Around the Horn: Championship series set

Updated: June 23, 2006, 8:28 AM ET
ESPN.com

FROM THE BOOTH

Oregon State and North Carolina may have taken different paths to get to the championship series -- Carolina went undefeated, while the Beavers had to fight out of the losers bracket -- but both teams inevitably got where they wanted to go. They'll meet in the best-of-three series, which starts on Saturday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

The similarities between the two teams are striking. Each team is making its first appearance in the championship series; both rely heavily on starting pitching; and neither was a national seed in the NCAA baseball tournament.

Oregon State's starting pitching -- namely, junior right-hander Jonah Nickerson -- worked overtime in Thursday's win against No. 2 seed Rice. Nickerson pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out nine. And he did it all on just two days' rest. The fact that he pitched well isn't surprising; Nickerson boasts a sparkling 14-3 record and a 2.50 ERA. What was surprising was how long he lasted. Usually a pitcher coming off short rest starts out well but runs out of stuff quickly; Nickerson didn't. He did, however, admit after the game that his legs were tired.

Pitching will be the big question mark for Oregon State. It's unclear which pitcher the Beavers will start on Saturday against North Carolina's top draft pick, Andrew Miller. Dallas Buck is an option, but he hasn't performed as well as Nickerson on short rest. Daniel Turpen, who pitched on Wednesday, is another option. North Carolina clearly has the advantage, as its staff has had a few days off to reload. The Tar Heels' usual weekend rotation is in place. Oregon State, however, has put its pitchers in tough situations and they have been very successful. Because North Carolina has yet to lose a game in the CWS, its staff isn't as battle-tested.

When it comes to hitting, both teams boast fairly similar offenses. Each has a solid lineup -- neither will score a ton, but both can lay down a bunt and do the little things to win ball games.

Oregon State has the advantage when it comes to playing the field. Center fielder Tyler Graham has made highlight reel catch after highlight reel catch, and I like the way Chris Kunda is playing at second base. North Carolina has its share of talented fielders, but the Beavers are clearly the defensive class of this matchup.

The teams have differed in their mental approach to the games in Omaha. Oregon State is intense, while North Carolina is a little more laid back. Both exude confidence, which is the only thing that matters. They're comfortable playing on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium and have a lot of support behind them.

Game 1 is important, but it's not critical for either team. It may be more important for North Carolina, as the Tar Heels haven't had to come back from a loss. Oregon State has, and the Beavers have done a hell of a job.

My pick is North Carolina in three games. This a very even matchup, and I expect to see three exciting games in this series.

THE SCORER'S TABLE
Thursday's Stat of the Day from ESPN Research
23 Rice failed to score a run in its final 23 innings of this year's College World Series, breaking the record set in 1955 by Northern Colorado.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

Rice-Oregon State Pitching Duel
Pitcher IP BF H R ER SO BB 2B 3B HR
Eddie Degerman, Rice 4.2 20 3 2 2 5 3 1 0 0
Jonah Nickerson, OSU 7.2 27 2 0 0 9 3 1 0 0

Mound Matchup
Eddie Degerman entered the contest as the more heralded staff ace, and had the benefit of an extra day's rest. But Jonah Nickerson taught everyone at Rosenblatt Stadium about true grit; after pitching on Monday against Georgia, Nickerson pitched 7.2 shutout innings, complete with nine strikeouts for the win. Nickerson also aided the Beavers' cause by going the distance and not taxing the bullpen, which will be relied upon heavily in the next few games. Oregon State had never won a College World Series until Nickerson led the Beavers past Miami in Monday's elimination game; now Oregon State has a date with North Carolina in this weekend's championship series.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Greg Buchanan
AP Photo/Eric Francis
Under the watchful eye of third base umpire John Kleis, Oregon State's Chris Kunda slides safely into third base on a double by Shea McFeely in the fifth inning.
IN MOTION
Oregon State advances
STOCK UP/stock down
PLAYER TEAM POS STOCK
Jonah Nickerson Oregon State P
Nickerson's performance in the College World Series cannot be overstated. On Thursday, he pitched nearly shutout eight innings -- including an eight-pitch sixth inning -- and finished with nine strikeouts.
Chris Kunda Oregon State 2B
Kunda's 1-for-4 performance with one run scored was the offensive highlight in a night with few of them.
Tyler Graham Oregon State CF
Graham came into Thursday's contest batting an unfathomable .485 in the tournament, only to go 0-for-3 against Rice. Luckily, the two runs the Beavers scored we're all they needed.
Bryce Cox Rice P
Cox was unbelievable in Omaha, and tonight's 4 2/3-inning, six strikeout performance kept the Owls in the game. Unfortunately, he didn't get the offensive run support he deserved.
Offense Rice
Rice's offense fell apart against Oregon State, breaking a 51-year-old record for the most innings held scoreless.