The best-of-three College World Series final, which begins Monday night at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, is a rematch of last year’s final, with defending national champion Vanderbilt meeting Virginia, which will try to end the ACC's title drought that dates to 1955.
The Commodores boast shortstop Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the MLB draft two weeks ago, and survived both the SEC—universally regarded as the best college baseball conference in the country—and a tough road to the finals. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, almost didn’t qualify for the ACC tournament, much less the NCAA field, but they have lost just once in their last nine games and eliminated Florida, a team many felt had the most talent of any team at the CWS, to reach the finals.
All three games start at 8 p.m. ET and will be televised by ESPN. Here are three things to look for in this matchup:
1. Virginia must hit
The Cavaliers have had stretches during the season where they have been completely shut down offensively. They were swept at Virginia Tech in early March, when they scored only seven runs in the three games, and then were swept by Louisville in Charlottesville one month later, that time scoring just five runs in the three-game set. After winning their ACC tournament opener 11–0 last month, the Cavs managed just nine runs en route to three straight losses. For the season, Virginia hits .273 as a team and has only 34 home runs in 65 games.
The good news is the Wahoos' bats have shown up in Omaha. They are averaging more than five runs per game in the NCAA tournament, and in the only game in which they were shut down, they won anyway, beating the Gators 1–0 on June 15. Virginia has shown it can beat good pitching, putting up 10 hits in games against the big arms from Arkansas and Florida. Shortstop Daniel Pinero is hitting .571 in Omaha and catcher Matt Thaiss has had great swings, including a long home run against the Gators on Saturday in the game that sent the Cavs back to the finals.
Now Virginia will face another pitching-heavy team. Righthanders Carson Fulmer (13–2, 1.95 ERA), who went to the White Sox with the eighth overall selection in the draft; Walker Buehler (5–2, 2.85 ERA; No. 24 overall pick by the Dodgers); and lefthander Philip Pfeifer (6–4, 3.77 ERA; third-round pick of the Dodgers) will make this a tough series for the Cavs. If the Cavs don’t get production from the heart of their lineup, Vandy will probably roll.
2. D means Ws
A year ago, Vanderbilt won a pair of one-run games en route to the title. If the games are that tight again, it will put even more of a premium on strong defense, and neither team can afford to give away outs. Virginia can get a little sloppy in the field, having committed 78 errors this season; Pinero has 20 errors at shortstop and Kenny Towns has made 17 at third base. The Commodores—who play their home games on artificial turf—don't have a single player with double-digit errors and have been charged with just 57 miscues all season.
3. Vanderbilt is the heavy favorite
The Commodores had eight players selected in the MLB draft two weeks ago, including three in the first round. Virginia had seven players taken, the highest of whom was starting pitcher Nathan Kirby at No. 40, but the Cavaliers can't match the Commodores' overall talent level. UVa. should at least be free of expectations. Yes, the Cavs would like to win the first title in school history, but they've already gone much farther than anyone had expected.