- With college baseball's Big Dance set to unfold this weekend, here are key storylines to watch among the final eight teams.
If Super Regional weekend was just a preview of what's coming in the next two weeks when the college baseball world descends on Omaha, Neb., the 2019 College World Series could be one of the most electric in years.
From Kumar Rocker’s no-hitter, a 131-pitch masterpiece that propelled now-favorite Vanderbilt past Duke, to the continuation of Florida State’s miraculous run in head coach Mike Martin’s final season to the annual barrage of crazy finishes, college baseball hasn't lacked for excitement in its marquee time of year.
Let's run through five of the biggest storylines as the CWS is set to get underway on Saturday.
It’s no surprise that the SEC heads to Omaha with the strongest representation, but this year is different than most. The conference will have four teams playing at TD Ameritrade Park—No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Arkansas, No. 6 Mississippi State, and Auburn—making it just the fifth time ever a single conference has sent four of its teams to the CWS. Of course, the SEC has accomplished that feat on three past occasions (1997, 2004, 2015).
And the seeding certainly means something here. The Commodores, Razorbacks and Bulldogs deservedly are the favorites, with all three among the top 25 teams in the nation in batting average. They also combined to average more than eight runs per game during Supers, and there are a plethora of power hitters among the group: Vandy’s JJ Bleday is the NCAA home run leader; Arkansas’ Casey Martin and MSU’s Justin Foscue round out the SEC’s top five in the same category.
Mike Martin's Last Ride
The Seminoles weren’t the only No. 3 seed to make it out of their Super Regional. Michigan stunned top overall seed UCLA on the road a week after it emerged from the Corvallis regional, eliminating defending champ Oregon State. It’s certainly not a complete fluke, as shown by their 16-7 record in the Big Ten, but the Wolverines weren’t really tested outside the league—they went 1-3 against ranked nonconference opponents.
But Florida State will be the story of the CWS as Martin makes his last trip to Omaha. The Seminoles got their longtime coach a 40th win—a mark FSU has hit in every one of Martin’s 40 seasons—in the Super Regional opener against LSU. Then, they needed all 12 innings to get the walk-off that sent a Martin-led team to the CWS for the 17th time. Despite all their trips, though the Seminoles have never finished the job in Omaha.
An Early Inflection Point
There will be plenty of intrigue by the time things get down to the final four teams, but keep your eye out for a Tuesday night game between Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Is it fair to assume that the Dawgs and the 'Dores will get wins in their openers? No, but MSU did take two of three from Auburn earlier in the year and Vandy got a midweek win at Louisville. The winner of that game would be just one victory from the championship series, while the loser would have to win three to advance. It could be a pivotal moment for two of the favorites during the first few days in Omaha.
Bringing the Heat
We mentioned some of the sluggers on display in Omaha (don’t forget about Josh Jung, Texas Tech’s shortstop and the No. 8 overall pick in the MLB draft), but there are equally many impressive pitchers. Rocker has electric stuff, but the best ERA on his team belongs to Mason Hickman, who was Vanderbilt’s midweek (!!) starter. Mississippi State’s Ethan Small earned National Pitcher of the Year honors, Louisville closer Michael McAvene tops out around 97 mph and was a third-round selection for the Cubs, and Florida State’s J.C. Flowers is a dual threat—the sophomore starts in the outfield, hitting .271 with 13 homers, but finishes on the mound, wielding a 1.40 ERA and 12 saves in 21 appearances this season.
Don't Sleep on the Red Raiders
It’s hard to call a nationally-seeded team a sleeper, but Texas Tech has a decent shot at making it to the championship series. They’ll play in Bracket 1 with Michigan and Florida State (not to discount a pair of underdogs that have made it to Omaha), and the Red Raiders will be looking to get revenge against an Arkansas side that handed them a loss at last year’s CWS. Beyond the highly-touted Jung, Texas Tech boasts six other regulars that are hitting better than .300, led by third-team All-American designated hitter Cameron Warren. Its team ERA of 4.00 isn’t the prettiest, but they’ve got enough arms in the bullpen to hold a lead.
If the Red Raiders and Razorbacks both win their openers, they’ll meet Monday night. A Texas Tech victory could put Tim Tadlock’s team on track for a first national title in just the fourth-ever trip to Omaha for the program