OMAHA, Neb. -- This year's College World Series was guaranteed to be special because it features the debut of TD Ameritrade Park.
But the way the eight teams are bracketed makes for some intriguing possibilities for the championship series. It could be an all-ACC final if North Carolina and Virginia win their brackets. Or it could be all-SEC if defending champion South Carolina and either Florida or Vanderbilt come through. There's also the possibility of an all-Texas final with Texas and Texas A&M. Then there's Cal, which would be the most compelling story of all if they reach the finals.
Here's a look at the eight teams in Omaha playing for the national championship:
The story will be told over and over and over again, as long as the Bears keep this magical season going. And the story should be told, about how Cal's baseball program was among those last fall that were to be eliminated amid budget cuts, about how alumni stepped forward at the 11th hour to raise $10 million to save the 118-year-old program and about how the team responded to adversity through it all. "With the hunger and fight that we have," outfielder Austin Booker said on the school website, "we feel there's no obstacle that can stand in our way." Good thing, because the Bears open the CWS against No. 1 national seed Virginia. The Cavaliers better watch out. Omaha loves an underdog.
The Gators and South Carolina have the distinction of being the two teams that closed out Rosenblatt Stadium. While South Carolina came away with a championship a year ago, Florida went home winless. If the Gators are to experience success this time, they likely will have to outslug teams to do it. Florida's 3.00 team ERA ranks behind every team here but North Carolina (3.27). The Gators do pack the most punch, with 67 team homers.
The Tar Heels' 3.27 team ERA is the worst among the eight teams here -- although it is 2.00 during the postseason -- but it is minimized because of the defense (a school-record .979 fielding percentage) played behind the pitchers. A school-record 340 walks has helped fuel an offense that is averaging nearly seven runs a game. North Carolina is nearly unbeatable (44-1) when leading after seven innings, with Michael Morin (10 SVs) and Cody Penny (5 SVs) closing out many of the victories.
The Gamecocks figured to have another solid team, but getting back to Omaha was something of a long shot after losing several key players -- including top starting pitchers Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson -- from last year's championship team. "We'll have a good team again," said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner before the season. "It's just too hard to predict how the season will end up." It helped that one of the returners was sophomore RHP Matt Price (5-3, 2.16 ERA, 18 SV, 67 Ks/15 BBs in 50 IP), who is one off the national lead in saves. 3B Christian Walker (.359, 10s HR, 60 RBIs) has led the offense in the absence of OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (.259, 6 HRs, 26 RBIs), who was sidelined midseason with a wrist injury. Bradley, last year's CWS Most Outstanding Player, was cleared to return this week, although his ability to swing a bat remains to be seen.
The Longhorns don't have the offense to steamroll opponents -- they averaged only .272 and hit a collective 17 home runs -- so they try to manufacture a few runs and then rely on a pitching staff that is among the nation's best (2.27 team ERA). It doesn't always go according to plan, especially when the defense falters as it did in a 3-1 loss to Arizona State in the opening game of the Super Regionals. In that game they wasted a good effort by ace RHP Taylor Jungmann (13-2, 1.38 ERA, 123 Ks/32 BBs in 136.2 IP), who took the loss despite allowing just one earned run in 7.1 innings. Texas is still playing because it has the depth behind Jungmann to overcome such setbacks. Longtime coach Augie Garrido recorded his Division I-record 1,800th victory during the season. He is the only coach to guide a team to a CWS title in four different decades (1979, 1984, 1995, 2002, 2005).
The Aggies and Cal are the only two teams in the field that were not national seeds, so they weren't expected to be here. Texas A&M is here because of a good balance between hitting -- led by OFs Tyler Naquin (.390, 2 HRs, 44 RBIs) and Krey Bratsen (.335, 36 RBIs, 31 SBs) and INF Matt Juengel (.309, 7 HRs, 49 RBIs, 14 SBs) -- and pitching -- namely starting RHPs Ross Stripling (14-2, 2.29 ERA, 107 Ks/17 BBs in 117.2 IP) and Michael Wacha (9-3, 2.12 ERA, 118 Ks in 123 IP). The biggest question is whether the Aggies have enough pitching without the presence of staff ace John Stilson, who has a torn labrum.
The Commodores have been expected in Omaha for a few years now. In fact, they were the national No. 1 seed in 2007, but were upset in the Regionals. All that is forgotten now, with fans focused on a team led by RHP Sonny Gray (12-3, 1.97 ERA, 119 Ks/41 BBs in 114.1 IP) and LHP Grayson Garvin (13-1, 2.36 ERA, 92 Ks/24 BBs in 106.2 IP) on the mound and 3B Jason Esposito (.357, 9 HRs, 59 RBIs, 15 SBs) and 1B Aaron Westlake (.353, 17 HRs, 54 RBIs) at the plate. First-timers don't usually fare too well in Omaha -- five of the past 11 have gone home winless since 1990 -- but Vandy shouldn't be too wide-eyed after playing in the SEC.
The Cavaliers were bestowed with the No. 1 national seed, but needed a ninth-inning rally against UC Irvine to keep their appointment in Omaha. Virginia is averaging more than seven runs a game, with C John Hicks (.340, 7 HRs, 57 RBIs) and 3B Steve Proscia (.335, 8 HRs, 58 RBIs) acting as the team's top run producers. Couple that with a pitching staff that has compiled a 2.26 ERA and it's no wonder the Cavaliers have been successful. The question is how it translates at the CWS, where the team struggled in its first appearance two years ago. Knowing what to expect the second time around should be a huge help.
Virginia over Vanderbilt.