June 17, 2004
College World Series
A Viewer's Guide
It's been an unusual postseason in NCAA baseball this year. Until 1998, the postseason tournament began with 48 teams playing in six-team, double-elimination brackets which were played over four days. This created a lot of drama, but it didn't create great baseball, as you frequently ended up with a freshman waterboy pitching on Sunday afternoon. Under this format, upsets were the norm, and the field that reached the College World Series in Omaha was usually a rather motley crew of survivors.
In 1999, though, the NCAA moved to a 64-team field, adding a week to the postseason and switching from six-team regionals to four-team events in the first round. Under this format, the favorites flourished. Although upsets happened often enough to keep everyone on their toes, the fields in Omaha have been stronger from 1999 to 2003. This year, however, the apple cart has been overturned.
Over the course of the season, Texas and Stanford were teams #1 and #1a, staying a bit in front of the pack. Texas survived the first two rounds and is the favorite this week, but Stanford finally lost a regional, ending a five-year run of CWS appearances.
For most of the year, the second tier of teams was Arizona State, Rice, and Long Beach State. All of these teams are gone. Due to a late-season swoon and the perpetual problem of Western teams being underseeded by the mostly-Eastern selection committee (aided by a ranking system that doesn't really work for baseball), Long Beach was sent to Stanford. They beat the Cardinal, but then fell to Arizona in the super-regional round. Rice's ouster was the most spectacular; one of their losses was to Texas Southern, who lands at #250 in my latest ranking system even after their win over Rice. This is hard to project into professional terms--the best I can do, both talent-wise and expectation-wise, is the Boston Red Sox losing to the Batavia Muckdogs with Pedro Martinez on the mound. Arizona State was another victim of Western underseeding, losing in the regional to top-ten Cal State Fullerton.
The good news is that the next tier of teams are all here, and that a couple of them have made late-season runs that make them reasonable candidates for a national championship. The even better news is that all four of them are in the same side of the bracket. The CWS format consists of two four-team double-elimination brackets with a best-of-three championship series between the winners. This year, we have the Texas bracket and the interesting bracket. Here's a short summary for each team, paired by their first-round matchups:
The Longhorns have had a bullseye on them all year--they began the year alongside Rice and Stanford as the preseason favorites--and they've been quite consistent at standing up under the pressure. They're the most experienced team in the tournament, with a good chunk of the core having been around for their 2002 title run. There are no guarantees, but they have as clear a shot at getting into the championship round as any team has had under the current format. The team's strength is pitching (and defense, which matters quite a lot in college); they have the second-lowest ERA in the nation. They do still have the cloud of the post-2002 probation (a "volunteer" assistant held one of those great NCAA phantom jobs, which provided a recruiting advantage) hanging over them, so they're not universally liked.
There's been almost nothing overwhelmingly impressive about Arkansas this year, but they're still here. Other than one weekend in Baton Rouge, they were never overpowering during the season, but they tied for the SEC championship. It's been that kind of year for them, so don't count them out just yet. There's still a bit of a rivalry between Texas and Arkansas left over from the Southwest Conference days as well as some recent occurrences on the football field. This could be an emotional opener, and the fact that the Hogs haven't been here since 1989 may work against them.
Arizona was massively underseeded due to a low winning percentage against severe competition, so their presence isn't a huge surprise; I'd rate them as a slight favorite against Georgia. Their biggest potential weakness is that Kolberg and John Meloan, who switched from the bullpen to the rotation at midseason, have thrown roughly a million pitches since March 1. Joe Sheehan, since you've admitted watching the last game of the super-regional, did milk actually come out of your nose when the ESPN announcers solemnly intoned that it wasn't that big a deal that Meloan was throwing his 143rd pitch, since he's "a big, strong kid?"
Hyle missed a start due to injury a couple of weeks ago and looked weak in the super-regionals, which may put them at a bit of a disadvantage. Overall, the team's looked a lot like Arkansas, never impressive but solid throughout.
Team: Cal State Fullerton
Fullerton's a fairly young team this year and played like it through February and March. They caught fire around the midpoint of the season and finished strong, going 27-5 against top-rate competition. Windsor, like Charley Boyce of Arkansas, was used both for a full start and for a long relief appearance in the regional. Although neither looked any worse for wear in the super-regional, those aren't good trends. The four teams in this side of the bracket are all in coin-toss territory in the neutral ground of Omaha.
Team: South Carolina
Another slow starter, the Gamecocks have zoomed up the charts in recent weeks. The strength of the team is in the rotation, but the offense holds up their end well enough to keep them in the game. Pitching-rich teams have fared better in the CWS historically than have the bombers. Powell and Fullerton's Suzuki are by far the two best catching prospects in the nation. I have no idea what the entertainment value of a great catcher's duel is, but there you have it. This is South Carolina's third consecutive Omaha appearance, which may be an advantage.
Team: Louisiana State
These are the Yankees of college baseball, albeit with a shorter history--five titles since 1991, a great talent pipeline (the college equivalent to free agency is the junior college transfer route), and fans with great support but a large sense of entitlement. Their last title came in 2000, so they're also a bit hungry at this point. This year's model is heavy on offense again, although the changes in the bats in recent years have reduced their gorilla ball reputation somewhat. Mestepey represents part of the reason for the imbalance; he's had a long recovery from shoulder surgery and is a much different pitcher than he was during his All-World freshman year in 2001, but he's been lights-out over the last month.
Team: Miami, Florida
Miami's been hard to judge this year due to an unintentionally weak schedule (the ACC, which already comprises most of their schedule, had an uncharacteristically off year), but they've performed well against what they had in terms of competition. They've shone in a late-season sweep of Long Beach State and the postseason. They're one of the few college programs that generally does a good job of managing pitcher workloads, and that's paid off for them during the postseason a couple of times in the past; they're as good a pick as any to face Texas in the final.