Previewing the CWS super regionals
Surprised by Brett Knief's grand slam, were you? Of course, because it was Knief's first home run of the season, the bomb that toppled Troy in the Tallahassee Regional's deciding game.
Wait, no: It was Knief's first home run of his career. So, yes, surprise sprouted from the depths of Dick Howser.
Wait, no: Of course you weren't surprised, because this is Florida State.
In 15 years of this format, Florida State has won 13 of these regionals, the most of all time. FSU's last 19 regional games have ended with handshakes.
It's as if Mike Martin has jerry-rigged some Seminole code that instantly unlocks the NCAA tournament's second round. In Tallahassee, they don't do June afternoons without baseball. About every year, they do regionals and then super regionals, and so that is where we will begin.
Matchup: No. 1 Indiana vs. No. 1 Florida State
The Hoosiers made history by barreling through the Bloomington Regional, as they advance to the school's first supers. Indiana's inclusion in the second round will lift no eyebrows, but how it got here might. The Hoosiers can pitch, ranking sixth in the country in ERA at 2.56, yet their regional run was not particularly one for the men on the bump, but rather those in the box.
Indiana allowed 11 runs in three games but scored 26. Sam Travis -- hitting .538/.618/.538 with three home runs in the postseason (Big Ten tournament and NCAA regionals) -- was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player. The 32 hits were a reminder of the rolling thunder Indiana can become once it's set in motion, but the weight of walking into Tallahassee, into the super regional round, will still saunter down from Indiana's cloud nine and settle on the shoulders of Aaron Slegers and the hurlers who did the season's hard labor.
That's because Florida State has its own cavalry of pitchers who ride in and finish opposing offenses. In the regionals, Scott Sitz struck out eight in 7 1/3 scoreless innings against Savannah State, and Luke Weaver struck out 14 in eight scoreless innings against Troy. The Hoosiers must handle one of them to even earn the great opportunity of a Game 3. For that to happen, Indiana's pitchers must do their own handling of the Seminoles' offense.
Despite Indiana's success this season, this series will inherit the feel of a plucky sleeper pick against a forever favorite, or at least that's how the games will be packaged and sold this week in the buildup. Maybe there's some truth to that, maybe, when Dick Howser goes quiet for the season, that's what this series will have become. But that is not an apt comparison of the talent. Indiana is a legitimate threat to FSU.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Matchup: No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 1 North Carolina
You can't string enough adequate words together to describe what happened in Chapel Hill Monday evening. A two-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth and a three-run comeback in the bottom of the 12th not only saved No. 1 overall seed North Carolina from an embarrassing ending at home to Florida Atlantic, but the manner in which the Tar Heels won -- a maddening mess of final innings playing out after 1 a.m. on the East Coast, the final regional to finish -- gives them something of an underdog feel entering the super regionals, if that's even theoretically possible.
Perhaps that will wear off by Friday afternoon when they welcome South Carolina to Boshamer Stadium for Game 1, but for now at least, North Carolina has the feel of a refugee on the run. The Gamecocks find themselves in their fourth consecutive super regional, and their head coach, Chad Holbrook, has a homecoming of sorts. Holbrook was a North Carolina guy before he became a Southern one, and his family still has deep ties to the Chapel Hill area. You will read a lot about that this week, I'm sure.
But the games deserve to be about the players, and how North Carolina ace Kent Emanuel responds physically for Friday's start is the first question on the docket. Emanuel threw more than 120 pitches last Saturday and then pitched Monday in relief, throwing 51 more, one of the moves that will create chatter this week around college baseball. Is three days of rest enough for Emanuel to recharge and bring his normal stuff into Friday's start? It needs to be, because UNC needs to take Game 1 of this series at home.
However it shakes out, this is the series the sport needed and wanted. South Carolina-North Carolina with the winner going to the College World Series is as good as college baseball gets.
Matchup: No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 1 Cal State Fullerton
Let's begin here: Apologies to Grahamm Wiest. He's Fullerton's third starter, a redshirt sophomore with a 3.27 ERA and 76 strikeouts and 13 walks in 104 2/3 innings. He deserves to be talked about, but nobody will this week. Nobody will because everybody will be talking about Fullerton's top two starters, both freshmen: Thomas Eshelman (1.59 ERA, 78 strikeouts, two walks, 107 2/3 innings) and Justin Garza (1.92 ERA, 89 strikeouts, 16 walks, 108 innings).
Fullerton is so deep that it just flipped its starting rotation in the regional, starting Wiest against Columbia in Game 1, Garza against Arizona State in Game 2 and Eshelman against ASU in the clincher. The Titans will likely reshuffle in the super regionals and go back to Garza and Eshelman, in some order, in the first two games against UCLA, telling the two freshmen to get the Titans to the College World Series.
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"I've seen them grow up real quick," Fullerton pitching coach Jason Dietrich said over the phone Monday evening. "We tell our freshmen after the fall that when they come back in the spring, they should come back as sophomores. Some do, some don't. Garza and Eshelman are leading by example whether or not they even see it. What they do on a weekly basis is amazing."
Between Fullerton's arms -- we haven't even mentioned center fielder Michael Lorenzen, who also throws high-90s fastballs as the Titans' closer -- and UCLA's impressive collection including starters Adam Plutko, Nick Vander Tuig and Grant Watson and closer David Berg, I might take the under on 10 total runs scored in this series.
I want to talk about the offenses, but that'd be akin to dissecting the infrastructure of a $10 Target umbrella with a hurricane mere hours from haunting the vicinity. There most certainly is a storm coming to Goodwin Field this weekend, and the bats can be found in little clusters of helpless kindling around home plate.
Baton Rouge, La.
Matchup: No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 LSU
If Fullerton or Chapel Hill isn't the must-see super regional this weekend, perhaps this one is. It features one of two No. 2 seeds to advance, and is again headlined by pitching. The Sooners went undefeated in the Blacksburg Regional because, in Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton, they have two instigators of indigestion for opposing lineups. And when you have two of those, well, you're what we might call the good kind of "sick."
The Tigers have their arms, too, but for once have uncertainties swirling around them. Ryan Eades couldn't escape the third inning against Jackson State, his face turning puffy and plum as he labored through 55 pitches and a groaning Alex Box Stadium. Aaron Nola, LSU's ace who has been a relentless machine of heavy sinkers and hard sliders, had little help from his defense in the first inning of Game 2, allowing five runs to Sam Houston State.
Cody Glenn, LSU's third starter, was suspended for the regional for violating team rules and reinstated Monday, but coach Paul Mainieri hasn't announced if Glenn will start Game 3 against Oklahoma. Brent Bonvillain, who filled in for Glenn in the regionals, would be the other option here. The fact LSU and Oklahoma both have offenses capable of hammering good pitching separates this series from UCLA-Fullerton. Unlike the West Coast battle, this one could be molded into many forms.
Matchup: No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 1 Virginia
The Cavaliers had no trouble rolling through their regional, outscoring opponents 15-4 in three games to advance to the program's fourth super regional. Few mysteries, if any, remain about these Cavaliers: They pitch, they hit, they're relentless. In other words, they're a Brian O'Connor club. This is a status-quo week for Virginia.
If Brandon Waddell and Scott Silverstein and Kyle Crockett throw the ball like they did in the regional, and the offense swings the bats more like Game 3 than the first two, then the Cavs will be heading to Omaha. It's Virginia's second-round opponent, Mississippi State, that evokes more volatility.
The Bulldogs enter their fifth super regional coming off Monday's elimination-game victory over No. 4 Central Arkansas, and they bring the nation's 15th-best pitching staff in ERA (2.76) to Charlottesville, 11 spots better than the Cavaliers (3.05). This series, for MSU, depends on its starting pitching, a group that's a bit in flux at this point of the season. Kendall Graveman threw well in Game 1 of the regional, but Luis Pollorena didn't have a good start in Game 2. In the third and fourth games of the regional, MSU started two pitchers (Trevor Fitts and Ben Bracewell) who had three starts combined entering the tournament.
Why not go with Ross Mitchell in Game 2 against Virginia? Mitchell hasn't made a start this season, but he's second on the team with 83 innings. Between Mitchell, Jonathan Holder and Chad Girodo, it seems John Cohen is comfortable piecing together games out of his bullpen. Will that work against Virginia?
One thing in the Bulldogs' favor: In Hunter Renfroe, they possess the series' best all-around player.
Matchup: No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt
Louisville chewed through its regional field of Miami, Oklahoma State and Bowling Green, although it wasn't until the Game 3 against OSU that the Cardinals looked anything like a ferocious force that could challenge Vanderbilt in a super regional. And even then, Louisville's 12-3 win resembled a methodical and opportunistic maneuvering more than some scorched-earth showing.
"We call it our Dr. Kevin Elko approach: 'See a little, see a lot,'" Louisville coach Dan McDonnell told me Monday afternoon, referencing the well-regarded motivational speaker he draws material from. "We used that approach this weekend. We just competed, moved balls around and grinded out a lot of at-bats."
That, I presume, will be a necessary approach to beat the Commodores this weekend, and it's one that could give Louisville a good chance in Game 2 against Tyler Beede. After Kevin Ziomek in Game 1, Vanderbilt will go to Beede, who has been exceptional this season with one fault: 60 walks in 98 1/3 innings. And if you're going to beat Beede, it will be behind a slow-drip defense mechanism in which you allow Beede to do the work. Most days, he's too talented to beat straight up.
If the Cardinals can do that, there may be an advantage waiting for them in Game 3, when Vanderbilt's pitching is a bit less settled. Of course, Tim Corbin could simply give the ball to reliever Carson Fulmer -- a fireballing freshman who's capable of going five innings or so -- in Game 3, with him handing it off to closer Brian Miller, with him then wishing you a lovely summer vacation somewhere.
That is possible, but so is Louisville's ability to battle offensively and pitch (fifth in the country in ERA at 2.53). I bet this matchup becomes one of the weekend's best.
Matchup: No. 1 Kansas State vs. No. 1 Oregon State
The Big 12 is well represented with Kansas State joining Oklahoma in the super regionals, and give credit to the Wildcats: They made history, just like Indiana, by reaching the program's first super regional. They did it by averaging 10 runs per game -- Florida State is the only other team to do that in the first round -- and overcoming Arkansas, an SEC staple who some (here, here) pegged as one of the No. 2 seeds with the best shot to win its regional. That was solely because of Arkansas' pitching.
But Kansas State took care of its business at home and now goes to Corvallis to face Oregon State. We mentioned last week that the Beavers somehow slide into anonymity in the Northwest, despite being one of the country's premier programs. They operate in a drama-free and routine realm that maybe only the San Antonio Spurs can appreciate.
It's not that Corvallis crawls with tension-less games -- the Beavers outscored their regional opponents by only seven runs in three games -- but there's a certain assurance, it seems, around Pat Casey's club, a claim he'd probably mock and say there's nothing sure about winning postseason games. He'd know, but here are some things we know: Oregon State has won 14 consecutive NCAA tournament games in Corvallis; it has reached the super regionals five times, and three of the past four teams have gone to Omaha; two of those teams, of course, won it all.
If the Wildcats swing the bats anything like they did in the regional, they have a chance to continue their run and get to Omaha. But as North Carolina and Vanderbilt and others survive elimination games, it seems like the Beavers simply take the next steady step on their journey.
Matchup: No. 2 Rice vs. No. 1 North Carolina State
Congratulations to Rice, the second No. 2 seed to reach the second round, for going through the Eugene Regional and knocking off Oregon Monday night in an elimination game. Some felt Oregon was not deserving of a national seed, criticisms countered by little the Ducks did in the regionals, becoming the only national seed not to advance to the second round. It's a poor way for a great season to end, as the Ducks set a school record with 48 victories.
And congratulations to NC State, which probably deserved that national seed instead of Oregon. After a week of fuss, a national seed is essentially what the Wolfpack got, as they get to host a super regional in Raleigh. NC State allowed three total runs in three regional games, and I mentioned in the regional preview that, after his dominant performance against UNC in the ACC tournament, this is beginning to feel like Carlos Rodon's time. He has shed a regular season that left some wanting a bit more.
Rodon threw a two-hit shutout against William & Mary in the regionals, striking out 10, and his 161 strikeouts on the season lead the nation by 23. He possesses a brand of ability that overwhelms games, which is why we've thought all season that NC State is well positioned for a College World Series run. Rice isn't going to simply concede Game 1, of course, but it's as good a bet as any that the Wolfpack will be up 1-0. Then the Owls' bats will have to get after Brad Stone, Josh Easley and any other arms NC State rolls out in hopes of securing an Omaha-clinching win.
Today in Omaha: High of 73 degrees, morning thunderstorms likely, 11 days until CWS Game 1.
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