College World Series preview: LSU is the slim favorite - Sports Illustrated

College World Series preview: LSU is the favorite to take the crown in Omaha

There may not be a Cinderella in this year's group of College World Series teams, but LSU and Louisville are the early favorites in Omaha.
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This weekend, thousands descend on Omaha for the 2017 College World Series, but one notable name won’t be making the trip: Cinderella.

The eight teams that have emerged from two weekends of double-elimination tournament play are no strangers to the big stage. In all, they have combined for 90 College World Series appearances and 12 national championships. One half of the bracket contains three of the eight most frequent College World Series participants; the other half contains three teams that earned national seeds as one of the top eight teams in the country.

While Coastal Carolina’s white-knuckle title run last June was a fitting finale for an unpredictable tournament, the lack of underdogs this time around ensures there will be no shortcuts to the dogpile in the middle of TD Ameritrade Park this year—and no shortage of high-quality baseball along the way. Below, a viewer’s guide to each of the eight teams, ranked by their chances of taking home the national title.

8. Cal State Fullerton Titans (39–22)

Road to Omaha: After running the table at the Stanford Regional, Fullerton rallied from a shutout loss to conference rival Long Beach State for two straight wins that earned the Titans their second CWS berth in three years.

X-factor: Righthander Colton Eastman was a preseason All-America pick and Fullerton’s incumbent No. 1 starter this year, but he lost two and a half months of the regular season to elbow tightness, and by the time he returned to action in the middle of May he had been bumped to the No. 3 slot by juniors Connor Seabold and John Gavin. Eastman eased his way back to a full workload just in time to pick up hard-fought wins in the regional clincher and the decisive Game 3 of the Super Regional. Don’t expect the Titans to get too aggressive with his availability even if they have to move through the taxing loser’s bracket, but he has been near-perfect when called upon this postseason: In 13.2 innings over two starts, he has allowed three hits and no earned runs.

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Did you know: Head coach Rick Vanderhook is in his sixth year as the Titans’ head coach, but he knows a thing or too about taking Fullerton all the way. He has been a part of three of the school’s four national championships, as a player in 1984 and as an assistant coach in ’95 and ’04.

Omaha outlook: The Titans went “two-and-cue” in 2015, their only other College World Series appearance under Vanderhook, and a date with No. 1 seed Oregon State in the CWS opener on Saturday may put them in another early hole that may prove too much to overcome.

7. Florida State Seminoles (45–21)

Road to Omaha: A College World Series trip is not the annual expectation it once was in Tallahassee—the Seminoles are in the final eight for the 22nd time but are making their first trip to Omaha since 2012—so call this postseason run a pleasant surprise. After ending a sleepy regular season .500 in ACC play (but won the conference tournament), Florida State lost its NCAA tournament opener to Tennessee Tech, then wound its way through the loser’s bracket to advance to a Super Regional date with upstart Sam Houston State. A walk-off win in Game 1 broke the Bearkats’ underdog spirit, followed by a 19–0 rout that punched the Seminoles’ ticket.

X-factor: Sophomore leftfielder Jackson Lueck has reached safely in 11 of his last 14 plate appearances, keeping the line moving just behind Florida State offensive catalysts and third-round MLB draft picks Taylor Walls (Rays) and Dylan Busby (Pirates) at the top of the order. Injuries, including shin splints and a bout of shingles, sidelined Lueck for nearly a quarter of FSU’s regular season games, but he has shined in June.

Did you know: The Noles are deeply patient at the plate, averaging five walks per game this postseason after finishing second in the country with a whopping 345 during the regular season. They drew 12 walks during that Super Regional-clinching blowout of Sam Houston State, and leadoff man Walls is one free pass shy of leading the nation in them.

Omaha outlook: It would be fittingly unpredictable if, after all the dominant front-runners Mike Martin has fielded in 38 years as FSU head coach, this unassuming squad was the one to claim the program’s elusive first national championship. The Seminoles will need several pitchers to step up behind strikeout machine Tyler Holton (a 35th-round pick by the Marlins) in order to make a run.

6. Texas A&M Aggies (41–21)

Road to Omaha: After two straight years of heartbreaking Super Regional exits, the Aggies broke through against tournament darlings Davidson—the scrappy Wildcats put everything they had into a 15-inning Game 1 loss and then ran out of gas as the A&M offense came alive for 10 unanswered runs in the final two frames of Game 2. Texas A&M is the lowest-seeded team still standing, having advanced out of the Houston Regional as the 3-seed after receiving one of the selection committee’s last four at-large bids.

X-Factor: The offense rests on the shoulders of the SEC Freshman of the Year, second baseman Braden Shewmake, who leads the Aggies in average, home runs, RBIs, slugging and steals. He has played every game this season and is the only hitter on the roster with double-digit home runs.

Did you know: If you’ll be tuning in to a Texas A&M game for the first time, brace yourself for bubbles. A&M fans fire up bubble machines every time the Aggies score at home games, continuing a tradition that started with the players in the dugout a few years ago.

Omaha outlook: Davidson’s historic upset took care of North Carolina before the Aggies had to deal with the No. 2 national seed, but they’ll face nothing but top-eight teams from here on out. A&M’s lineup will have a tough time cracking any top-end member of the Louisville, TCU or Florida pitching staffs.

5. TCU Horned Frogs (47–16)

Road to Omaha: We come at last to the first of four College World Series teams who are still unbeaten in postseason play. The Horned Frogs cranked up their offense to dispatch Central Connecticut, Virginia and Dallas Baptist in the Fort Worth Regional. It was the pitching staff’s turn in the Super Regional, where starters Jared Janczak and (A’s eight-round pick) Brian Howard each put up double-digit strikeouts and Missouri State’s high-powered offense mustered a total of just three runs in two games.

X-factor: Catcher Evan Skoug has six hits in five tournament games, and four have been home runs, including a two-run shot that put a final nail in Missouri State’s season. A seventh-round pick by the White Sox, Skoug should find himself in the mix for the CWS Most Outstanding Player award if TCU makes a run.

Did you know: Jim Schlossnagle does not like to give away outs. The Horned Frogs have dropped down just three sacrifice bunts all year long, tied with Cornell for the fewest in the country.

Omaha outlook: This is the Horned Frogs’ fourth consecutive College World Series and their fifth this decade; you’d think by now they would have gained some pre-tournament steam as front-runners. Beyond Skoug’s power surge and outfielder Austin Wade’s knack for getting on base, however, TCU’s lineup is solid but not necessarily scary for the elite pitchers standing in the way of the program’s first-ever CWS finals appearance.


4. Florida Gators (47–18)

Road to Omaha: The No. 3 seed Gators didn’t necessarily make it easy on themselves, dropping a game to Bethune-Cookman in the finals of the Gainesville Regional and then giving up a walk-off home run to Wake Forest that forced their Super Regional to a deciding Game 3. That unnecessary drama may have been merely a case of looking too far ahead, which can be excused from a team making its sixth Omaha trip in eight years.

X-factor: Few Gators pitchers have felt the effects of this team’s recent flair for the dramatic like reliever Michael Byrne, a former mid-week starter with a 1.83 ERA who has gotten the call for five multi-inning appearances so far this tournament. (His postseason line so far: 15 innings, three earned runs, 23 strikeouts and five walks.) Byrne can serve in a more traditional closer role (he has 16 saves, second-most in the country) or as a “fireman” capable of dousing late-inning rallies whenever they’re sparked and then staying on the mound for the rest of the game. The solid relief work by staff ace Alex Faedo to close out the Super Regional when weather delays threw off coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s plan for the rotation might embolden the Gators to turn Byrne loose in even more creative ways if the situation calls for it in Omaha.

Did you know: Centerfielder Ryan Larson missed the regional after taking a fastball to the head during the SEC Tournament, then came back to deliver a walk-off single in the first game of the Super Regional.

Omaha outlook: Led by Faedo, the 18th pick in the draft by the Tigers, Florida has the pitching to reach the championship series, but the offense has run too hot and cold to count on, adding another degree of difficulty to the program’s frustrating pursuit of its first national title.

3. Oregon State Beavers (54–4)

Road to Omaha: After business-like dismissals of their regional foes and a wire-to-wire two-game sweep of Vanderbilt, Oregon State is on the brink of history, with a chance to set the NCAA all-time winning percentage record set by Arizona State back in 1972 (.914) if they lose no more than one game in Omaha. The Beavers made quick work of their Super Regional in spite of the absence of staff ace Luke Heimlich, who excused himself from the team after an Oregonian report published the day before Game 1 revealed that he was a registered sex offender who had pled guilty to molesting a female family member when he was 15.

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X-factor: Stepping into the second-day starter role in place of Heimlich, all right-handed sophomore Bryce Fehmel did was throw a five-hit complete game, striking out 10 to secure the Beavers’ CWS spot. Thanks to Fehmel and first-round pick Drew Rasmussen (who didn’t even have to pitch last weekend), Oregon State has yet to have its pitching depth tested behind junior righthander Jake Thompson, a fourth-round Red Sox draft pick and the nation’s only 14-game winner.

Did you know: Oregon State’s staff ERA of 1.80 is a full point clear of every other team in the country except for Illinois-Chicago (2.65), and the Beavers’ bullpen pulls its weight, too: Three different relievers have at least four saves, and five regular relievers have allowed a batting average of under .200.

Omaha outlook: That 1972 Arizona State team Oregon State has in its sights? They went 64–6 and didn’t even win it all. The Beavers are deservedly the clear favorites, but their side of the bracket is far from a cake walk. Overshadowed by the pitching staff, the OSU offense comes at opponents in waves behind second baseman Nick Madrigal and first baseman K.J. Harrison, and its lack of reliance on the home run could serve the top seed well in a park known to knock down fly balls.

2. Louisville Cardinals (52–10)

Road to Omaha: With the exception of Oregon State, nobody made the first two rounds look easier than Louisville, which swept its own regional and then shut down in-state rival Kentucky’s top-20 offense to reach the College World Series for the third time in the past five years. Golden Spikes Award finalist Brendan McKay has had a quiet tournament at the plate so far, but he struck out nine Wildcats over 6.2 innings in a Super Regional­–clinching 6–2 victory.

X-factor: Third baseman Drew Ellis will test the limits of TD Ameritrade Park at some point in the next week. He hit three home runs in the two wins over Kentucky and carries a 1.186 OPS into Omaha—his .729 slugging percentage is the best one still standing this season.

Did you know: McKay, the fourth overall pick by the Rays in this year's draft, won the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award for the third straight season, splitting time as both the Cardinals’ ace and their power-hitting first baseman. He’s the only player ever to win the award more than once.

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Omaha outlook: McKay will be the center of attention, but the first half of the tournament has shown that this team is far from a one-man band. Lanky No. 1 starter Kade McClure hasn’t been able to replicate his All-America 2016 campaign down the stretch, but he had an encouraging bounce-back outing against Kentucky. When they aren’t thinking homer, the Cardinals are aggressive on the basepaths, too: They sit 17th in the nation with 97 stolen bases and have two regulars (Josh Stowers and Logan Taylor) with more than 20 this season.

1. LSU Tigers (48–17)

Road to Omaha: The SEC champions are back in the College World Series for the 18th time after being stopped short by eventual champion Coastal Carolina last year. The Tigers landed the No. 4 national seed and then kept things interesting on their way through the bracket, trailing in four of the five games they’ve played so far. They scored a total of nine runs from the eighth inning on in their Super Regional sweep of SEC West rival Mississippi State.

X-factor: Cubs first-round pick Alex Lange anchors the pitching staff, but what will LSU get out of Jared Poche’? The senior lefthander gave up four walks and four runs in a Super Regional start that lasted just 2.1 innings, and lowly Texas Southern chased him in the fifth inning of LSU’s tournament opener. Freshman No. 3 starter Eric Walker tossed eight shutout frames in his last outing two weeks ago, but the Tigers would prefer not to ask their offense and bullpen to cover for an upperclassman one victory away from the school record.

Did you know: Shortstop Kramer Robertson is the son of Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey, whom ESPN cameras have spotlighted in the stands of Alex Box Stadium so many times that LSU fans have made a running joke out of how early she’ll be mentioned during each broadcast. For his own part, Robertson has started every game at shortstop in each of the past two seasons and was a first-team All-SEC selection this spring, leading the Tigers in doubles and runs scored. The Cardinals drafted Robertson in the fourth round with the No. 124 pick, nine selections before double-play partner Cole Freeman went to the Nationals.

Omaha outlook: In short, the Tigers seem unkillable right now. They’ve won 16 straight games, a streak that now stretches back a month and through the home stretch of the SEC meat grinder, and their passionate fans have been known to produce some of TD Ameritrade Park’s most partisan crowds. If there’s any team that can knock off Oregon State twice, it’s this one.