Eight for Omaha: LSU No. 1, defending national champ Vanderbilt No. 2
Vanderbilt’s triumph in last year’s College World Series was years in the making. The Commodores, under coach Tim Corbin, had long been loaded with the talent to win it all but could never seem to put together the two-week stretch necessary to win in Omaha. By defeating Virginia in the best-of-three championship series, Corbin’s team became the first national championship program in Vanderbilt history.
The question now is, can the Commodores repeat? And if it’s not Vandy or another team from the loaded Southeastern Conference, is Virginia or another Atlantic Coast Conference team, ready to win that conference's first CWS title since 1955? And, could the introduction of a lower-seam baseball help bring more offense back to the game? The new ball supposedly carries significantly farther than the ball that’s been used for decades. A return to a more offensive game could significantly alter the balance of power and open things up.
Believe it or not, it all gets started this weekend, with all the power programs getting their seasons under way on Friday. Here’s a look at SI.com’s Eight for Omaha.
1. LSU Tigers
2014: 46-16-1, lost in regionals
The Tigers boast college baseball’s most complete everyday lineup, led by junior shortstop Alex Bregman (.316/.397/.455), senior first baseman Connor Hale (.306/.335/.426) and an athletic outfield of Jake Fraley in left, Andrew Stevenson in center and Mark Laird in right (27 combined steals). Expect LSU to put runs on the board with a combination of speed and power. The pitching staff is green, with sophomore Jared Poche (9-3, 2.45 ERA) expected to be the ace and three highly-rated freshmen -- Alex Lange, Jake Godfrey and Jake Latz -- being counted on to pitch on weekends. If that young staff can keep the Tigers in games, LSU has a great chance to win its seventh national title.
2. Vanderbilt Commodores
2014: 51-21, won College World Series
As usual, the Commodores are loaded with power pitching. The program that has produced six first-round pitchers in the last 12 years could have more future pros on the way. Led by juniors Carson Fulmer (7-1, 1.98 ERA) and Walker Buehler (12-2, 2.64), who both throw in the 90s, Vanderbilt once again has the potential to completely dominate opponents from the mound. Offensively, the speed-and-contact formula that worked last season remains intact. Dansby Swanson, the Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series, has moved to shortstop this season after playing second base last year, but he remains the table-setter atop the lineup. Outfielder Bryan Reynolds and infielder Zander Wiel, who combined to drive in 98 runs a year ago, will be expected to provide similar production this year. There’s no question the Commodores have the talent to repeat, but they’ll also have a target on their back.
3. Oklahoma State Cowboys
2014: 48-18, lost in Super Regionals
The Cowboys won the Big 12 title a year ago under second-year coach Josh Holliday and look poised to return to the College World Series for the first time since 1999. At the top of the rotation, OSU has seniors John Perrin (8-5, 2.38 ERA) and Tyler Nurdin (4-3, 6.54) and a sophomore lefthander in Garrett Williams (4-1, 5.40), who throws in the mid 90s. Offensively, the Cowboys are one of the few college teams that tries to hit the ball over the fence. Designated hitter Conor Costello (nine home runs, .432 slugging) has the most pop, while catcher Gage Green (.310/.392/.423) might be their best all-around hitter. Freshman outfielder Jon Littell and junior college transfer Kevin Bradley, an infielder, also bring some raw power to the lineup. The biggest question for Holliday -- who was an assistant at Vanderbilt under Corbin -- is going to be replacing closer Brendan McCurry, who had 19 saves and a 0.38 ERA a year ago.
4. Virginia Cavaliers
2014: 53-16, lost College World Series finals
The Cavaliers came oh so close to snapping the ACC’s now 60-year old College World Series drought, but they lost a pair of one-run games, including a 3-2 Game 3 loss in the championship series to Vanderbilt. Despite that setback, Virginia has clearly established itself as the East Coast’s premier program. So even though coach Brian O’Connor’s squad will feature 14 freshmen, Virginia is reloading, not rebuilding. Among those newcomers, outfielders Pavin Smith and Adam Haseley are considered top prospects who are ready to step in and make immediate contributions. Even if the Cavs' offense is only slightly above average, they have the pitching to stay in title contention. Lefthanders Nathan Kirby (9-3, 2.06 ERA) and Brandon Waddell (10-3, 2.45) combined to go 19-6 in 2014. Number three starter, righthander Josh Sborz (6.4, 2.92) also throws in the 90s while possessing a nasty slider. O’Connor has taken the Cavaliers to 11 straight regionals while making three CWS appearances. It appears to be just a matter of time before UVa. takes that final step to a title.
5. Florida Gators
2014: 40-23, lost in regionals
Florida rolled through the regular season last year, winning the SEC regular season title and earning a No. 2 national seed. Then, in one less-than-stellar weekend in Gainesville, the Gators lost to College of Charleston and North Carolina, a shockingly abrupt end to their season. The good news for coach Kevin O’Sullivan is that he has plenty of talented players back who can use that disappointment as motivation in 2015. Florida returns righthander Logan Shore (7-4, 2.16 ERA), the SEC Freshman of the Year, along with sophomore lefthander (A.J. Puk 5-2, 3.19), who also serves as the Gators’ DH. While three freshmen are expected to be in O’Sullivan’s everyday lineup, all three are highly-regarded and should have no problem complementing returnees like leftfielder Harrison Bader (.337/.421/.432), third baseman Josh Tobias (.305/.376/.448) and shortstop Richie Martin (.265/.354/.337). O’Sullivan has made the NCAA tournament in each of his seven years as coach at UF and has been to Omaha on three occasions. Vandy may have beaten Florida to a national title, but the Gators appear to be a team on the cusp.
6. Texas Christian Horned Frogs
2014: 48-18, lost in College World Series
The Horned Frogs are another one of those programs that just seems to load up on arms, and this year’s team will be no different. Even though TCU lost ace Brandon Finnegan to the draft -- he then helped the Kansas City Royals reach the World Series -- they return five capable starters. Leading the way is senior righthander Preston Morrison (9-4, 1.32 ERA), a side-armer who has won 25 games while pitching to a 1.62 ERA in his three college seasons. Closer Riley Ferrell is a pre-season All-America who struck out 70 in 45 innings a year ago. Offense could be a problem for TCU because it does not hit for much power. The Frogs hit only 14 home runs all of last season and that doesn't figure to change much this season. Thus they will rely completely on speed and small ball and hope their pitchers continue to dominate. That was the formula that helped TCU make it to Omaha last season, so there isn't much reason to change.
7. Houston Cougars
2014: 48-18, lost in Super Regionals
With six returning everyday players and their entire weekend rotation intact, the Cougars look like a team that should be primed to duplicate something close to what it achieved a year ago. Houston, like so many college teams, relied on pitching, speed and defense to win last season. This year, it hopes to have added a little power with junior college transfers Chris Iriart and Ian Rice. Both hit double digit home runs at the JUCO level in 2014. Similar production would be a welcome addition for a Cougars team that hit only 17 home runs all of last season. On the mound, Houston is led by righthander Jake Lemoine (6-8, 2.87 ERA) and senior righthander Aaron Garza (9-5, 2.92). Sophomore righty Andrew Lantrip was 6-0 a year ago as the team’s No. 3 and fifth-year coach Todd Whitting hopes he’ll continue to hold down that role. If this team performs as expected, Houston could be visiting Omaha for the first time since 1967.
8. Louisville Cardinals
2014: 50-17, lost in College World Series
While it might be a little bit weird if Louisville turns out to be the team that snaps the ACC’s College World Series title drought -- yeah, Louisville is now in the ACC -- it just might happen. The Cardinals have been to Omaha the last two years and have transformed their program into one of those perennial powers that just continues to stock up on top-level talent. They return their entire weekend rotation this year, led by junior righthander Kyle Funkhouser, who was 13-3 with a 1.94 ERA a year ago. They have a sophomore closer in Zack Burdi who will probably hit 100 mph on the gun before his career is over. Offensively, Louisville could very well field eight position players who have all seen significant playing time. Senior third baseman Zach Lucas (.270/.333/.405) is their most productive hitter and he’s complemented by second baseman Nick Solak (.351/.455/.464). In addition to the always-challenging ACC, the Cards have a daunting non-conference slate that includes games against Vanderbilt, Cal-State Fullerton and Mississippi.