October in June: CWS Preview
Not only does this preview come admittedly late, but it does so on the verge of my predicted champions (Tennessee) losing their first-round game. Rich, of course, had his team (Nebraska) win, so I expect the bragging to begin tomorrow. Luckily we both had Tulane, so if we go down on one side of the bracket, it will be together.
Anyway, we will begin our two-part preview with bracket one, which kicked things off yesterday with Florida and Nebraska picking up victories. The draw hosts the hometown favorites, the SEC's two best (and even) teams, and the cinderella club. While I thought it possible for Tennessee to hang in there long enough to upset Nebraska, it now appears that the Huskers should make it through ten more days.
Here is a look at the four teams in bracket one...
Key Players: Alex Gordon (3B), Joe Simokaitis (SS), Joba Chamberlain (SP), Johnny Dorn (SP), Zack Kroenke (P), Brett Jensen (CL)
WHY THE HUSKERS WILL WIN: First and foremost, they will win because they have more pitching depth than any team in the College World Series. The staff ranked second in Division I play with a 2.61 cumulative ERA, and had eight players make at least 18 season appearances. Opponents have hit just .225 off the Huskers, allowing Nebraska to score 256 more runs than their opponents.
Joba Chamberlain has become the de facto ace of the staff, transferring into Nebraska the season, and possibly pitching his way into the 2006 first round. Chamberlain led the team in strikeouts by a considerable margin, and pitched what might have been his best game of the season in the Super Regional. He won't beat you with his fastball -- at 88-92 it's just average -- but instead with a good feel for breaking pitches. Behind Chamberlain is freshman Johnny Dorn, who like Chamberlain has really progressed this year. The two young pitchers will be balanced by southpaws Zack Kroenke and Brian Duensing, both who were drafted in the middle rounds two weeks ago. Finally, closer Brett Jensen has been fantastic, posting a 45/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.90 ERA in 42.2 innings.
Another bonus in the Nebraska corner is the Baseball America Player of the Year, Alex Gordon. The third baseman and second overall selection is capping off a fantastic season in which he may have taken the title from Darin Erstad as the best Husker ever. Gordon does just about everything well, even running the bases, and can take the ball out of the park at any time. In the game against Arizona State last night, the Sun Devils made sure not to let Gordon beat them. Expect this to continue throughout the CWS, but for Gordon to simply take his walks, and let Curtis Ledbetter try and knock him in.
Finally, the Huskers come in hot. The club has won their last 11 games, and last lost to a non-Texas Tech team on May 10. Team that with an atmosphere that will be overwhelmingly positive in Omaha, and Nebraska has to be considered the favorite to win the tournament at this point.
WHY THE HUSKERS WILL NOT WIN: If Nebraska gets knocked out of this tournament, it will simply be because their bats run cold. Alex Gordon is protected in the lineup by Joe Simokaitis and Ledbetter, but very little else. The majoirty of their losses were a product of run scoring, though the team will be very tough to beat if they can score four or more runs.
As I mentioned, the lineup is incredibly top-heavy. Gordon and Simokaitis are responsible for 92 of the club's 300 walks, and only one other player drew more than 21 for the season. Without the group of three that I have mentioned, the club is hitting just .285. Expect opposing starters to go deep into games against Nebraska, and for the pitching to have to bail them out.
Key Players: Matt LaPorta (1B), Jeff Corsaletti (CF), Brian Jeroloman (C), Alan Horne (SP),
WHY THE GATORS WILL WIN: Opposite of Nebraska, the Gators will win with offense, or more specifically, the home run ball. The club ranked 17th in Division I in home runs per game, led by first baseman Matt LaPorta. The sophomore showed as much power as anyone in the nation this year, cementing a first round spot next year, and also homered against Tennessee yesterday. He simply is not going to make mistakes at the plate. The club also received double-digit home run totals from Jeff Corsaletti, Adam Davis and Brian Leclerc.
Corsaletti is probably the next best player on the club, the centerfielder who leads things off, was tops on the team in batting average and walks. His contributions to the team are similar to that of Johnny Damon with the Red Sox: while he might not be the most traditional leadoff hitter, he is a great all-around player. He has enough speed to justify the spot, but has the power to knock in the bottom of the order during the middle of the game. He does just about everything right, and Corsaletti must star against the Husker pitching staff.
The other reason, as shown on Friday, is Alan Horne. A former first round pick by the Cleveland Indians, Horne is an unfortunate case of someone that is hurt by attending college. Horne has been all over the map during his college career, finally making a home in Gainesville this season. The Tommy John rehab is still a work in progress, as his 4+ ERA this season can attest. Still, he can regularly run his velocity into the mid 90s and uses a curveball that he can throw for strikes early and often.
WHY THE GATORS WILL LOSE: Depth, depth, depth. The club's cumulative batting average is actually less than the Huskers, because after their five .300 hitters, there is very little else to offer. If the team does not generate runs via the home run, or an opposing team's error, they could run into some problems. Opposing teams should really focus on Corsaletti and LaPorta, forcing the rest of the team to come up big.
The other, and more significant, depth problem lies in the pitching staff. The club has had no pitcher throw consistently enough to take the ace title, and no one in the bullpen has proven to be a formidable closer. This can often be a recipe for disaster in Omaha, unless the staff gets extremely hot. A continuation of the season 3.95 ERA will just not get the job done, as teams like Nebraska have proven they will win every time they score four runs.
Luckily the staff has picked the right seven games to not allow more than five runs during, as the club will almost always score more than five. If the Gators can stay hot, and keep opposing teams under six, they could still be playing next week.
Key Players: Luke Hochevar (SP), James Adkins (SP), Chase Headley (3B), Eli Iorg (OF)
WHY THE VOLUNTEERS WILL WIN: Consistent offensive production mixed with a top-heavy pitching staff. Tennessee was top fifteen in the nation this season in scoring, doing so at a rate of 8.1 runs per game. This is the second best rate in the tournament, trailing top-ranked Tulane by just one tenth.
The club is getting much of its offense from two stars and top-100 overall draft picks: Chase Headley and Eli Iorg. Both have shown considerable power during the season, and Headley has gotten on base at a rate that no other Volunteer in history has matched. Overall, the team is getting two hitters that will cumulatively produce at .385/.480/.680 levels.
Beyond that, only one player in their starting lineup is hitting below .324, as the club's total average is an impressive .331. Watch out especially for Julio Borbon, a fleet-footed outfielder, and Josh Alley, the club's leadoff hitter. Both players will give Headley and Iorg some safety around them in the order. The Vols also run very often, with more than 100 steals for the season.
While Hochevar just did not get it done yesterday, normally he is one of the nation's best pitchers. With an arsenal that includes a devastating sinker-slider combination, in addition to a mid-90s fastball, Hochevar was supposed to lead the Vols to a date with Nebraska on Sunday. In that game the club would have thrown freshman phenom James Adkins out there, following a Super Regional performance that was as impressive as he had thrown all season. With two arms on the staff, and two bats in the lineup, the Vols certainly have as much star power as anyone.
WHY THE VOLUNTEERS WILL NOT WIN: Despite very good depth in their lineup, the same does not necessarily hold true with their pitching staff. Beyond Hochevar and Adkins, Tennessee can only turn to Sean Watson for consistency on the mound. While this was supposed to be enough to get the Vols through Sunday, losing the preliminary contest only puts added pressure on the club.
I could also mention Alex Suarez, the black hole of the starting lineup, a normally sure-handed first baseman that hurt the Vols on the field and in the box on Friday. Throwing out someone with a .245 batting average and sub-.100 ISO into the first base position is a big risk, even if their fielding percentage is among the nation's best. Mistakes cannot be afforded at such a critical point in the season, and Suarez is symbolism for the Volunteers' slip-up tendencies.
Key Players: Travis Buck (OF), Jeff Larish (1B), Tuffy Gosewisch (C), Erik Averill (SP)
WHY THE SUN DEVILS WILL WIN: First and foremost, the Sun Devils make contact about as much as anyone in the tournament. The club goes ten deep in .280+ hitters, and will constantly put pressure onto a defense. In the error-prone world that is college baseball, this should really plan into Arizona State's hands.
The club also has probably the best top of the order in Omaha, in Jeff Larish and Travis Buck. The decision to put them on top of the order is a sabermetric one, assuming that the two best hitters should be given the most at-bats. Both players are patient and powerful at the plate, and Buck led the team with a .380 batting average. There is no harder thing than to start a huge game against these two hitters, who promise to get into young pitcher's heads early and often.
WHY THE SUN DEVILS WILL LOSE: And they will lose. First of all, the offense is not perfect in any way, shape or form. Only Larish finished the regular season with a home run total in double-digits, playing in a home ballpark that is more friendly than not for sluggers. The .130 ISO has to be the worst of the eight teams, and expecting to win the tournament with single-single-single is not a good mindset.
The team also has very, very little in the pitching department. The club's ERA was 4.63 this year, and only Averill will give the team much from the starting rotation. Friday's pitcher, Zechry Zinicola, had a 5.88 ERA on the year. The club will simply have to hope for five or six good innings, and then hope to play match-ups well out of the bullpen. It is extremely difficult to win consistently by allowing five runs per game, and the Sun Devils have struggled in that regard, until recently.
Finally, the club had just a 7-15 record on the year away from home. All in all, it just does not add up for Arizona State in 2005.
Tomorrow I will give bracket two the same day-late treatment, and hope to give Saturday updates on the initial winners all throughout the day. Check back in...
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Tulane 3, Oregon State 1 [Recap]
WP - M Owings (12-4) LP - J Nickerson (9-2) S - D Latham (13)
HOME RUNS: Tul - Nathan Southard (12) off Eddie Kunz in the 8th
Tulane is attempting to become the first number one national seed to win the College World Series since Miami in 1999. Oregon State is making its first trip to the CWS since 1952.
Texas 5, Baylor 1 [Recap]
WP - A Alaniz (7-3) LP - M Mccormick (8-4)
HOME RUNS: Tex - Seth Johnston (9) off Mark Mccormick in the 1st
Texas beat Baylor for the first time in five meetings this year.