June 20, 2003
College World Series
Stanford vs. Rice: A Viewer's Guide
If you're following the College World Series for the first time, you've picked a really great year to do it. The format has changed this year so that the TV-inspired one-game crapshoot final of the past fifteen years has been replaced with a best-of-three round between the winners of the two half-brackets. Given that most college teams are built around the idea of winning a three-game series, this should show the teams at their best. On top of that, there have already been some great games this week, and the final comes down to two of the three best teams in the country, so I'm really excited about this weekend. So you can share that excitement, I want to give you a viewer's guide to this weekend's series.
While it won't affect play on the field, there's an added bonus in the identity of the two teams involved. As college baseball has become increasingly popular -- this year's postseason tournament will most likely net over $3 million for the first time -- there's been an increasing risk of footballitis, the failure of the balancing act that results from the odd state of having big-money sports programs existing in conjunction with institutions of higher learning. The last two national champions, Texas and Miami, have been put on probation this year due to rules violations by assistant coaches, although in the Texas case, the punishment was merely a slap on the wrist. Stanford and Rice, on the other hand, while not the mythical pure ivory towers, are both considered by most measures to be among the top academic institutions in the nation, and their sports teams are required to meet the same admissions and academic standards as the rest of the student body. In Stanford's case, the baseball players are actually strongly encouraged to get ahead in their coursework so that they'll be closer to graduation if they leave after being drafted after their junior years. It's a fairly safe bet that we won't see a third straight national champion in need of investigation.
Overall, these two teams should be extremely well-matched. In my rating system, Rice and Cal State Fullerton have swapped back and forth all year for the top spot, but Stanford has been steadily closing the gap for the last couple of months. For the last month, all three have been well within the margin of error of the ratings, so Rice and Stanford under neutral conditions fall into the "play 99 and somebody will win 50" category.
These aren't quite neutral conditions, though. Rice swept through their side of the bracket, so they've only played three games in Omaha so far. Stanford, on the other hand, lost an early game to Fullerton and had to battle back through the loser's bracket -- they've played five games including a ten-inning thriller with Fullerton on Thursday night. Rice has had time to set up their rotation nicely, while the Cardinal may have to shuffle a bit. This is the first year of the format, of course, so we don't have any experience to tell us how big an advantage that will be.
Rice? Rice? Rice is a small, expensive, private school with very high academic entrance standards. Their football team is still celebrating one win over Texas back in the mid-'90's. Their basketball team is a doormat in a fairly weak conference. How did the baseball team get to be a perpetual national contender with a great shot at the school's first national title in any sport? Much like Cal State Fullerton, the answer comes from an administration that decided they wanted to excel and hired the right man, coach Wayne Graham in this case, to push the program. Spotting talent in 18-year-olds is no easier if you call it recruiting instead of scouting, and Graham has been a master at identifying kids who were overlooked or passed over by the local Big 12 teams and developing them into solid and sometimes spectacular players.
This year the team ripped through the early season, winning a national season-high 30 straight on the way to a 33-1 record. They then stumbled through a 4-6 two-week stretch before righting themselves and carrying on to the current 54-11 record against the #23 schedule in the nation - not a terrifying schedule, but quite solid. They've been either #1 or #2 in my ratings all year.
What should you look for from them this weekend? Much like the major league playoffs can produce a Timo Perez, the hero of the CWS is often some guy who's going to be working on an MBA this time next year. Nonetheless, here are the likely suspects for the Owls: The attack starts with a quartet of remarkable sophomore pitchers. Wade Townsend, Jeff Niemann, Josh Baker, and Philip Humber have all been tabbed as potential first round draft choices next year by various sources, an unheard-of embarrassment of riches for a college program these days. The plan as of press time is for Niemann (1.67 ERA) to get the ball on Saturday, with Townsend (1.92) following on Sunday, and the Monday start to go to either Baker (3.26) or Humber (3.40) with the other available for long relief through the weekend. The staff is polished off by closer David Aardsma, the 22nd pick in this year's draft; the Giants plan to convert him to a starter.
As much credit as Graham deserves for building the program, he does have at least one weakness - he believes in pitch counts in the sense that he's heard of them, but he has no use for such weak-kneed sophistry. None of this year's crop has been worked as hard as some of the past Rice aces, and none of them have looked tired yet in Omaha, but overwork is still a concern to watch for.
On the offensive side, the charge is led by first baseman Vince Sinisi (.344/.429/.516), a second round draft pick for the Rangers, second baseman Enrique Cruz (.339/.438/.555), and center fielder Austin Davis (.352/.446/.526). It's an extremely balanced attack with no real weak links, but the team's strength definitely lies on the offensive side of the ball--average runs per game nationally this year is around 6.1, while Rice has outscored their opponents 484-213 in 67 games.
Defensively, the Owls are top-notch; their Defensive Efficiency of .702 will most likely place them in the top 10 nationally when I get the numbers compiled this summer.
Stanford has been the best program in the nation over the course of the last five years, and they don't have a national title to show for it, having lost two title games during that time. This is, however, their fifth consecutive year to make it to Omaha, an astounding feat when you realize that the apparent first question on the selection committee's agenda each year is, "Which underrated Western teams do we send to take a shot at Stanford this year?" They've generally hosted one of the two or three toughest regionals each year and then faced a top 10 opponent in the super-regionals, and they've won every single one of them under the current 64-team format. Don't think Buffalo Bills, think Atlanta Braves.
This year, the team started off an uncharacteristically slow 3-5, being swept by Cal State Fullerton and losing two of three to Florida State before catching fire, currently sitting at 51-15 against the #6 schedule in the nation. They've risen steadily through the ratings ever since, and have tentatively moved into the #1 spot based on the CWS results.
Although the split is not as extreme as Rice's, Stanford's strength lies more on the offensive side of the equation. Catcher Ryan Garko (.407/.475/.714) has had a fantastic season, moving from undrafted a year ago to a third round choice this year. Outfielder Carlos Quentin (.400/.487/.643) was the #29 pick in the draft, going to the Diamondbacks. Outfielder Danny Putnam (.359/.434/.655), Thursday night's hero against Fullerton, adds the rest of the power, but the rest of the lineup shows great plate control and tends to wear opposing pitchers out in a hurry.
The pitching staff is anchored by John Hudgins (2.96 ERA), a third round draft choice of the Rangers. The rest of the staff will be in a bit of disarray after the last couple of days, so we'll have to see who gets the starts and how far they go. The staff as a whole has been a bit prone to giving up the long ball (61 in 66 games). The defense is stellar, with a Defensive Efficiency of .716, a likely contender to lead the nation this year. None of them are especially flashy, although a couple of the outfielders have made some risky diving catches this week, but they do a great job of turning struck balls into outs.
Game 1 is Saturday night at 7:00 EDT, with Game 2 at 2:30 Sunday and Game 3 at 7:00 Monday night if needed, all on ESPN.
Boyd Nation is the sole author and Webmaster of Boyd's World, a Web site devoted to college baseball rankings, analysis, and opinions. In real life, he's an information security analyst with an energy company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.