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June 12, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

The Final Eight

by Bryan Smith

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With the draft now in the rear-view mirror, college baseball's focus returns to the diamond in the weekend ahead, as eight programs have made the annual trek to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska for the College World Series. Four months ago, when I released my Pre-season NCAA Top 25, half of the CWS teams were in the top eight: Louisiana State, Texas, Cal State Fullerton, and North Carolina. I said then that "six programs stood out as the cream of the crop," and 60 games later, two-thirds of those praised programs validated the rankings. Arizona State, who found a home at #23 near the bottom of the rankings, as well as Arkansas, Virginia, and Southern Miss, proved themselves consistently during the season to make it this far. In Omaha, as Fresno State proved a year ago, all teams are equal.

For my money, this eight-team CWS is college baseball's answer to the first two days of March Madness-in 12 days, we'll play as many as 17 games in order to determine the national champion. Each side of the bracket will play a four-team, double-elimination tournament, with the winners battling it out in a two-of-three championship series. I went through each program's particulars prior to the Super Regional play that decided our eight participants last week, so instead of rehashing their seasonal averages all over again, let's quickly review the teams (listed with their post-season records) and what got them to Omaha:

Texas (5-1)
The Longhorns defended their home turf Super Regional against TCU, and they needed the third game to do so. Although Cole Green was outpitched by Paul Gerrish in the second game, a dynamic performance from Taylor Jungmann in Game Three earned them a trip to Omaha.

Southern Miss (5-1)
It's easy to anticipate Omaha throwing their support behind the underdog Golden Eagles, who refuse to let coach Corky Palmer's career end. It's a touching tribute, and it took some hard fighting in Gainesville last weekend, as USM beat Florida in two games by a combined three runs, winning the second game with a three-run bottom of the eighth.

Arizona State (5-0)
The Sun Devils' train keeps on rolling, as this team has won 16 of their last 17 games to enter the CWS as college baseball's hottest team. After Mike Leake battled through to win in the first game against Clemson at home, Josh Spence threw a marvelous complete game to send his program back to the final eight.

North Carolina (5-0)
UNC had no trouble with ECU at home in the Super Regional, quickly sending the Pirates back to Greenville by a combined score of 19-4 over two games. In this five-game post-season win streak, the Tar Heels are averaging 10 runs per game, while opponents are scoring just 2.4. How strange that not a single member of the program has ever finished a season outside of Omaha, as the Tar Heels have made their fifth straight CWS.

Cal State Fullerton (5-0)
Make it nine in a row for the Titans, who haven't lost since May 17, as they beat Louisville in two games by a combined 23-2. This is not a team that we expected would be known for their run-scoring abilities before the season, but in their last ten games they've scored seven or more runs in all but one.

Arkansas (5-0)
Tallahassee is no easy place to play a Super Regional, and that was the driving influence when I picked Florida State to win last week. Dave Van Horn showed a quick hook with his pitchers, trying to interrupt Florida State's momentum at every turn. He failed to in the second game, when Stephen Richards blew a save in the ninth, and the Razorbacks came back to win in the bottom half on an Andrew Darr double.

Virginia (5-1)
Those of us who followed along on TV last weekend would likely agree that Virginia's come-from-behind series win over Ole Miss was the most dramatic of the Super Regionals. The Cavaliers continue to prove that the committee made a mistake by ignoring their case to be a regional host, as they upped their road record to 19-7.

Louisiana State (5-0)
The Tigers had no easy task in their first Super Regional at the new Alex Box Stadium, facing the experienced Rice Owls coming into Baton Rouge. After a slugfest victory on Friday night, however, senior Louis Coleman outpitched Ryan Berry in front of 9,651 fans to give his team a shot at the championship (thus validating my #1 pre-season ranking).

---

I'll be previewing the two-team championship series soon, but today I thought it best to take a look at the history of how programs have made it that far. I went back ten years, trying to find out if there were any consistencies among the College World Series finalists. At first, this seemed like a silly exercise: Teams have made the finals in any variety of ways, bashing their way in (Miami averaging 12 runs per game in 2001), riding their arms (remember Jeff Niemann's 2003 Rice Owls?), or even succeeding with glove work (Fresno State a year ago).

But, as they say, the best answer is often the simplest one. It seems rather intuitive, but during the past 10 years, 18 of the 20 CWS finalists won their first game in Omaha. In a regional, a team can often lose the first game and fight their way back-the regionals aren't terribly deep with talent. But with the nation's best eight teams remaining, fighting back from a 0-1 deficit has proven to be nearly impossible. The last exception was the champion 2006 Oregon State Beavers, who bounced back from a CWS-opening 11-1 drubbing by Miami to allow a total of just four runs in their next four games. When South Carolina lost to Georgia Tech by a score of 11-0 in 2002, the Gamecocks bounced back with an average of 11.3 runs in their next four games. One way or the other, if you lose that first game, you need to play near-perfect baseball the rest of the way to reach the championship series.

In that light, the opening face-offs on Saturday and Sunday are among the most important we'll see before next week's championship series. Here's a breakdown of the first four games:

Texas vs. Southern Miss, Chance Ruffin vs. Jimmy Ballinger: One inevitability of this College World Series is that in every game Southern Miss plays, they'll be considered the underdog. Last year, before Fresno State stormed through the bracket into the championship, I noted that they had a relatively easy draw when it came to the opposition's starting pitchers. Chance Ruffin, however, has very good stuff-he's a potential first-rounder in 2010-and if the Golden Eagles win, either Adam Warren or Josh Spence awaits them in the next round. The easy frame would be to call USM this year's Fresno State, but in actuality, they're an even more lowly underdog. Texas needs to make sure that they get to Ballinger early, but it shouldn't be a problem, as this is the easiest pitcher they've faced in some time.

North Carolina vs. Arizona State, Alex White vs. Mike Leake: If you catch one game of the College World Series on TV, I suggest it be this one. These are two first-round pitchers who were often brought up head-to-head in draft rooms last week, and Leake ultimately got the better end of the deal. While the Cleveland Indians are ready to move White into the bullpen, the Tar Heels are looking to ride his arm to that elusive NCAA championship. However, I have to pick Leake in this match-up-he was better all season long, and the Sun Devils just seem too hot.

Cal State Fullerton vs. Arkansas, Noe Ramirez vs. Dallas Keuchel: While researching this article I did a double-take when I found out that Dave Serrano had opted to hold off ace Daniel Renken for the second round. It's the type of strategy that you'd praise in the regionals, but getting off to a head start is far too important this deep into the postseason. The worst stuff in the first round belongs to Keuchel, though, and the Fullerton offense has been on fire in recent weeks. I still worry about Ramirez suffering from Freshman jitters, but if you're picking raw stuff and hot bats, it's hard to go against the two-seed.

Virginia vs. Louisiana State, Danny Hultzen vs. Anthony Ranaudo: Another fantastic match-up, this time between two uber-talented underclassmen. Hultzen's influence on the Cavaliers this season has been spectacular, and he made a quicker turnaround than the coaching staff could have hoped, and Ranaudo has blossomed simultaneously, and he seems to be getting better as the season rolls on. My prediction is that Hultzen runs into some of those right-handed bats for the Tigers-top LSU draft pick Jared Mitchell among them-and gets into trouble. Note: LSU may drop Louis Coleman into this game, and given how well he's pitched of late, I don't think it tips the scales much in either direction.

This quick opening-game analysis almost halves the field in terms of predictions. In the second round, a Texas-Arizona State game would presumably be a match-up between Cole Green and Josh Spence, which would leave Arizona State heavily favored. In the east bracket, round two could provide a very special match-up with Daniel Renken against Louis Coleman, two guys that have pitched their hearts out this season.

Before I began this article, my choice for the College World Series was LSU over Texas, if only to validate my pre-season rankings, but ego aside, the particular match-ups provide a far different picture. Arizona State has a fantastic opportunity to ride their two horses to a national title as long as they can overtake Cal State Fullerton in the championship. Either way, the pitching match-ups promise a great fortnight of baseball, so tune in and see some of the players in Major League Baseball's future.

---

Speaking of which, here's a quick guide to the 2009 draftees playing in Omaha. Enjoy!

Cal State Fullerton (7 players): Josh Fellhauer, OF (209th overall, Reds), Khris Davis, OF (226th, Brewers); Jared Clark (361st, Rockies); Dustin Garneau (571st, Rockies); Michael Morrison (870th, Tigers); Kyle Witten (1,223rd, Mariners); Joe Scott (1,261st, Rockies).

North Carolina (7 players): Dustin Ackley, OF (second overall, Mariners); Alex White, RHP (15th, Indians); Kyle Seager, 2B (82nd, Mariners); Mark Fleury, C (119th, Reds); Adam Warren, RHP (135th, Yankees); Brian Moran, LHP (203rd, Mariners); Colin Bates, RHP (1,113th, Athletics).

Arizona State (6 players): Mike Leake, RHP (eighth overall, Reds); Jason Kipnis (63rd, Indians); Josh Spence, LHP (110th, Angels); Carlos Ramirez, C (261st, Angels); Jared McDonald, SS (643rd, White Sox); Raoul Torrez, 2B (981st, Angels).

Arkansas (6 players): Dallas Keuchel, LHP (221st overall, Astros); Stephen Richards, RHP (248th, Marlins); Scott Lyons, SS (452nd, Royals); Ben Tschepikow, 2B (512th, Royals); Michael Bolsinger, RHP (993rd, Athletics); Ryan Cisterna, RHP (1,041st, Angels).

Louisiana State (6 players): Jared Mitchell, OF (23rd overall, White Sox); D.J. LeMahieu, IF (79th, Cubs); Louis Coleman, RHP (152nd, Royals); Ryan Schimpf, 2B (160th, Blue Jays); Blake Dean, OF (312th, Twins); Sean Ochinko, C (340th, Blue Jays).

Virginia (5 players): Andrew Carraway, RHP (353rd overall, Mariners); Jeffrey Lorick, LHP (598th, Braves); Robert Poutier, RHP (864th, Padres); Matthew Packer, LHP (965th, Indians); Tyler Cannon, SS (1,225th, Pirates).

Southern Miss (4 players): James Dozier, SS (252nd overall, Twins); Jimmy Ballinger, RHP (343rd, White Sox); James Ewing, 2B (374th, Mets); Ben Davis, CF (714th, Padres).

Texas (2 players): Brandon Belt, 1B (147th overall, Giants); Austin Wood, LHP (150th, Tigers).

I'm particularly intrigued by the organizations that hit up a program multiple times. For the second straight year, the Angels drafted multiple Arizona State players, this year grabbing three of them. Colorado drafted three out of Cal State, starting with first baseman Jared Clark, after dipping into Dave Serrano's program once in 2008. In the new Seattle front office regime's first draft, they followed Dustin Ackley with two other Tar Heels. The Cubs connection with Paul Mainieri has become well known over time, and the list shows that there may be a few new connections to explore between area scouts and universities.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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