College World Series preview: Eight storylines to watch in Omaha
The College World Series, which begins Saturday at TD Ameritrade Field in Omaha, features a powerful field. How strong is it? Defending national champion Vanderbilt and No. 1 ranked LSU are the most notable entrants—and, because both are on the same side of the bracket, only one of them will even reach the best-of-three finals that start on June 22.
In fact, the entire NCAA tournament has been pretty powerful. Thanks in part to the NCAA switching to a lower-seam baseball this year, there have been 135 home runs hit in this year's tournament, compared to 87 in the entire tournament a year ago. It remains to be seen if those numbers will translate into more home runs at TD Ameritrade, a park that has yielded only 25 round-trippers since 2011.
With the tournament down to eight teams, here are eight things to watch for at the College World Series.
1. Big Arms
The early games in this series could be very low scoring. For one thing, the ballpark is notably cavernous, having given up just three home runs at last year's CWS. For another, there are several quality pitchers who could probably keep the ball in a Little League park. At the top of that list is Vanderbilt righthander Carson Fulmer and Florida lefty A.J. Puk, both of whom average more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings. Fulmer, who was selected eighth overall by the White Sox in this week's draft, could be on a major league mound inside of a year. Vanderbilt’s also got another big arm in junior southpaw Philip Pfeifer (11.29 K/9 IP), so even though the Commodores didn’t start this tournament as favorites, a repeat is a real possibility.
LSU is another team that can pitch its way to a title. They’ve got righty Alex Lange, who’s 11–0 with a 1.89 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 105 innings. He throws in the low 90s with a hard slider that he uses to put hitters away. He’s just a freshman, by the way.
As UCLA proved en route to the 2013 national championship by giving up just four runs in five games, sometimes pitching can carry a team all the way to a title. As much as college baseball showed increased power and run scoring this year, the pitching/ballpark combo that you’re about to witness at the 2015 CWS does not bode well for fans who like big scores.
2. Top Shortstops
The first three players selected in Monday’s major league draft were shortstops, and two of them—Vanderbilt's Dansby Swanson, who went No. 1 to the Diamondbacks and LSU's Alex Bregman, who went No. 2 to the Astros—are about to play in the College World Series. Swanson, who played second base his first two years at Vandy, has only upped his value since moving to shortstop, where he has outstanding range and plenty of arm. With the bat, Swanson is as well-rounded as any player in the college game. He’s hitting .348 with 14 homers, 61 RBIs and 22 doubles, plus 42 walks and 15 stolen bases.
Bregman, while not possessing quite the complete tool set as Swanson, is still well above average in all facets of the game. Scouts also say his numbers (.318 with nine homers, 47 RBIs and 35 steals), while solid, don’t tell his whole story: He’s been LSU’s leader since he was a freshman.
3. Returning Teams
Experience at the CWS could pay dividends not only for the defending champs but also for TCU and Virginia, which are back at TD Ameritrade Park for the second year in a row. Of those three, only TCU is a national seed, and the Horned Frogs were No. 7 of the eight seeded teams.
Virginia, which took Vandy to three games in the championship series last year, already seems to be playing with house money. The Cavaliers almost didn’t qualify for the ACC tournament, much less the NCAA tournament. Their best pitcher, ace lefthander Nathan Kirby, missed the last seven weeks of the season with a strained lat. They lost their starting centerfielder, Joe La Prise, to hip surgery early in the season, and rightfielder Joe McCarthy is still not 100% after back surgery. But Virginia has already showed impressive resilience in this tournament. Both of its wins over rival Maryland in the Super Regionals came in the ninth inning.
4. Drought Busters?
So, maybe ACC fans don’t consider Miami to “really” be part of the conference, even though they've been a league member for a decade. Those fans will have to get over that if the Hurricanes win the CWS and become the first ACC team to win the title since Wake Forest did so in 1955.
The Hurricanes are, top to bottom, the most talented offensive team in Omaha. Coach Jim Morris has college baseball's highest scoring team (538 runs) and sixth-best hitting team (.311). They rank No. 1 nationally in on base percentage (.422) and are 11th in homer runs with 62. Still, the Canes have been shut down several times during the postseason, including being shut out by Columbia in the regionals, which put them on the brink of elimination on their home field. Miami responded by scoring 21 runs in the final game of the regional, a rematch against the Lions.
While it’s unlikely—perhaps impossible—that any team will put up numbers like that in the CWS, the Hurricanes may have the right combination of offense and pitching (3.02 team ERA, 20th in the nation) to take the title.
5. Fabulous Frosh
Two of the biggest impact players in the College World Series could be freshmen if Florida’s JJ Schwarz and Vanderbilt’s Will Toffey play to their potential.
Schwarz, a 6'2" catcher, was the SEC tournament and Gainesville Regional MVP and has hit .332 for the season with 18 home runs and 71 RBIs. A 17th-round pick a year ago, Schwarz now projects as a first-round selection after his junior year. Toffey, a Massachusetts native who was also a standout prep school hockey defenseman at the Salisbury School, came to Vandy not expecting to play a lot as a freshman. All he’s done is lock down the third base position while hitting .305 and slugging .436. Against SEC competition, the lefty-swinging Toffey hit a team-best .348, proving he can hit the best college pitching.
Schwarz and Toffey are hardly the only two freshman who will be looking to make big contributions in Omaha. There’s aforementioned LSU pitcher Lange and closer Jesse Stallings, who were both part of the National College Baseball Writers Association All Freshmen Team. There's also Vanderbilt reliever Kyle Wright (5-1, 1.09 ERA), who will get the ball in crucial spots.
6. The Best of the Best
Arkansas, Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt are the best-prepared teams in Omaha for one simple reason: They all play in the SEC, which week in and week out is the best conference in the country. If any teams are used to the challenge of facing power arms, it’s those four. Same goes for having pitchers ready to face the nation’s best hitters.
Four of the last six CWS winners have come out of the SEC, and the reason is obvious. Look no further than the MLB draft, where 11 SEC players were chosen in the first two rounds and 73 SEC players were taken in all. The level of play in the CWS is no better and no faster than what the SEC boys are used to seeing.
7. Calls to the 'Pen
If you’re not a fan of pitching changes, the CWS may not be for you. Thirty-five-man rosters allow college coaches to carry lots of arms, and they’re not afraid to use them.
Any team hoping to beat Vanderbilt will need to take care of business in the first five innings, before the Commodores start bringing in guys like lefthanders Ben Bowden (47 strikeouts in 35 innings) and John Kilichowski (61 in 60 2/3) and righties like Kyle Wright (.168 batting average against) and Jordan Sheffield (.192 BAA). Vandy has used four different pitchers to close games. Florida is another team that has a bevy of arms in the bullpen.
Most teams in the CWS have dedicated closers. Cal State–Fullerton’s Tyler Peitzmeier has 16 saves, the most of any reliever in Omaha. Virginia’s Josh Sborz has 14, as does TCU’s Riley Ferrell. Then there's Arkansas, which may have the most unhittable reliever in the CWS in Zach Jackson (5–0, 1.91, 9 saves). The sophomore righthander throws a fastball in the mid-to-high 90s and a hammer of a curveball, all while possessing enough wildness to make batters uncomfortable.
8. First Time Winners
A year ago, Vanderbilt won its first national championship in any sport. In this year’s field, Arkansas, Florida, Virginia and TCU are each looking for their first CWS title.
Of those looking to break through for the first time, the favorite has to be Florida. The Gators have been runners-up twice in the last 10 years and have few weaknesses. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s team has excellent starting pitching with sophomores Puk and Logan Shore, plus a multi-faceted bullpen led by Taylor Lewis (1.27 ERA) and Kirby Snead (2.19 ERA). Offensively, the Gators have power (60 home runs) led by Schwarz to go with a long line of tough outs, most notably third baseman Josh Tobias (.373 BA, .447 OBP).
While it may seem shocking that Florida—a hotbed for baseball talent—has never won it all, their most famous baseball alum to date is probably David Eckstein. O’Sullivan has turned the Gators into a perennial power whose time is certainly near, if not now.