- The final games of the College World Series are finally on tap. Can Michigan's miracle run through the tournament continue, or will Vanderbilt assert itself as the national powerhouse it's been all season?
A month ago, this College World Series final would have looked like a giant mismatch. Of course, it's never that simple in Omaha, where all but one game has been decided by three runs or fewer in the run-up to this week's championship series at TD Ameritrade Park.
Vanderbilt, the national No. 2 seed which paced the nation's strongest conference for most of the season, will play for its second national championship of the decade. In its way is Michigan, which earned one of the last four at-large bids into the field of 64 and proceeded to capitalize on the chaos of tournament baseball, knocking off top-seeded UCLA during Super Regionals and shutting down the decorated opponents on its half of the CWS bracket.
The last time these teams met in the postseason, Alan Oaks hit a 10th-inning walk-off home run off of David Price, days before the ace of the top-ranked Commodores became the No. 1 pick in the 2007 MLB draft, to clinch a historic regional championship for Michigan and deal Vanderbilt an excruciating loss. Erik Bakich, who watched that game from the losing dugout as the Commodores' hitting coach that year, has directed another magical season in his eighth year at the helm in Ann Arbor; now he has the tools to foil another Vanderbilt Team of Destiny.
Who will earn the right to the final dogpile this week? The answer to that question lies within the answer to these questions.
Can Vanderbilt get into the Michigan bullpen?
The Wolverines have the ninth best team ERA in the nation, thanks in large part to a rotation that has taken turns producing herculean performances this postseason. Junior righthander Karl Kaufman (whom the Rockies made the 77th pick in the draft) took his first two starts of the tournament into the ninth inning. Lefthander Tommy Henry (who went No. 74 overall to the Diamondbacks) needed just 100 pitches to throw a 10-strikeout shutout of Florida State in the College World Series.
That endurance has helped take some pressure off a bullpen that coughed up seven runs in the ninth inning of a potential regional closeout game against Creighton. No. 3 starter Jeff Criswell has provided some stability in Omaha with two scoreless multi-inning relief appearances, but without the benefits of multiple days of rest in the winner's bracket, Bakich may be more inclined to keep him fresh for a do-or-die Game 3.
One way or another, a 'pen that has been given as little responsibility as possible since the regional round will have to handle at least a few innings against one of the most potent and patient offenses in the country. The Commodores play with an unnerving confidence that their bats will eventually wake up even when they're left without answers by a dominant starting pitching performance, as Louisville's Luke Scott learned the hard way during Friday night's ninth-inning rally that doomed the Cardinals.
Will the Big Ten Player of the Year or the SEC Player of the Year rise to the occasion?
Rightfielder Jordan Brewer wasted no time becoming the Wolverines' premier offensive threat in his first season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines' electric leadoff man is 25-for-29 on stolen base attempts to go along with a team-leading .329 average and a .953 OPS, but he hasn't had a multi-hit game since the Corvallis regional. Cracking Vanderbilt's duo of fearsome power pitchers, Drake Fellows and Kumar Rocker, has to start at the top of the order, as both have shown the ability to get even better as their outings wear on.
Vanderbilt's offensive strength lies in its multiplicity of offensive weapons, but JJ Bleday is the clear headliner. The nation's home run leader (26, breaking a school mark previously held by Pedro Alvarez) and the Marlins' first-round pick at No. 4 overall, Bleday's spot in the batting order tends to loom in opposing managers' minds multiple innings in advance. He had three hits in last week's win over SEC foe Mississippi State but hasn't gone yard in 10 games, his longest drought of the season. The Commodores have enjoyed multi-homer games in Omaha from Austin Martin (who could go higher in next year's draft than Bleday did this month) and Stephen Scott; there'd be no better time for Bleday to retrieve his launch codes than in the championship series.
Who will turn in the first epic pitching performance?
Kaufman and Henry have been fearless tone-setters for Michigan, but Criswell could make a half-decent case to be the College World Series's Most Outstanding Player if the Wolverines commit to his multi-inning relief role and give him the chance to ice down a pair of wins in the next three days. Rocker became a nationally recognized name when the freshman threw a 19-strikeout no-hitter against Duke, the first in Super Regionals history, with Vanderbilt's season on the line. Fellows was chased early by the Blue Devils but has been rock-solid otherwise and deserves the ball in Game 1 as the Commodores' go-to Friday night arm. Mason Hickman, who spent most of the year as Tim Corbin's midweek starter, has arguably been Vandy's most consistent postseason option, and he would likely get the nod over Sunday starter Patrick Raby should this series demand a decisive Game 3.
Prediction: Vanderbilt in 3
Michigan has come too far to wilt in the presence of the nation's most intimidating lineup, and it wouldn't be a shocker to see them get to Fellows or Rocker in a way most teams haven't this year and force a Game 3. But the Commodores have too much depth to get rattled this close to a goal they've been fixated on all season.