OMAHA, Neb. -- Virginia coach Brian O'Connor bristled during a postgame news conference at the College World Series last week when he was asked about the dominance of SEC teams against other conferences. Like the ACC, for example.
"I don't think that the coaches in either league talk about it or make a big deal about it," said O'Connor. "I don't think it matters what conference anybody comes from. It's baseball, and it's good teams battling it out."
A few moments later, South Carolina coach Ray Tanner took the stand.
"SEC baseball is really special," said Tanner. "It's well-documented. ... A lot of conferences look to the SEC for a blueprint. We have commitments from presidents, athletic directors, facilities. A lot of players like to play in our league. The exposure is great, and we battle. We battle each other for 10 weeks in the regular season. Normally, there are a couple of teams that can survive and play well in crunch time."
Like now. For a national championship. An SEC team will win the 2011 national championship. Guaranteed. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise. SEC teams have won eight of the past 21 titles, including LSU two years ago and South Carolina last year. The Gamecocks have a chance to repeat -- or watch Florida win it for the first time.
Here's a glance at both teams:
Florida coach Kevin O'Connor said sophomore RHP Hudson Randall (11-1, 2.24 ERA, 67 SO/12 BB in 116.2 IP) will start Game 1 for the Gators. Randall's three-pitch mix � fastball, curve, slider � makes life difficult for opponents. But what sets him apart is his control. He did not walk a batter in 10 of his 18 starts this season. Randall knows what it takes to beat South Carolina, pitching a five-hitter in a 2-1 win over the Gamecocks in midseason (the Gamecocks won the other two games of the SEC series). Randall allowed just one earned run (no walks) in 6 2/3 innings against Texas in Florida's opening CWS game.
Freshman RHP Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.43 ERA, 88 SO/26 BB in 92.2 IP) gets the ball for Game 2. Whitson, who did not come to terms with the Padres after being selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft, has been everything Florida envisioned when he surprisingly arrived on campus. He has a fastball that sits 92-95 mph, complemented by a solid slider and a curveball he locates at the knees. The only hope for opponents is to extend at-bats. Whitson has been on a strict pitch count, which explains why he has thrown fewer than 100 pitches and hasn't pitched past the seventh inning in his 18 starts.
The Game 3 start (if necessary) is expected to go to either junior LHP Alex Panteliodis (6-2, 3.71 ERA, 47 SO/9 BB in 63 IP) or sophomore LHP Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.66 ERA, 70 SO/15 BB in 78.2 IP), with the nod likely to Panteliodis. Johnson is still recovering from the effects of a concussion. It was a freak injury suffered at the SEC Tournament when he was hit in the head and knocked cold as Florida catcher Mike Zunino was throwing to second base to get a basestealer. Panteliodis pitched Florida into the championship series with six innings of one-run ball against Vanderbilt. His experience is invaluable, having made a school-record seven postseason starts.
Although Tanner may argue, O'Sullivan has perhaps the nation's deepest bullpen. LHPs Steven Rodriguez, who was a good bridge to the finish in a game against Vandy when Whitson reached his pitch limit, and Nick Maronde are power pitchers from the left side. RHPs Tommy Toledo and Greg Larson are power pitchers from the right. Closer Austin Maddox (3-0, 0.69 ERA, 5 SV, 21 SO/3 BB in 26 IP) is recovered from a sprained foot suffered three weeks ago. Maddox rarely allows a run thanks to pinpoint control. There will be even more depth if Johnson is recovered enough to serve as a potential long reliever should one of the starters encounter early difficulties.
The Gators rely on 1B Preston Tucker (. 313, 15 HR, 74 RBI) and C Mike Zunino (. 366, 18 HR, 66 RBI) for most of their power and run production, although O'Sullivan said, "Everybody has to contribute this time of year." Tucker has 19 RBIs in the NCAA tournament, seven more than the next closest player. SS Nolan Fontana (. 296, 5 HR, 49 RBI, 6 SB) is a spark plug at the top of the lineup. DH Brian Johnson (. 303, 5 HR, 29 RBI), 2B Josh Adams (. 327, 6 HR, 42 RBI) and RF Daniel Pigott (. 341, 5 HR, 40 RBI, 15 SB) also have been productive.
The rotation was in ruins last year, when South Carolina lost its first game and the Gamecocks were forced to exhaust their frontline pitching coming through the loser's bracket. They went to the bullpen early and often -- including giving LHP Michael Roth his first two starts of the season -- the remainder of the 2010 CWS. It's a much different story this time around.
In fact, the Gamecocks' Game 1 starter, freshman RHP Forrest Koumas (6-1, 3.07 ERA, 59 SO/28 BB in 67.1 IP) hasn't pitched in 21 days. That's because South Carolina has needed just two starters in the Super Regionals and CWS. Tanner admitted there is some concern about the long layoff, but, he said, "Forrest has been chomping at the bit. . . One of the better games he had earlier in the year was in Gainesville when he pitched with short notice. His stuff is good enough. He's certainly talented enough, but as a coach you are concerned about if he's able to harness his emotions and all those things that come into play." Koumas used a 90-92 mph fastball and good breaking pitches to limit Florida to two hits and an unearned run in six innings when he faced the Gators. Expect a short leash if he shows any signs of rust.
Roth (13-3, 0.98 ERA, 106 SO/39 BB in 137.1 IP) responded during a crisis a year ago in Omaha and now is the ace of the starting rotation. Last year at the CWS, Ross had a complete-game victory over Clemson to help the Gamecocks to the championship series, where he started the deciding game against UCLA. Roth has been even more amazing this season, and it has continued in Omaha. He doesn't have eye-popping velocity -- rarely touching 90 mph -- but he changes speeds well and keeps hitters off balance. It's a recipe for success, even if it doesn't impress scouts (he was drafted this year in the 31st round by Cleveland). Since Roth pitched Friday, he likely wouldn't be available again until Tuesday or a winner-take-all game Wednesday.
How sophomore RHP Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.69 ERA, 77 SO/21 BB in 85.1 IP) is deployed likely depends on how soon Roth is ready to go. Holmes is a submariner who was effective in the Gamecocks' second game of the CWS by keeping his fastball and secondary pitches down in the strike zone.
Although Roth is in the rotation now, many of last year's bullpen mates return for an encore. Sophomore RHP Matt Price (7-3, 1.91 ERA, 18 SV, 73 SO/20 BB in 56.2 IP) has been even more outstanding than when he emerged last season. However, Tanner said Price is unlikely to be available for Game 1 after pitching a season-high 5.2 shutout innings (throwing 95 pitches) Friday night to get the victory in the team's 3-2, 13-inning win over Virginia. That leaves it to experienced returners in LHP Tyler Webb and RHPs John Taylor and Jose Mata -- who give teams trouble with submarine and sidearm deliveries, respectively -- to get the job done.
The Gamecocks responded when CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (.261, 6 HR, 27 RBI), last year's CWS Most Outstanding Player, suffered a torn wrist tendon in midseason. They kept things on track and received a lift at the CWS when Bradley (a supplemental first round pick by Boston) was cleared to return to the lineup. In his absence, 1B Christian Walker (.355, 10 HR, 62 RBI), 2B Scott Wingo (.341, 4 HR, 28 RBI) and DH Brady Thomas (.314, 4 HR, 42 RBI) shouldered most of the offensive load, although SS Peter Mooney (.278, 3 HR, 36 RBI) also has been productive in Omaha. The Gamecocks may have to step up again: Walker is questionable for the title series because of a wrist injury suffered Friday against Virginia.
South Carolina won two of three games between the teams at Florida in late March. But the Gamecocks get the nod here because they have won an NCAA tournament-record 14 straight games (including nine straight at the CWS, one off the record shared by USC and LSU) and there's no sign of the streak coming to an end.