Big Ten Tournament, Bloomington Regional and Tallahassee Super Regionals.
Drafted players: Slegers (Twins, 5th); 3B Dustin DeMuth (Twins, 8th); RHP Ryan Halstead (Twins, 26th).
One to watch: The 6-foot-10 Slegers had a half-foot growth spurt that led to arm issues and cost him his senior season of high school. A fractured forearm limited his freshman year at IU to one inning and a stress fracture in his tibia ended his sophomore year after seven innings. He had never started a game before this season yet emerged as the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.
How they got here: The Hoosiers, hosting a regional for the first time, beat Valparaiso and Austin Peay (twice) to advance. They hit the road for the Super Regionals, stunning No. 7 national seed Florida State with 10-9 and 11-6 victories.
CWS history: None.
Well-known alum: Ted Kluszewski.
Tigers fans enjoy partying at the College World Series so much that many of them travel to Omaha even when the team doesn't make it. Imagine how excited fans were this season to watch a team that showed all the signs of getting back to the CWS for the first time since beating Texas for the 2009 national championship. LSU won 33 of its first 35 games to open the season, went 23-7 in SEC play and beat Vanderbilt for the SEC Tournament title. Sophomore Aaron Nola (12-0, 1.68 ERA, 117 Ks in 118 IP) and junior Ryan Eades (8-1, 2.79 ERA), both righties, comprise one of the nation's best 1-2 starting punches and senior lefty Chris Cotton (4-1, 1.23 ERA, 16 SV) is among the country's most effective closers. An offense averaging 6.6 runs per game is led by senior second baseman Mason Katz (.366, 15 HR, 68 RBIs), freshman shortstop Alex Bregman (.380, 6 HR, 52 RBIs) and senior outfielder Raph Rhymes (.343, 4 HR, 46 RBIs).
Drafted players: Eades (Twins, 2nd); CF JaCoby Jones (Pirates, 3rd); Katz (Cardinals, 4th); RHP Nick Rumbelow (Yankees, 7th); RHP Will LaMarche (Tigers, 9th); C Ty Ross (Giants, 12th); Cotton (Astros, 14th); OF Raph Rhymes (Tigers, 15th); INF Christian Ibarra (Pirates, 32nd).
One to watch: Bregman earned SEC Freshman of the Year after leading the conference in hits (102), triples (7) and total bases (151). LSU coach Paul Mainieri told The Advocate: "Not only is he the best freshman I've ever had, he might end up being the best player I've ever had -- and I mean in his freshman year."
How they got here: The Tigers swept through the Baton Rouge Regional by beating Jackson State, Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Lafayette. LSU then dispatched Oklahoma with 2-0 and 11-1 wins in the Baton Rouge Super Regional.
CWS history: The Tigers are one of the nation's most storied college programs. They first reached Omaha in 1986, beginning a string of 10 CWS appearances in 13 years. LSU's six national championships (1991, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2009) are second only to USC's 12 titles.
Well-known alum: Ben McDonald.
The Cardinals lost to Indiana in their season opener, then reeled off victories in 19 of their next 20 games. Credit a pitching staff that is among the nation's leaders with a 2.50 ERA. Junior righties Jeff Thompson (11-1, 2.00 ERA) and Chad Green (10-3, 2.29 ERA) front the rotation while sophomore Nick Burdi (3-3, 0.78 ERA, 16 SV) is among the nation's leading closers.
What jumps out offensively is how much the Cardinals enjoy stealing bases. They're third in the nation with 150 steals spread among 14 players. Junior outfielder Adam Engel leads the way with 41. That sets the table for RBI guys like junior third baseman Ty Young (.339, 4 HR, 57 RBIs, 26 SB) and junior outfielders Coco Johnson (.333, 8 HR, 50 RBIs, 22 SB) and Jeff Gardner (.335, 9 HR, 43 RBIs).
Drafted players: RHP Dace Kime (Indians, 3rd); Thompson (Tigers, 3rd); 3B Ty Young (Rays, 7th); Johnson (Marlins, 11th); Green (Tigers, 11th); LHP Cody Ege (Rangers, 15th); Engel (White Sox, 19th).
One to watch: The 6-foot-5 Kime (6-1, 3.07 ERA, 81 Ks in 67 1/3 IP) emerged out of the bullpen and was moved into the rotation at midseason. His frame, a fastball that touches the mid-90s and three other solid pitches made scouts take notice and made him one of the big risers in the draft.
How they got here: The Cardinals made short work of Bowling Green, Miami and Oklahoma State in the Louisville Regional, then went to Nashville and upset No. 2 national seed Vanderbilt with 5-3 and 2-1 victories in the Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Cardinals' only previous trip to Omaha was in 2007. They went 1-2, beating Mississippi State.
Well-known alum: None
Mississippi State (48-18)
Mississippi State coach John Cohen had a good feeling with seven of eight starters returning from last year's NCAA Regionals team, but what really boosted the Bulldogs was a bullpen that protected leads or bought time for the offense to rally against opponents. Six relievers posted sub-2.00 ERAs. Senior righty Kendall Graveman (7-5, 3.14 ERA) is the team's top starting pitcher. Junior centerfielder Hunter Renfroe (.360, 15 HR, 61 RBIs) is far and away the team's offensive leader, although sophomore first baseman Wes Rea (.288, 7 HR, 37 RBIs) also provides some pop.
Drafted players: Renfroe (Padres, 1st); SS Adam Frazier (Pirates, 6th); Graveman (Blue Jays, 8th); LHP Chad Girodo (Blue Jays, 9th); RHP Evan Mitchell (Reds, 13th); INF/RHP Daryl Norris (Tigers, 22nd); LHP Luis Pollorena (Rangers, 23rd).
One to watch: Sophomore lefthander Ross Mitchell put together one of the most statistically impressive seasons one can imagine. He compiled a 12-0 record without starting a game, picking up all those wins over 31 relief appearances. Mitchell wasn't overpowering (43 Ks in 86 2/3 IP) and he let too many runners reach base (26 walks), but he rarely let them score (1.35 ERA).
How they got here: Mississippi State's first order of business was getting rid of Central Arkansas, which ended the Bulldogs' season-opening 17-game winning streak during the regular season. The teams met in the opening game of the Starkville Regional as well as the regional final, with Mississippi State prevailing. The Bulldogs then traveled to No. 6 national seed Virginia and ended the Cavaliers' season with 11-6 and 6-5 victories.
CWS history: This is the Bulldogs ninth trip to Omaha and first since 2007. The team's best finish came in 1985 when it placed third.
Well-known alum: Will Clark
North Carolina (57-10)
The Tar Heels came into the season ranked No. 1 in the nation by most observers and won 39 of their first 41 games in support of that notion. North Carolina capped the regular season by winning the ACC Tournament and received the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament. While such recognition is nice, no No. 1 seed has won the national championship since Miami in 1999.
Junior third baseman Colin Moran (.343, 13 HR, nation's-best 88 RBIs), senior first baseman Cody Stubbs (.366, 8 HR, 76 RBIs) and freshman outfielder Skye Bolt (.330) lead the way for an offense that has scored more runs than any team in the country. One of the nation's top rotations is headed by Kent Emanuel (11-3, 2.93 ERA) and Hobbs Johnson (4-1, 2.62 ERA) and backed by freshman righty Trent Thornton (11-1, 1.28 ERA, 8 SV).
Drafted players: Moran (Marlins, 1st); Emanuel (Astros, 3rd); Stubbs (Royals, 8th); Holberton (Astros, 9th); Johnson (Brewers, 14th); OF Chaz Frank (Blue Jays, 20th).
One to watch: Keep an eye on Emanuel when he takes the mound. He had a 2.12 ERA over 110 2/3 innings in the regular season, but has a 12.00 ERA in 11 2/3 postseason innings. There are questions that Carolina's ace has been overused after he threw 238 pitches over seven days earlier in this tournament. He was pulled just three innings into his start against South Carolina in the Super Regionals after allowing seven hits and four runs, his shortest start of the year. UNC coach Mike Fox blamed Emanuel's woes on poor command of his offspeed pitches. The Tar Heels need him to return to the form he showed en route to being named the ACC Pitcher of the Year in order to make a deep run in Omaha.
How they got here: North Carolina escaped upset by Florida Atlantic in the Chapel Hill Regional by rallying to tie the decisive game in the bottom of the ninth and 11th innings before winning an epic in the 13th. Trailing late in Game 3 of the Super Regionals against South Carolina, the Tar Heels rallied for three runs and a clinching 5-4 win.
CWS history: The Tar Heels are making their 10th trip to Omaha, and sixth in eight years. They finished as runner-up to Oregon State for the national championship in 2006 and 2007.
Well-known alum: Matt Harvey
North Carolina State (49-14)
The Wolfpack baseball program dates back more than 100 years. The school's original nickname was Farmers, which should play well in Nebraska. It probably seems like a century since the team's been to the CWS, but it's actually "only" been 45 years.
It would have been a disappointment for this team not to make it. The Pack's pitching staff is led by one of the nation's best in sophomore lefty Carlos Rodon (9-2, 3.19 ERA, nation-leading 170 Ks in 118 1/3 IP). Sophomore Trea Turner (.378, 7 HR, 41 RBIs, 27 SB) and senior Tarran Senay (.291, 8 HR, 58 RBIs) lead an offense that is productive, although not statistically overwhelming.
Drafted players: RHP Josh Easely (Marlins, 23rd); RHP Anthony Tzamtzis (Rays, 32nd).
One to watch: Turner, N.C. State's leadoff hitter, was an exciting addition to the Wolfpack lineup last season, bursting on the scene with a nation-leading 57 stolen bases on the way to becoming a freshman All-America. He only stole 27 this year, but that was still enough to help him break the school's career mark. The whole team likes to run, in fact, as evidenced by its 107 stolen bases.
How they got here: North Carolina State breezed through the Raleigh Regional with three straight wins, then dispatched Rice with a pair of one-run wins in the Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Wolfpack won two games in its lone appearance in 1968, but was eliminated by eventual champion USC.
Well-known alum: Dan Plesac
Oregon State (50-11)
Head coach Pat Casey's Beavers got out of the gate quickly this season, winning 20 of their first 21 games. It's easy to see why with a rotation that features freshman righty Andrew Moore (14-1, 1.36 ERA), junior lefty Ben Wetzler (9-1, 2.11 ERA) and senior lefty Matt Boyd (10-3, 2.13 ERA). Sophomore outfielders Dylan Davis (.343, 5 HR, 58 RBIs, 9 SB) and Michael Conforto (.320, 11 HR, 45 RBIs, 6 SB) are the biggest run-producers on an offense that hasn't exactly put up gaudy numbers. Of course, it doesn't have to with a pitching staff that is allowing just more than two runs per game.
Drafted players: Wetzler (Phillies, 5th); Boyd (Blue Jays, 6th); INF Tyler Smith (Mariners, 8th); 1B Danny Hayes (White Sox, 13th); Schultz (Marlins, 17th); RHP Dan Child (Phillies, 18th); C Jake Rodriguez (Astros, 19th).
One to watch: Moore was one of Sports Illustrated's "Faces In The Crowd" as a junior at North Eugene High after throwing back-to-back no-hitters. He tossed two-hitters this season against Cal and Oregon, highlighting a season that included three complete-game shutouts.
How they got here: Oregon State swept through the Corvallis Regional with three straight victories. The Beavers were on the ropes after a 6-2 loss to visiting Kansas State in the first game of the Super Regionals but responded with 12-4 and 4-3 victories.
CWS history: This is the Beavers' first appearance at the CWS since winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007 with victories over North Carolina.
Well-known alum: Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Bruins have won more national championships (108) than any school in NCAA history, although the baseball program has not contributed to that total. They're making a strong effort now, however, becoming regular participants in the CWS.
This UCLA club has outstanding pitching, led by a starting rotation that includes junior righties Adam Plutko (8-3, 2.35 ERA) and Nick Vander Tuig (12-4, 2.37 ERA) and shut-down closer David Berg (7-0, 0.88 ERA, 21 SV), the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year. There was some question whether the Bruins could return to Omaha for the second straight year without a robust offense, but they did so despite hitting just .251 with 19 home runs and averaging 4.8 runs per game, all lows among the CWS field. Pat Valaika (.257, 5 HR, 44 RBIs) and Kevin Kramer (.279, 3 HR, 40 RBI) have been their most productive offensive players.
Drafted players: Vander Tuig (Giants, 6th); RHP Zack Weiss (Reds, 6th); Valaika (Rockies, 9th); Plutko (Indians, 11th); OF Brenton Allen (Nationals, 20th); INF Kevin Williams (Marlins, 29th); RHP Ryan Deeter (Brewers, 32nd).
One to watch: Vander Tuig emerged during the postseason a year ago when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against New Mexico in the Los Angeles Regional. He took another step this season, leading the team with 77 strikeouts against only 17 walks. The postseason again has been his time to shine. He pitched the clinching game in the Super Regionals at Cal State Fullerton, tossing 6 1/3 shutout innings in a 3-0 win over the Titans.
How they got here: The Bruins rolled through the Los Angeles Regional with wins over San Diego State, Cal Poly and the University of San Diego, capping the regional finals with a 6-0 shutout of the Toreros. UCLA rallied for a 10-inning, 5-3 win in the opening game of the Fullerton Super Regional and clinched its second straight CWS berth with three unearned runs in the first inning of the 3-0 win over the Titans.
CWS history: The Bruins are making their fifth appearance overall and third in four years. They had not won a game here before 2010, when they finished as runner-up to South Carolina. Last year, UCLA beat Stony Brook in its CWS opener before losing to eventual champion Arizona and Florida State.
Well-known alum: Jackie Robinson.
LSU over Oregon State
Experience counts in Omaha, and both of these teams are guided by coaches who have won national championships. Beyond that, both the Tigers and Beavers have the pitching depth and offensive balance to reach the finals. Once there, the Tigers will prevail because they don't have a weakness and have dispatched all challengers this season while playing in the loaded SEC.
Kirk Kenney is a writer from San Diego who has covered college baseball since the early 1980s, when The Road to Omaha was still being paved.