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Mike Yastrzemski swung and missed, only this time the mundaneness of such a moment gave way to crushing weight.
|Vanderbilt, the No. 2 overall seed, came up just short of Omaha, falling to Louisville at home in the super regionals.|
A flimsy breaking ball came and did a little limbo upon arrival, ducking under the barrel, and Yastrzemski spun 180 degrees to take the one walk he couldn't afford. His face filled with some jilted combination of shock and sorrow, he started on back to his dugout and ahead to his life after Vanderbilt.
Connor Harrell, another senior, waited for Yastrzemski and slung an arm around his shoulders, and for a moment, two old Dores watched someone else dance in their yard, tickets to Omaha in hand.
There was something disarming about watching every teammate heap a hug on Yastrzemski when he reached the dugout, as if they all knew someday soon, after the first pangs of disappointment disperse, there's a certain celebration to be had for striving. But that's tomorrow; today, the wound burns deep in their bellies.
This is the sinister joke of June: You can be good enough to win a national championship and never get to play for one. The fundamental nature of the postseason allows for favorites to fail. Falling short of Omaha doesn't mean Vanderbilt isn't a top-eight team in the country -- on talent, it is -- but nobody's journey, not even the blessed, is lined with promises.
So it is Louisville -- an exceptional team, to be sure -- leaving Nashville behind for Omaha. We'll begin our College World Series preview with those Cardinals.
Path to Omaha: Won Louisville Regional, beat Vanderbilt in Nashville Super Regional
As Opening Day crept up in early February, Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said something over the phone that rings nearly as prophecy now. "We've been on a three-year cycle here," he said. "We went to Omaha in 2007, were really good in 2010, and now 2013 is that third year again."
McDonnell wouldn't presume to know how the next four months would fall, but his conviction ran deep enough to say this team "could get back to Omaha and lay a foundation for the future here." A school-record 51 wins (and counting) followed, and here the Cardinals are.
If there's any takeaway from Nashville, it's that Louisville possesses the deadly array of arms necessary for winning a national championship. Chad Green wasn't exceptional against Vanderbilt, needing more than 100 pitches to get through five innings, but he'll go against Indiana on Saturday evening in Louisville's opening CWS game. "He's the bell-cow, the tone-setter for us," McDonnell said.
Jeff Thompson has been Louisville's best pitcher this postseason, with a 1.38 ERA in two starts. Against Vanderbilt, he allowed one run in seven innings and struck out nine, his fastball sitting at 90-94 mph. If those two are generous and donate a few runs, you better make them stand up, because Louisville's bullpen is a bit mean, with Cody Ege and Nick Burdi at the back end. Joe Filomeno suffered an apparent arm injury in the super regional, but he touched 95 mph from the left side before exiting. If he's available in Omaha, that's two power arms and one deceptive one for McDonnell to shuffle around in the late innings.
In a pool with Indiana, Mississippi State and Oregon State, Louisville has as good a chance as any to reach the championship series.
Path to Omaha: Won Baton Rouge Regional, beat Oklahoma in Baton Rouge Super Regional
LSU is 5-0 this postseason, which is a testament to its brilliance considering the subtle undercurrent of doubt entering the super regional. Not serious doubt, but just enough to cause hints of hesitation in Baton Rouge.
Aaron Nola didn't look great against Sam Houston State. Ryan Eades looked defeated and dehydrated against Jackson State. Then Jonathan Gray, the No. 3 overall pick in the MLB draft, loomed in Game 1 of the super regional, and the Tigers risked succumbing to fate and the game's overriding forces by losing the first of a three-game series.
The panic in that paragraph is pervasive, isn't it? Well, it did not last.
Not with Nola becoming NOLA again in the super regional, firing a two-hit shutout at the Sooners and beating Gray. Not with JaCoby Jones lashing balls all over Alex Box, transforming into a brilliant purple blur in his never-ending circling of the bases. When the threat of rain and booming thunder came in the middle of Game 2, Jones walked to center field, bowed his head and raised an open palm to the darkening sky, and said, "Shhh, give us five innings," and the storm did. It was that kind of weekend for Jones.
We can't ignore the obvious: The No. 2 spot in LSU's starting rotation walks on stilts. Eades can be anything, which is a compliment to his considerable talent and an indictment of his ability to throw quality strikes with regularity. But the Tigers do have a fresh Cody Glenn, who's yet to pitch in the postseason, a good bullpen and an offense that should just begin innings with two on and one out, an attempt at compromise to save us all a bit of time.
So, no, you need not be told the Tigers are talented enough to go 5-0 in Omaha and turn the event into little more than a few innings of sunbathing for seven other fan bases. You knew that already.
Path to Omaha: Won Los Angeles Regional, beat Cal State Fullerton in the Fullerton Super Regional
The Bruins get the first crack at LSU on Sunday evening. Godspeed, Adam Plutko.
UCLA's ace doesn't need luck, though. He's plenty capable on his own, as is this entire pitching staff. We knew the Fullerton Super Regional would kneel at the feet of one team's rotation, and Fullerton's was the more likely candidate, with Justin Garza and Thomas Eshelman fronting one of the country's best. They did their part, but Plutko (7 innings, 1 run) and Nick Vander Tuig (6 1/3, 0 runs) were a bit better. UCLA didn't even get to Grant Watson, its No. 3 starter with a 3.22 ERA.
Maybe the top of UCLA's rotation isn't quite as dominant as the top of others, but the Bruins possess a rare quality: Their rotation is legitimately three deep. That puts them in a position of strength when other teams are recycling arms like they're plastic canisters and not, you know, human levers that snap if mercilessly cranked. Behind that rotation is closer David Berg, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year, and James Kaprielian, a power-armed freshman who's emerged as John Savage's blowtorch before handing games over to the sidewinding Berg.
The only issue I see with UCLA: Will the lack of offense force the pitching staff to be perfect? The Bruins ration their runs -- I mean, their slugging percentage (.334) is lower than their on-base percentage (.357) -- and it'll be difficult to score more than a small handful per game against the arms they'll see in Omaha.
Path to Omaha: Won Bloomington Regional, beat Florida State in the Tallahassee Super Regional
Confession: I'm a little surprised by Indiana. No, no, no -- not that the Hoosiers are here. That they pretty much smacked Florida State, in Tallahassee, to get here. Indiana dumped the Seminoles in two games, 10-9 and 11-6, earning the program's first trip to Omaha and the first for the Big Ten since Barry Larkin and Michigan went in 1984.
Behind Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis and Scott Donley -- the holy trinity of Indiana offense against FSU -- the Hoosiers are averaging 9.4 runs per game in the NCAA tournament. Thing is, the Hoosiers run deeper than just those three. Dustin DeMuth is hitting .389/.443./.564, Michael Basil has 15 doubles and a .400 OBP. Thankfully, Indiana doesn't rely on bunting runners around the bases (give me a first-inning bunt with a 3-hole hitter or a case of rare bacteria, and I'll bet on my immune system).
Indiana's point of vulnerability is its pitching, which isn't much of a vulnerability at all. The Hoosiers rank eighth in the country in ERA at 2.67 but received only 7 1/3 innings from their rotation in two games against FSU. If they get more from Joey DeNato and Aaron Slegers in Omaha, they have a chance to hit their way into the championship series, and what a story that would be.
Path to Omaha: Won Raleigh Regional, beat Rice in Raleigh Super Regional
After 133 pitches from Carlos Rodon, rain and a 17-inning Game 2 in which Rice blew a three-run lead in the ninth, NC State is going to Omaha for the first time since 1968. It's a rightful end for those who believed the Wolfpack should have earned a national seed, as they advance and five of the eight national seeds do not.
NC State's position is peculiar, equal parts envy and concern. Like we've echoed all season: The Wolfpack have Rodon, and everyone else doesn't. If there's one game to win, Rodon is as good a choice as any to start it. After that, though, it's like dropping an 800-piece puzzle on the table and trying to make sense of the thing.
Logan Jernigan started Game 2 of the super regional but has pitched only 30 1/3 innings this season, which includes eight starts. Ethan Ogburn, who closed out Rice with five shutout innings, would make more sense as the second starter, as he's thrown 60 innings (12 starts) and has a 2.70 ERA. After that, a bullpen manager spins a wheel with every other pitcher's number on it, and the lucky winner jogs into the game.
That's not necessarily a bad tactic, mind you. Elliott Avent has any number of capable relievers. But it's possible the Wolfpack will need their bats to win a couple of games in Omaha. If they reach the best-of-three championship series, you should love their chances, because, yes, Rodon is in red.
Path to Omaha: Won Starkville Regional, beat Virginia in Charlottesville Super Regional
Mississippi State is a microcosm of life in the SEC. After everyone proclaims preseason desires to win the league title, the only goal that matters is this: survive.
The Bulldogs went 16-14 in league play this season but had a strong enough overall record, résumé and RPI to still host a regional. They had the fifth-best conference winning percentage but are now one of two SEC teams (along with LSU) in the final eight.
"We'll ultimately be a better tournament team than a weekend-to-weekend team in the SEC," Cohen told me earlier this spring. "Teams run out of pitching in the tournament, and that's where we'll be deep."
The Bulldogs are something of a patchwork pitching staff, and we knew they'd most likely have to scrap their way out of Charlottesville with a mix of different arms. After two postseason rounds, Kendall Graveman is the only solidified starting pitcher, with a platter of multi-inning relievers available after that and closer Jonathan Holder -- just a grown man with a sick beard and riding fastball -- waiting at the end.
Given the bullpen gymnastics Cohen has had to pull off to reach the CWS, I'd be surprised if MSU plays many low-scoring games in Omaha. It's more likely the Bulldogs' bats win 9-6 games, and they've got the bite for that.
Path to Omaha: Won Corvallis Regional, beat Kansas State in Corvallis Super Regional
Ho-hum. OK, fine, it did take the Beavers three games to reach the CWS after losing Game 1 to Kansas State. However, did you, at any moment, feel the next two games were not going to end in Oregon State wins? Game 2, of course not, as it was 12-4. But the 4-3 finale?
Not really, which says everything about the Beavers and nothing about Kansas State. The Wildcats had an exceptional season, winning a school-record 45 games, and this feels like a landmark year for them and the Big 12, one that pushed more seats up to the Texas-Oklahoma table.
But Oregon State has built something sustainable with Pat Casey, and his program returns to Omaha for the first time since 2007, a championship year for the Beavers. Is this another title team for Casey?
Well, he'll put the ball in the palms of Andrew Moore and Matt Boyd at least one apiece in Omaha, which more than a few teams would like to do. He'll write Michael Conforto third in his lineup and Dylan Davis fourth, and he'll do that on each remaining day. Around those guys, Casey has some tough outs and speed and arms that can retrieve late-inning outs.
Oregon State opens up with Mississippi State on Saturday, and the winner will play the winner of Indiana-Louisville. Pat Casey and his Beavers are in a good spot, ready to swing for a third title.
Path to Omaha: Won Chapel Hill Regional, beat South Carolina in Chapel Hill Super Regional
Even the giants get knocked to their knees sometimes, I suppose, and that's what has happened to North Carolina this postseason.
The Tar Heels almost didn't make it out of their own regional, needing 13 innings and almost as many lives to escape Florida Atlantic. They needed three mostly ugly games to beat South Carolina in the super regional. Suddenly, their once impeccable starting pitching forgot what the fourth inning felt like. Their bullpen was a mix of tired arms and a bunch of hitter's counts. Their defense had a stunning number of hiccups for a team as polished and talented as this one. Miss anything?
And, of course, nobody cares. North Carolina is in Omaha for the sixth time in the past eight seasons, and it now has a few days to pump some fuel into those arms and take a breath. It's been an exhausting couple of weeks for the No. 1 overall seed. The Tar Heels have been one of the most complete and consistent teams all season, one whose national championship potential is obvious. They won't play Game 1 of the CWS until Sunday afternoon, so they deserve to fall into a deep nap for a little while.
Hopefully those naps don't include dreams of Carlos Rodon sitting on a bedside stool, chin in his palms, sheepishly grinning.
They'll see enough of him on Sunday.
Today in Omaha: High of 84 degrees, partly cloudy, three days until CWS Game 1.