Editor’s Note: This is preview of the upcoming College World Series was put together by new PTB staffer Logan Crosland, a big college baseball fan in Mississippi. Logan will wrap the CWS as well, so be sure to look for that when everything in Omaha concludes later this month.
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, Neb.
Eight teams remain after the conclusion of the Super Regionals and this year’s field has plenty of familiar faces, such as Florida, Miami, and TCU, while also having some new blood in Coastal Carolina and UC Santa Barbara, both making their first appearance in the CWS. The other participants (Oklahoma St., Texas Tech, Arizona) have all made previous appearances, with the latter having the most recent success at the CWS, winning the national championship in 2012.
Florida enters as the heavy favorite, the No. 1 overall seed, and one of the most dominant teams in the country. While Florida may be the favorite coming in, Oklahoma State is by far the hottest pick. The Cowboys have not only gone undefeated thus far in the NCAA Tournament, but they haven’t trailed in any games either.
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:
UC Santa Barbara vs. Oklahoma State, 3 p.m., ESPN2
Miami (FL) vs. Arizona, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Texas Tech vs. TCU, 3 p.m., ESPNU
Florida vs. Coastal Carolina, 8 p.m. ESPN2
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.
UC Santa Barbara (42-18-1)
Strength: The Gauchos are just good enough at everything to be hard to beat. They aren’t going to blow you away with their offense or their pitching, but they do all the little things right. This includes timely hitting and pitching, keeping games close enough for the team to pull it out in the end. They also are one of the top teams in the country in both hit-by-pitches and sacrifice bunts, which means they love to play small ball. They are scrappy and could definitely be dangerous if other teams don’t take them seriously.
Weakness: Inexperience. This is the Gauchos’ first trip to the CWS in school history and the team is also very young. UC Santa Barbara will definitely be the underdog in this bracket, but I don’t think the Gauchos will mind that too much.
Key Players: Shane Bieber (4th round, 2016 MLB draft) and Kyle Nelson. Bieber is the Gauchos’ ace on the mound, so his success will be a huge factor on whether they advance or exit early. Nelson is their best reliever; if the starting pitching can give Nelson the lead when he enters the game, the Gauchos will probably be the victors.
Oklahoma State (41-20)
Strength: Pitching. The Cowboys have a solid trio of starting arms, led by Thomas Hatch (3rd round), the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. The Cowboys follow with Tyler Buffett (7th round), who held both South Carolina and Clemson to one run each earlier in the year. Jensen Elliot, who had a very solid freshman year for the Cowboys, rounds out the starting rotation. They have a bullpen that can surely back these three up, led by Trey Cobb (12th round), who actually made 12 starts before establishing himself as the ace of the bullpen.
Weakness: Inexperience. I hate to use that twice in a row, but all current and former players who have played in Omaha will tell you that it is a completely different feeling playing there. Oklahoma State has not been to the CWS since 1999, when their current coach Josh Holliday was playing there. I don’t envision this team getting shell-shocked by that Omaha aura, but you can’t ignore the fact that no one on this team has been there before.
Key Players: Hatch and Donovan Walton. I talked about Hatch above and I’ll just say this: if he can get them an opening-round win, I like their chances to make a run. Walton (5th round) leads the team in batting average (.342) and RBIs (44). He’s incredibly important to their offensive success, but the Cowboys do have seven other batters who have 30 or more RBIs. This means if he struggles they still have a shot, but he is the key bat.Miami (FL) (50-12)
Strength: Defense. This team leads the country in fielding percentage at .983. Johnny Ruiz (28th round) and Brandon Lopez (10th round), who make up the middle infield, are incredibly hard to hit the ball past and have made many spectacular plays throughout the years. You don’t lead the country in fielding percentage through just two players though. These two are surrounded by six other very athletic players that can make all kind of plays. Teams are going to have to do some pretty special things on offense to get past the Hurricanes.
Weakness: Pitching. Now I say this is the ‘Canes’ weakness, but it isn’t that the team lacks talented pitchers; they just don’t have starting depth. Michael Mediavilla and Danny Garcia (15th round) are two incredibly talented pitchers, so if they can win the first two games, Miami likely won’t have to rely on anyone else until the finals. If it comes to facing elimination there, they will need to figure out something when it comes to a third starter.
Key Players: Mediavilla and Garcia. It really comes down to these two. If these two pitch well, I trust the offense and the defense behind them to get Miami those first two wins to put the Hurricanes in the driver’s seat of the CWS.
Strength: Resiliency. Having watched the Wildcats in-person recently, I can say this is a team that can just never be counted out of a game. During the postseason, it seems like any time they have needed a good pitching performance, they have gotten it and whenever they have needed the offense to turn it up, they have done so. Arizona had to win three games in two days in their regional to advance, beating Louisiana-Lafayette twice on the last day to advance to the Super Regional. Once there, they were able to beat my Mississippi State Bulldogs, where they came back late from a 5-1 deficit to eventually win 6-5 in 11 innings to take the second game — and the series — earning a trip to Omaha.
Weakness: Relief pitching. Trust me in saying that if Arizona’s starting pitching can get deep in games, this won’t be too much of a problem. If their starters start to struggle though, Cameron Ming and Kevin Ginkel (22nd round) are really the only arms out of the ‘pen that can do some major damage. The starters were able to get deep in the games last weekend against MSU, so the Wildcats didn’t have to use too much of their bullpen, but who they did use shut the Bulldogs down when called upon.
Key Players: Nathan Bannister (28th round) and Bobby Dalbec (4th round). These are the two starters who are going to continue their so-far excellent postseason work. Dalbec also plays third base when he isn’t pitching and is a definite power threat at the plate. As with most of the teams in this tournament, starting pitching is going to determine whether this team advances or exits early.
Strength: Pitching. Anyone who has paid attention to college baseball at all this season knows that Florida’s pitching staff is about as good as it gets. If you haven’t been paying attention though, Florida has a three-headed monster when it comes to starting pitching with recent MLB draftee A.J. Puk (1st round, sixth pick overall), Alex Faedo, and Logan Shore (2nd round). Dane Dunning (1st round, 29th pick) is another pitcher out of the bullpen that can make a start if called upon. All four of them are almost unhittable when they are pitching their best.
Weakness: Offense other than Peter Alonso (2nd round), who has been the anchor of the Gators’ offense all season. When he is hitting well, they usually win. The rest of the lineup though isn’t necessarily lighting the world on fire. J.J. Schwarz has been a sparkplug for the offense during the postseason, but Alonso has been really the only constant at the plate.
Key Players: Puk and Schwarz. If Puk has his best stuff, I don’t see Florida getting beaten at all, but he has been the most inconsistent member of this great staff. Also, if Schwarz can help out Alonso, I believe that the combo of offense and pitching can elevate the Gators.
Coastal Carolina (49-16)
Strength: Power. This team can hit the cover off the ball, as the Chanticleers have four players with 15 or more home runs on the year. The team total is 94 — which you could’ve guessed — leads the country. TD Ameritrade Park, which is where the CWS is played, isn’t usually the place where a lot of home runs are hit; but if there is a team that is going to hit them there, I’d pick the Chanticleers.
Weakness: Inexperience. I promise this is the last time I will use this one, but if the shoe fits, well … you know. The Chanticleers are making their first appearance in Omaha and playing in Omaha is a completely different animal. The thing the Chanticleers have working for them is that they are a veteran-laden team. A first-time visitor to Omaha hasn’t won the national championship since 1956, when Minnesota won it all.
Key Players: Zach Remillard (10th round) and Andrew Beckwith. Remillard leads all of the power bats on the team with 19 home runs, while also hitting .374 with 69 RBIs. Beckwith is the ace on the mound for the Chanticleers with a 2.12 ERA. Power hitting and pitching will be a huge part of determining how this team fares in the CWS.
Texas Tech (46-18)
Strength: Pitching. While the Red Raiders have a young staff, the arms have been the catalyst for this team all season. The staff is led by Davis Martin, who has a 2.73 ERA, followed closely behind by Steven Gingery and Erikson Lanning. Tech also has very good arms coming out of the bullpen, most notably Hayden Howard (12th round) and Robert Dugger (18th round), both of whom have ERAs under 3.00.
Weakness: Speed. This team isn’t going to be swiping a lot of extra bags. I know this may not be as big of a weakness as some, but in a close game, a stolen base here-or-there could be incredibly critical. The offense is strong enough to keep this from being a major concern, though.
Key Players: The entire pitching staff. This team will only goes as far as their starters and bullpen will take them. Texas Tech is going to score runs, so if the defense and pitching can get the Raiders in favorable situations, they will more than likely beat the teams ahead of them.
Strength: Experience. This team has been to Omaha three years in a row, which gives them an incredible advantage. The Horned Frogs were only two wins away from the finals last year, but couldn’t quite knock off Vanderbilt. This team has players who have an incredible amount of experience in the CWS, so you can’t look past them as one of the favorites.
Weakness: Bullpen. As experienced as the Horned Frogs are, their two best bullpen pitchers are both freshmen, Durbin Feltman* and Brian Trieglaff** (13th round), while they are both talented, the big stage of Omaha may get the best of them. They do have some upperclassmen who have been here before, but throughout the season the two freshmen arms have been the most impressive out of the ‘pen this season for the Frogs.
*(Ed. note: I refuse to believe this is a real name; Logan clearly made it up.)
**(Ed. note: Ditto.)
Key Players: Luken Baker and the freshman bullpen tandem. Baker is a catalyst on offense for the Frogs with a .379 batting average, nine home runs, and 57 RBIs. The starting pitchers and offense will put the Frogs in situations to win and it could come down to Feltman and Trieglaff. It is funny to note that, while experience is probably TCU’s biggest strength, their three key players are all freshmen.
First Round Winners: Oklahoma State, Miami (FL), Florida, TCU
Championship Series: Oklahoma State vs. Florida
Dark Horse: Coastal Carolina
Final Analysis: I really like how Oklahoma State is playing right now, as they are the probably the hottest team coming in, and look for them to make a serious run. Florida is a team that people have been saying are destined to win it all for the entire season, and as much as I would love to disagree, I can’t go against the Gators. Florida’s pitching is just too good and their offense will give them enough to win the whole thing. Coastal Carolina is a team I could definitely see making it to at least the semifinals and could pull the upset over Florida to possibly make it the the Championship Series. Despite that fun idea, I’ll stick with Florida to win it all over Oklahoma State in the Championship Series.