The 64-team field in the NCAA baseball tournament is down to two teams and one inescapable fact: there will be first-time national champion in 2014. In fact, the Virginia Cavaliers and the Vanderbilt Commodores are both making their first appearance in the finals of the College World Series, and both are relative newcomers to Omaha: Virginia is there for just the third time in school history, with the other visits coming in 2009 and '11, and Vanderbilt is in the midst of its second trip, three years after its first.
With that in mind, here is a breakdown of what to expect in 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).
The Cavaliers won the Charlottesville Regional with a 3-0 mark, opening with a 10-1 victory over Bucknell before taking out Arkansas by scores of 3-0 and 9-2, respectively. In the Super Regional, which was also played in its home ballpark, Virginia ousted Maryland, winning the decisive Game 3, 11-2. In the College World Series, UVa. is 3-0, beating Mississippi 2-1 in its opener before taking out TCU 3-2 in 15 innings and sending Ole Miss home with a 4-1 victory on Saturday.
Key To victory
In Omaha, the Cavaliers have relied primarily on lights out pitching. Expect more of the same against Vanderbilt. Virginia's pitchers have allowed only four runs in the CWS and are holding the opposition to a .147 batting average. Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz figure to start, and the Cavs bullpen, led by Artie Lewicki and Nick Howard, is the best in college baseball. The Commodores will have to manufacture runs.
Second baseman Branden Cogswell, Virginia's leadoff hitter, is 4-for-10 with two doubles in the CWS. With a career on-base percentage of .425 and 128 runs scored, Cogswell is the man charged with getting the UVa. offense going. The Cavaliers aren't going to slug their way to victory in spacious TD Ameritrade Park. They'll need Cogswell and two-hole hitter Daniel Pinero to get on base in front of first baseman Mike Papi, third baseman Kenny Towns and rightfielder Joe McCarthy in order to score enough runs to win.
Like Virginia, Vanderbilt went 3-0 in the regional it hosted. The Commodores took care of Xavier and Oregon (twice). In the Super Regional, Vandy needed three games to survive against Stanford, blowing the Cardinal out, 12-5, in the rubber game to advance to Omaha for the second time in the last four years. The Commodores have gone 3-1 in the College World Series, beating Louisville and UC-Irvine their first two games before losing to Texas and then beating the Longhorns in 10 innings in an elimination game to reach the championship series.
Key to victory
Vanderbilt's offense is built largely on speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths. In four CWS games Vandy has stolen 12 bases. Its winning run in the 10th inning of its elimination game against Texas came on a two-out single, a stolen base, a walk, a hit batter and an infield single. At the top of their order, the Commodores have Dansby Swanson (20-for-25 on stolen base attempts), Bryan Reynolds (13-for-19), and Vince Conde (15-for-17). Virginia has only allowed five stolen bases so far in the CWS while throwing out three attempted base stealers, but will surely be tested over the next three games.
Junior centerfielder John Norwood runs down just about everything that's hit in his area. He has the speed to play shallow and still not get beat on balls hit over his head. Playing alongside another excellent defender in leftfielder Reynolds, Virginia could have a tough time getting any ball it hits to the outfield to find grass at Ameritrade. Drafted in the 11th round out of high school, Norwood did not become a full-time player at Vandy until this season, and he was passed over completely in this spring's draft. The CWS has become a chance for Norwood, who is hitting .333 in Omaha, to showcase his skill set on both sides of the ball.
Virginia in three. The Cavaliers' arms will make the difference in a low-scoring series, delivering the ACC its first national championship since Wake Forest won it in 1955.