College World Series preview: Virginia is team to beat in Omaha
After two weekends of upsets, the eight-team field is set for the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. One half of the double-elimination tournament begins on Saturday with UC-Irvine facing Texas and Louisville squaring off with Vanderbilt; then on Sunday it's Texas Tech versus TCU and Virginia going up against Ole Miss. The surviving two teams from those groups of four will meet in a best-of-three series that takes place from June 23-25.
California-Irvine Anteaters (40-23)
How They Got Here: Lots of little guys were impressive this NCAA postseason, but none more so than Irvine. One of the last four teams to make the field after dropping eight of their final nine games, the Anteaters went north to Corvallis and promptly ousted overall No. 1 seed Oregon State. Using stellar pitching from Andrew Morales and timely hitting to humiliate the Beavers in their own park, the Anteaters thumped OSU 14-2. After beating Oregon State 4-2 in the regional final, Irvine moved on to Stillwater, Okla., where they dispatched the other OSU (Oklahoma State) in a two-game sweep, winning 8-4 and 1-0. Clearly, this team is not going to be intimidated in Omaha.
Player to watch: Morales has been terrific so far this postseason (3-0, upping his overall record to 11-2 with a 1.53 ERA) and with a full week's rest, he will likely start against Texas on Saturday.
Did you know: Head coach Mike Gillespie led Southern California to four CWS appearances in 20 years with the Trojans, winning the 1998 national championship.
Omaha outlook: Irvine doesn't rely on a lot of home runs, which works to its advantage because TD Ameritrade Park isn't the best place to knock one out of the park. After dismantling two of the best teams in the country on the road, we should no longer be surprised by anything the Anteaters do this postseason.
Louisville Cardinals (50-15)
How they got here: The Cardinals didn't earn a national seed this year, but that's probably fine by them, because highly ranked teams haven't fared too well in this tournament. After beating rival Kentucky 4-1 and ending the collegiate career of national player of the year A.J. Reed in the regionals, Louisville swept upstart Kennesaw State next (national seed and host Florida State got knocked out early in the Tallahassee regional, allowing the Cardinals to host the Super Regionals). The Cardinals used late rallies in both of those games to earn a second consecutive trip to Omaha. Louisville is undefeated in the postseason, having outscored its competition 27-11.
Player to watch: Senior outfielder Jeff Gardner, the 2014 American Conference player of the year, is hitting .321 and leads the team with nine home runs and 68 RBIs. He was an eighth round selection by the Washington Nationals (244th overall) in this year's MLB draft.
Did you know: Louisville is the only 2013 CWS team to make it back to Omaha in 2014.
Omaha outlook: The Cardinals return 19 players who participated in the 2013 CWS, giving an important advantage on their half of the bracket. They also average a CWS-best 2.55 stolen bases per game and have 132 steals this season. Louisville boasts one of the best closers in college baseball in Nick Burdi (3-1, 0.51 ERA, 19 saves), so if the Cards have a lead late, he should be able to finish the job.
Ole Miss Rebels (46-19)
How they got here: Another national seed killer, Ole Miss won't be rattled no matter what the situation. The Rebels beat Washington in extra innings to advance to the Super Regionals, then won elimination games on consecutive nights in No. 1-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette's home ballpark.
Player to watch: When Ole Miss hands out its most improved award, it will likely go to senior catcher Will Allen. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder hits .345 and leads the team with 23 doubles and 61 RBIs. That's a dramatic improvement from last season, when he worked primarily as a designated hitter and hit .231 with five doubles and 17 RBIs.
Did you know: Freshman Colby Bortles, who's hit .262 in 65 at-bats this season, is the younger brother of Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles.
Omaha outlook: The Rebels have the most hits (697) of any team in the CWS, and they have made a habit of winning in dramatic fashion, but they are new to Omaha and open with Virginia, the best team left in the tournament. That could put them on the road to an early exit.
Texas Christian Horned Frogs (47-16)
How they got here: One of just two national seeds to advance to the CWS (Virginia is the other), TCU garnered headlines early in the NCAAs by needing a staggering 22 innings to beat Sam Houston State 3-2 in its second game of the regional. Then, tied 5-5 with Pepperdine in Game 3 of the Fort Worth Super Regional, catcher Kyle Bacak perfectly executed a suicide squeeze bunt in the top of the ninth to bring home the winning run and send the Horned Frogs to Omaha for just the second time in program history. TCU has now won 32 of its last 36.
Player to watch: Lefthander Brandon Finnegan (9-3, 2.12 ERA) is one of the best pitchers in the country, as evidenced by the Kansas City Royals selecting him 17th overall in the MLB draft. But he might not even be the Horned Frogs' best pitcher this season. Righthander Preston Morrison (9-4, 1.32 ERA) and lefthander Tyler Alexander (10-3, 2.16) have also been a huge part of the TCU's success, and the team as a whole has a 2.19 ERA, tops in the nation.
Did you know: The Horned Frogs are one of just nine teams with multiple CWS appearances in the last five seasons.
Omaha outlook: TCU and Texas Tech are familiar with each other — they split four games during the regular season, with Tech winning the conference series 2-1 — but the edge will go to the Horned Frogs for their stellar pitching. TCU has enough arms to reach the championship series but getting past Virginia will be a tall task.
Texas Longhorns (43-19)
How they got here: One of the most storied programs in college baseball history (head coach Augie Garrido has won five national titles), the Longhorns knocked national seed Rice to the losers' bracket in the Houston Regional, then cruised into the super regionals after defeating Texas A&M. In Austin they continued their path through their Lone Star State rivals by taking two in a row from Houston. Texas swooned late in the regular season, dropping eight of its final 14 games, but it has recovered thanks in large measure to a pitching staff that has a 2.32 ERA, sixth-best in the country.
Player to watch: C.J. Hinojosa has one of the hottest bats in Omaha: He's hitting .476 (10-for-21) in the postseason, with a team-high six RBIs, and is now at .300 with 33 RBIs for the season.
Did you know: Texas is making a record 35th appearance in the CWS, the eighth under Garrido.
Omaha outlook: It's good for the Longhorns when they score early, but can they do that against red-hot Morales and UC-Irvine? Texas was good, not great, in the Big 12 this year, and hasn't played outside of its home state yet in the NCAAs.
Texas Tech Red Raiders (45-19)
How they got here: The Red Raiders began their tournament run in dramatic fashion, winning their regional opener on a walk-off. They then stunned regional host Miami to advance to the Super Regionals for the first time in school history. Naturally, they followed that up by sweeping College of Charleston with back-to-back 1-0 wins to punch their ticket to Omaha. Texas Tech features one of the best defensive teams in the nation (.981 fielding percentage) and has shut out four of its last five opponents. The pitching staff has some swagger, too: The Red Raiders have a 0.65 ERA in the NCAA tournament.
Player to watch: First baseman Eric Gutierrez, who will make his 121st consecutive start on Sunday, is hitting .312 with 12 home runs and a team-high 58 RBIs.
Did you know: Before April 28, the highest Texas Tech had been ranked this season was No. 21; now it is one of eight teams still playing.
Omaha outlook: The Red Raiders are a feel good story in the midst of a historic season. But experience counts when you get to this point, and Texas Tech doesn't have it.
Vanderbilt Commodores (46-19)
How they got here: Vanderbilt completed one of the most dramatic comebacks of regional play when freshman Ro Coleman, who checks in at 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds, hit a bases-loaded, walk-off single to steal a victory from Oregon in the Nashville Regional final. The Commodores -- another team that took advantage of a national seed falling (they would have traveled to Indiana for the Super Regionals had the Hoosiers advanced) -- then beat Stanford in a decisive Game 3 at Supers to clinch a return spot in Omaha. Vanderbilt has outscored its six tournament opponents 49-19.
Player to watch: Sophomore second baseman Dansby Swanson is the sparkplug, batting .335 with team-highs in on-base percentage (.414) and stolen bases (18) while scoring 58 runs.
Did you know: Vanderbilt is making just its second trip to the CWS in school history, with the first coming in 2011, but it won't have the benefit of experience. Only two players remain from that team, and neither went to Omaha.
Omaha outlook: The Commodores are deep on the mound, led by junior righthander Tyler Beede (8-7, 3.58), the 14th overall pick in the draft, but they're young and face a difficult opener with a CWS-tested Louisville squad.
Virginia Cavaliers (49-14)
How they got here: The highest remaining overall seed (No. 3) and a preseason favorite to wind up in Omaha, the Cavaliers have it all: Plenty of individual talent (three players were drafted in the first round of this year's MLB draft), great pitching (2.31 ERA, fifth-best in the country) and tremendous defense (.982 fielding percentage, third best). This is Virginia's third trip to Omaha in the last six seasons and save for a stumble in Game 1 of the Charlottesville Super Regional against Maryland, Virginia has dominated the last two weeks, outscoring its opponents by a combined margin of 44-13.
Player to watch: Junior righthander Nick Howard, selected 19th overall last week by the Reds, has a school record 19 saves and has struck out 51 batters in 30⅔ innings of work. He has also posted a 2.05 ERA while yielding just a .185 batting average.
Did you know: This is the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999 that at least three national seeds haven't made it to Omaha.
Omaha outlook: Pitching and defense win championships at TD Ameritrade, and Virginia has both. The Cavaliers should win their first national title.