This weekend begins what college baseball fans like to call the “Greatest Show on Dirt,” also known as the College World Series, beginning Saturday in Omaha, Nebraska.
With the field now whittled down to eight teams, we are met with quite a few familiar faces. Texas Tech, Mississippi State, and Arkansas are all return teams from last year, while Florida State, Louisville, and Vanderbilt are all regular stalwarts of the College World Series. Michigan and Auburn are the two newbies to the group. Both have made it in the past but have gone through lengthy droughts.
Vanderbilt enters the CWS as the favorite to emerge from this crowd of eight teams, due to their experience in this situation and the incredibly well balanced team they’ve put together. Mississippi State and Florida State are perhaps the hottest teams coming in as they haven’t taken a loss throughout the entire tournament. Louisville, while not looking too impressive in their Regional, completely blitzed East Carolina in their Super Regional. Michigan was able to use timely hitting and stellar pitching to take out the top overall seed in the tournament, UCLA. They will look to keep their underdog mentality going in Omaha. Texas Tech has perhaps the most experienced team in the tournament, both from a veteran standpoint and experience in Omaha. The seniors who began their careers as freshmen with the Red Raiders are making their third appearance in four years. Auburn has had late game heroics on their side thus far through the tournament. They were able to get a walkoff homerun in the final game of their Regional to advance past the third overall seed Georgia Tech. They were then able to score six runs in the 8th inning of their first Super Regional game against North Carolina, before going on to dominate the last game and advance on to the CWS. Arkansas is trying to erase the demons of last year’s final, where they were one out away from being champions before an error opened the door for Oregon State to not only win the game but the series. They definitely have offensive firepower to get it done.
Despite momentum or odds, one thing is for certain: Any team can definitely win the whole thing. With that said, here are the brackets for the opening round on Saturday and Sunday:
Michigan vs Texas Tech, 1 p.m., ESPN Florida State vs Arkansas, 6 p.m., ESPN Bracket 2
Louisville vs Vanderbilt , 1 p.m., ESPN Auburn vs Mississippi State, 6:30 p.m. ESPN2 Times are Central Times.
The tourney is double-elimination until the finals, which is a best 2-of-3 series between the two bracket winners.
With that out of the way, let’s examine the strengths, weaknesses, and a few key players for each team.
Strength: Pitching. The starting pitching is the strength of this Wolverines team. Karl Kauffman and Tommy Henry lead the talented rotation, while being followed up by a bullpen that can shut down teams with ease if they have their stuff going on a given day.
Weakness: Offense. While they have hit the ball pretty well in the tournament and come up with timely hits when they need them, the Wolverines offense during the regular season disappeared at points. Hopefully for them the bats will dry alive and they can keep the momentum they’ve built after knocking off the number one overall seed
Key Players: Kauffman and Henry as discussed above. If these two guys can put together a couple of good starts, this Wolverines team has shown itself to be quite resilient and has the ability to win low scoring games.
Texas Tech (44-18)
Strength: Experience. As I discussed above this is not only one of the more veteran laden teams, it has been to Omaha three out of the last four years. They are more than used to the bright lights of Omaha and won’t be flustered by environment.
Weakness: Pitching. The Red Raiders pitching staff isn’t bad by any means, it is just that their offense is so talented that something has to be their weakness and the pitching staff has been suspect at times. As long as the offense is able to give them some run support, they should be fine but they need the offense to keep on churning out runs like they have been.
Key Players: Josh Jung and Cameron Warren. These are the Red Raiders two best bats and if these guys show up and show out, they will be a tough out for anybody they come across.
Florida State (41-21)
Strength: Resiliency. This team was down and out for a good majority of the season before turning it on towards the end of conference play. They were announced as one of the last four teams in when the committee announced the bracket. The Seminoles have seemed play with an extra sense of purpose since the postseason has started, since it is the last ride for their coach Mike Martin. He is retiring after 42 years and has yet to win a national title. The Seminoles definitely have that as extra motivation to win one for Coach Martin.
Weakness: Bullpen. While the have a solid closer in CF J.C. Flowers, the rest of the bullpen is young and has proven to be suspect at times. The bullpen nearly gave away the second game against LSU this past weekend, before the Seminoles eventually won in extra innings on a walk off.
Key Players: Mike Martin. I know this isn’t a player, but he is the motivating factor for any and all players on this team. If everyone can buy into getting Mike his first national championship on his way out they can be a very dangerous team. Drew Parrish is the ace of the pitching staff and is definitely a player to watch.
Strength: Offense. This is a team is another one that can’t score runs at an incredibly impressive rate. Casey Martin is one of the premier hitters in college baseball and we he is on this offense is dangerous. While Martin is their leader, the lineup from top to bottom is about as good as it gets.
Weakness: Starting pitching past Isiah Campbell. While Patrick Wicklander and Connor Noland are definitely no slouches, they have been known to give up a lot of runs in the process. Usually the run support they have gotten is enough where they don’t get in too much trouble.
Key Players: Martin and Campbell. If Martin can continue to lead the offense the way he has all season the Razorbacks will be in good shape. By the same token Campbell is the leader of the pitching staff and if he can be effective and pitch well, they will get them that crucial first win and put themselves in good position to advance and stay in the winner’s brakcet.
Strength: Bullpen. The Cardinals have one of the best closers in the entire country in Michael McAvene. Opponents are only hitting .160 off him all season. If the Cardinals can get him and his other stellar bullpen mates, Michael Kirian and Bryan Hoeing, the lead the other teams are in trouble.
Weakness: Starting pitching. The three man rotation is actually quite good but did struggle down the stretch coming into the tournament. They have pitched well enough in the tournament to get them to this point and as discussed above, if they can go deep in games they can hand the ball to one of the best bullpens in the country.
Key Players: Reid Detmers and Tyler Fitzgerald. Detmers is the ace of the starting pitching staff and he will have to have his best outing of the season in the opener against Vanderbilt, because if he doesn’t it’s incredibly hard to come back from the losers bracket and make a run to thechampionship. Fitzgerald leads the team in batting average and RBIs, and while he not have the power of some of his teammates he is the guy they want up in a crucial situation.
Strength: Offense. It was really hard to pick a strength with this team as they truly are just really great at pretty much everything. But the offense led by the nation’s leader in home runs, JJ Bleday, are incredibly balanced and talented from top to bottom. Austin Martin leads off for the Commodores and leads the team in average at .414 so he is incredibly hard to get out. They only have one starter that bats below .250, which means any out you can get in this lineup is a blessing.
Weakness: Starting pitching. Like I said above about it being hard to pick a strength, it’s even harder to pick a weakness because this team just really doesn’t have any. Their starters are all incredible, but as proven in the first game of their Super Regional when their control is off, it is really off and things can spiral.
Key Players: JJ Bleday and Kumar Rocker. Bleday is the rock of this team and they will likely roll through competition if he continues to be as effective at the plate as he has been all year. Rocker, fresh off of his no hitter against Duke in the Supers, will look to remain effective. He will likely start Game 2, which if they are in the winners bracket could put them in the proverbial drivers to advance to the championship series should Rocker have his best stuff again.
Strength: Starting Pitching. The Tigers have two incredibly good starters in the form of Tanner Burns and Jack Owen. At the beginning of the season, these two were practically unhittable and while they may not have finished the season as strong these are two guys that when they have their stuff going they’re dangerous.
Weakness: Offense. As good as certain parts of their lineup have been effective throughout the postseason, the Tigers don’t have a single hitter batting over .300. Steven Williams has been the hero from the plate this postseason and he is going to need to door more of the same if he and the Tigers want to advance.
Key Players: Jack Owen and Tanner Burns. This CWS run will begin and end with how effective these two starting pitchers are. If Owen struggles in the first game against Mississippi State, this could be a short run for the Tigers because they don’t have the pitching depth to get them through the losers bracket. If Owen can get the job done though Burns has the stuff to shut down whoever they’d play in the second game and could effectively put them in the drivers seat.
Mississippi State (51-13)
Strength: Offense. Like with Vanderbilt above this Bulldogs team is incredibly potent at the plate. There isn’t an easy out in this entire lineup. Jake Mangum, the SEC all time hits leader, is the spark plug for the offense in the leadoff position. The Bulldogs can be effective even when he isn’t hitting but they are even more dangerous when he is on a hot streak like he has been since breaking out of a bit of a slump in the Regional.
Weakness: Infield Defense. If one thing has plagued the Bulldogs all season, it has been errors in the infield. They have done some switching around in the infield throughout the season and some of it may have been adjusting to new positions. The Bulldogs have vastly improved in this area throughout the season but need to stay as error free as possible to have shot at getting though this bracket.
Key Players: Jake Mangum and Ethan Small. Like I said above Mangum is the spark plug of this offense and usually wherever he goes the rest of them follow. Small is the Bulldog ace and National Pitcher of the Year. He will get you seven solid innings most times out and if the Bulldogs can put some runs together like I know they can behind him, I like their chances of starting the CWS with a victory.
First Round Winners: Texas Tech, Florida State, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State Championship Series: Vanderbilt vs Florida State
Dark Horse: Mississippi State
Final Analysis: In my honest opinion I see Florida State and Vanderbilt advancing to the Championship Series. As much as I don’t think Florida State is necessarily the most talented team in their bracket, I think the emotion they are playing with and the fact that they are trying to send their coach out on a high note will help them get that far. Unfortunately for them they are going to run into the buzzsaw that is Vanderbilt, who I don’t see anyone beating at this point because they are just that good. If I’d give anyone a shot to take them down, I would give the nod to Mississippi State as I believe they are the only team that can match them talent wise on both sides of the ball. Like with any with sporting event of this magnitude though, anything can happen and I can’t wait to see how this College World Series unfolds.