Back to Omaha
Last weekend offered the finest college baseball has to offer. If the sport ever needs a selling point, last weekend may have been that.
No game better shows this than the second game of the UNC-Bama super regional. Freshman Tommy Hunter had shut down the Tar Heels for 7 innings, allowing just two runs and giving his club a 4-2 lead. He was over 90 pitches, nearing in on 100, and stupidly, he was left in the game. After allowing two baserunners, North Carolina first baseman Chad Flack hit a three run home run, ruining both Hunter's day and stat line.
But the Tide was not to be outdone, as they had their own heroics when down 6-4 in the ninth. With UNC closer Andrew Carignan in the game, who had previously allowed just one extra-base hit, the home team quickly got two baserunners on. And then freshman Alex Avila provided his own heroics, giving Bama a go-ahead home run in the most dramatic of ways.
Well, not quite the most dramatic. That honor belongs to Flack, who in the bottom of the ninth hit his second home run of the game, a two-run shot that walked the Heels off and into Omaha. Such a dramatic ending has not been seen on a mainstream stage in a long time; in fact, few endings rival that game's madness.
College baseball has a lot to offer, and drama might be at the top. Please readers, this weekend watch the College World Series, as it will provide as much intrigue in a couple days as the MLB playoffs will in a month. For those just entering collegiate baseball fandom, here's a quick primer of the team's involved...
Best Position Player: Cole Gillespie.
Best Pitcher: Jonah Nickerson.
Largest Strength: Top-heavy pitching staff. Arms rule in Omaha, and if that proves true, the Beavers are in a position to succeed. While I chose Nickerson as the Beavers' best arm, it's close, with Dallas Buck and Kevin Gunderson all close. Not only are all three good arms and battle-tested, but they have the experience of pitching in games of this kind; Oregon State is the lone team returning to Omaha after 2005.
Beyond the big three pitchers, the third starter (Gunderson is the closer), Mike Stutes is really good. As is the club's set-up man, Eddie Kunz. With these five pitchers, the Beavers will always be a danger to whomever they face. If they can advance to the championship series, these five become the reason they should be favored.
Largest weakness: Depth. Head coach Pat Casey deserves all the credit in the world for Oregon State's two year run, developing a program where people weren't sure it could be developed. This is no small feat. Because of this big turnaround and top-heavy team, Casey's recruiting has only been able to go so far. The five pitchers mentioned were much of the reason for the team's relatively low 3.43 team ERA, and pitched about 75% of the club's innings. Will five guys pitch the Beavers to victory?
In addition to this, we don't know if Oregon State has the bat's to contend. Their .130 ISO is the lowest of the eight teams, edging fellow West Coast club Cal State Fullerton. While Cole Gillespie had an award-winning season, what else is there to offer? Barney, Rowe and Canham are all good, but if that's all, you have to worry about this team's chances at hitting into a championship.
Best Position Player: Jemile Weeks.
Best Pitcher: Chris Perez.
Largest Strength: Momentum. Miami was not considered a team likely to advance to Omaha, and they enter as the largest underdogs. While the other 7 teams are in Boyd Nation's top 10 in ISR, Miami stands at 23. Since winning just one game in the ACC tournament, the Hurricanes have won five of their last 6, outscoring their opponents 59-28 during that stretch. If any team is happy to be here, it's Miami.
And that isn't to say they don't have the talent to be here. Their team batting average is third of the club's that advanced, and their .239 opponents' average against is nothing to laugh at. They basically stand in the middle of most of the categories, but at the top of none. Jon Jay, Weeks and Perez provide star power to a team that could make for the best storyline of the tournament.
Largest weakness: Starting pitching. The team knows who is getting the ball in the first inning in Omaha, they just don't know if they can trust them. The combination of Carlos Gutierrez, Manny Miguelez and Scott Maine made 53 starts this year, the rest of the team just 10. However, it isn't as if they particularly earned their spots, combining for a 4.44 ERA. Their jobs are easy: get the ball to Danny Gil and Chris Perez. Their ability to do so will dictate their success.
Best Position Player: Joey Side.
Best Pitcher: Josh Fields.
Largest Strength: Umm ... perhaps hitting? While Miami is the biggest surprise in Omaha, Georgia might receive my vote for the least talented team. While they get points for a high team batting average, the club's .384 OBP is among the lowest in Omaha. Their .169 ISO is in the middle of the pack. More than anything else, Georgia has a middle of the order that is very dangerous, including Side and Josh Morris. Pitching around these two players will be essential for every club, as after that, Gordon Beckham (freshman) might be the only bat that can truly hurt you.
Georgia got through a good group to get here, so they do belong. I'm just not sure they'll contend.
Largest weakness: Pitching, pitching, pitching, by a long shot. This club has the worst ERA (4.76) and opponents' average (.277) left in the tournament, which doesn't bode well for a first round match-up with Rice. There are some good names at the top, notably Josh Fields and Rip Warren, two relievers primarily in the bullpen. Junior Brooks Brown gained some first round interest this June, but his collegiate results have been up and down. If he gets hot, his arm is in the mix too.
After that, however, things get ugly. The problem is the team will throw Brown against Rice in the opener, a game in which they are substantial (and deservedly) underdogs. After that, what will they have left in the tank for game two, presumably against Miami? Perhaps Warren gets the start, but if not, there is not a single exciting option on the team.
Best Position Player: Josh Rodriguez.
Best Pitcher: Eddie Degerman.
Largest Strength: Hard to pick, but it's the plethora of bats this team throws at you. Their .931 team OPS is the highest in Omaha, and choosing Rodriguez as the top hitter was no easy question. Beyond Rodriguez, the Owls also offer Brian Friday, Joe Savery, Aaron Luna and Greg Buchanan. Top to bottom the order is talented, and in the middle, it's damn near impossible to pitch to. This team hits, hits and hits all-day long, and they might do so to the championship.
Oh, and the pitching is pretty good, too. No two arms in the tournament have had better seasons statistically than Degerman and closer Cole St. Clair, who sports a .144 average against. A senior, expect Degerman's arm to get tested hard in this tournament, as he will pitch early and often. If you remember Jason Windsor's CWS workload, expect Degerman to get in the neighborhood in this tournament.
Largest weakness: Pitching depth? It's truly hard to find a flaw in this team, they have done so well all season long against a tough schedule. They win every weekend series. And while I chose the depth in the staff, other starters Craig Crow and Bobby Bell are really good, going 16-1 on the season. For me, the tournament's wild card is Joe Savery, sophomore two-way player that hasn't been thrown very often this season.
For a college that normally wears out top arms, it is strange that Savery only has 62 innings under his belt? The southpaw is superbly talented, but the Owls' reservations about his workload should make Rice fans wonder when he pitches in big situations.
Best Position Player: Josh Horton.
Best Pitcher: Andrew Miller.
Largest Strength: Dangerous starters. Everything out of Chapel Hill this spring has been about the Tar Heels' awesome trio of pitchers: Miller, Dan Bard and Robert Woodard. Miller won Baseball America's Player of the Year, and was the consensus top player available in the 2006 draft. His talents were on display last weekend against Alabama, proving that if Miller controls his fastball, North Carolina will win that game. Bard's inconsistency and Woodard's fringe stuff pose question marks, but both can pitch the Tar Heels to victory. If these three mesh at the right time, North Carolina could have an easy path.
Note that the team can also hit, as their .324 batting average is the best in Omaha. They have done so at a fantastic rate recently, scoring 62 runs in their five-game winning streak; 12.4 runs per game! The club is led by .400 hitter Josh Horton, but Chad Flack's amazing super regional performance has him coming in with the gold star. Those two, along with Jay Cox, create a lot of problems for opposing pitching staffs.
Largest weakness: Inconsistency. And a lot of it. The Tar Heels may be the team most prone to concentration lapses in Omaha; their 86 errors are good for second in the tournament. Horton is the culprit of 23 himself, and problems in the middle infield showed in Fayetteville. The staff also has problems with consistency, and Bard is a good example of that. In the second game of the super regional, head coach Mike Fox pulled the first round arm quickly, when it became apparent it wasn't one of his good days. None of those things can happen against teams like Fullerton or Clemson, so UNC must be on their best behavior.
Cal State Fullerton
Best Position Player: Blake Davis.
Best Pitcher: Wes Roemer.
Largest Strength: As opposed to North Carolina, Fullerton plays absolute mistake-free baseball. Their 54 team errors are the lowest in the tournament, and 28 less than the next lowest team on the left side of the bracket. They also don't walk people, handing out just 120 free passes on the season. Ace Wes Roemer leads the way with just 6 in 141.2 innings, but the club's top three starters combine for just 51. You have to beat them, they won't beat themselves.
In addition, the number of veterans on this club is astounding. Danny Dorn and Brett Pill might not make for great pro prospects, but with their experience, this team has good veteran leadership. Normally a discounted strength, these types of things play huge roles in Omaha.
Largest weakness: I worry about the offense this team will generate, especially when going against Andrew Miller and, potentially, Clemson's #2 option. They hit for a pretty high average, but there really isn't very much power to speak of. Furthermore, they don't walk very much, as their IsOD is the lowest in the tournament. Can this team really depend off three consecutive singles off Miller and guys like Jason Berken, Bard and the other good pitchers in the tournament? Without one guy with a double-digit home run total, this problem might become the focal point this weekend.
Best Position Player: Matt Wieters.
Best Pitcher: Umm? Matt Wieters? Nah, Lee Hyde?
Largest Strength: Wow, this team can hit. Just three teams in Omaha have .400 OBPs, and Tech's .420 is the highest. They are also one of just two teams with a .500 slugging, sitting at .501. There is a lot of terror in this lineup, with five players that hit 11 or more home runs. The group is led by two-way sophomore Wieters, the catcher/closer and the best at drawing walks and hitting the long ball. But if you pitch around Wieters, you meet a lot more bats, like redshirt senior Jeff Kindel, and juniors Wes Hodges and Whit Robbins. The amount of hitting this team can produce, and did produce against College of Charleston, is pretty astounding.
Largest weakness: Football scores should be the expectation in GTech games, as the defense and pitching is both atrocious. The club's 94 errors are an Omaha high, and their .275 average against is right up there with Georgia's. Blake Wood was an overdraft by the Royals in the recent draft, but then looked great in his super regional start. If he pitches as he's capable to do, as he showed in the Cape, Tech becomes a much better team. But outside of Wood, Hyde and Wieters, is there a single arm the Tech staff should be comfortable putting on the mound.
The answer, no, will be their downfall.
Best Position Player: Tyler Colvin.
Best Pitcher: Stephen Faris.
Largest Strength: This club is very much like Oregon State, because they do everything pretty darn well, and in fact, better than the Beavers in all areas. Offensively, Colvin proved why he was a first round choice last weekend, hitting a walk-off grand slam. Colvin's ability to steal bases is one the whole team shares, their 101 stolen bases are an Omaha high, and they do so at better than an 80% clip. Other than Colvin, Andy D'Alessio is the most powerful player on the team, and Taylor Harbin is one of the more talented second basemen left in this tournament.
The pitchers are good too, led by three starters: Faris, Jason Berken, Josh Cribb. These players combined for 49 starts, but weren't overworked, with no one going over 100 innings. This is because the team offers a good bullpen to hand the ball to, led by closer Daniel Moskos.
Largest weakness: I'm going to pick on the staff, even though they don't deserve it. The Tigers have proven they can pitch with anyone this season, and their starters don't walk people, which is always a plus. But if ever there is a group of talent that rivals pro ball, it's in Omaha. And the Clemson staff just doesn't have a lot of high-profiling pro prospects; it wouldn't surprise me if they got hit. But I'm going to stop now, because I'm truly nitpicking. Really, there isn't a lot about this team that went wrong in 2006.
* * * * *
And now, for the predictions, which have not been going particularly well for me this tournament...
Right Side of the Bracket: Oregon State. Depth is a concern for me, but I wouldn't be shocked if they have just enough arms to win the tournament. If they beat Miami in the opener, you have to like their second pitcher over what Rice has to offer, and at 2-0, the Beavers would then be in the driver's seat. Rice is the easy pick, but I think the Beavers ride continues.
Left Side of the Bracket: North Carolina. The opening round match-up between Miller and Roemer is one of the best in recent Omaha history, and I believe the winner of this game wins this side of the bracket. I'm picking Miller and the hot North Carolina bats, who shouldn't be too fazed by Roemer's good-not-great stuff.
College World Series Champs: UNC. I picked them in the preseason, and they beat the team (Alabama) that I picked at the beginning of this tournament handily. A nice going out for Miller and Bard, a nice coming out for Horton and Flack.