Commentary

CWS field contains national seeds, Omaha regulars and one big under(Bull)dog

Originally Published: June 10, 2008
By Will Kimmey | Special to ESPN.com

A year after Oregon State won the College World Series as a No. 3 regional seed to pull off the equivalent of a No. 12 seed winning the NCAA basketball tournament, six of the eight national seeds have advanced to Omaha. But there's a bigger Cinderella left in the field, as No. 4 regional seed Fresno State stunned No. 3 national seed Arizona State by winning the final two games of a series in which few gave the Bulldogs a chance to compete.

A team from West of the Mississippi River has won the CWS in 15 of the past 17 seasons, with Miami grabbing the other two. (OK, LSU and its five titles sit on the east bank of the river, but it's close enough to bear with our geographic misgivings to illustrate the point.) Both of those titles came before the Hurricanes joined the ACC, and that league has only one title to its credit: a 1955 win by Wake Forest. The league looks well-positioned to end that drought this year with Miami, North Carolina and Florida State all in attendance as three of the top four seeds.

Who enjoyed the easiest path to Omaha?

[+] EnlargeDustin Ackley
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIDustin Ackley and the Tar Heels breezed through the regional and super regional rounds.
North Carolina breezed through five games to reach the College World Series for the third consecutive year. The Tar Heels have trailed for just three innings in the entire tournament, ceding a 1-0 lead to UNC Wilmington in the final of the Cary Regional before scoring five times in the fifth inning and never looking back. North Carolina has played 13 games in Omaha over the past two seasons, so the sights and crowds in Omaha shouldn't faze a team that has played in the past two championship series. The Tar Heels lead the nation with a 2.83 ERA and 640 strikeouts thanks to a deep pitching staff that features future first-round picks Alex White and Matt Harvey as well as junior Adam Warren, who's 22-1 in his career. UNC held Coastal Carolina to eight runs over two games in the super regional after the Chanticleers rang up 47 runs in three regional games. The offense isn't homer happy, but it goes deep in doubles hitters, including sophomores Dustin Ackley (.408, 20 doubles), Tim Fedroff (.398, 21 doubles) and Kyle Seager (.355, 27 doubles). The key for North Carolina might be coach Mike Fox's decision to sub Ryan Graepel for Garrett Gore at shortstop entering the postseason. UNC has made just two errors in the NCAAs, solidifying a defense that might have been considered a weak point earlier in the season.

Rice joins North Carolina as the only other team making its third straight CWS appearance and also enters Omaha without an NCAA tournament loss. The Owls have played more close games than UNC but have always found a way to win. Junior catcher Adam Zornes hit a two-run, go-ahead homer in the top of the eighth inning in the super regional clincher against Texas A&M to earn a 6-5 win; Rice had trailed 5-2 after five innings. If any team can best North Carolina in the arms race, it's Rice. The Owls come at opponents with all kinds of talent, power and depth on its pitching staff. They posted a 3.63 ERA behind ace Ryan Berry and a bullpen featuring flamethrowers Cole St. Clair, Brian Price (the Red Sox's first-round pick), Matt Evers and Bobby Bell. Rice's offense won't outslug opponents, but it's packed with a mix of Omaha-experienced hitters such as Diego Seastrunk (team-best 57 RBIs) and Aaron Luna (team-best .473 on-base percentage) and key newcomers including freshman shortstop Rick Hague (.347) and junior college transfer J.P. Padron (team-best .362 average), who has earned a starting role as a senior after playing sporadically as a junior. Rice has started 2-0 in Omaha each of the past two seasons before losing consecutive games to Oregon State in 2006 and North Carolina in 2007 and missing out on the championship series. Those memories should drive the Owls this time around.

Can Bulldogs wear glass slippers?

[+] EnlargeFresno State
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsFresno State shocked the field by becoming the first regional 4-seed to advance to Omaha.
Those hailing from Fresno State can, and they can wear them to a place no group of under(Bull)dogs has even been before. Fresno State became the first regional No. 4 seed to advance to Omaha by pulling a stunning upset of No. 3 national seed Arizona State at offense-oriented Packard Stadium. The Bulldogs reached Omaha for the first time since 1991 a week after becoming just the second No. 4 seed to win a regional. But taking the next step rates as the equivalent of a No. 13 seed advancing to the Final Four in the men's basketball tournament, and the magnitude of that effort gets enhanced by the fact that Fresno State lost its ace Tanner Scheppers, a potential top 10 draft pick, to a shoulder injury just weeks before the regular season ended. But the Bulldogs pulled it off thanks to great relief efforts from career saves leader Brandon Burke and reliever Holden Sprague and key hits in clutch situations. Center fielder Gavin Hedstrom hit a grand slam in game two to turn a 5-2 deficit into a 6-5 lead, while second baseman Eric Wetzel's three-run double keyed a six-run seventh inning in the clincher. When coach Mike Batesole took over the program six years ago, he said his goal was to unseat then-Western Athletic Conference member Rice from the top spot. That didn't materialize, but Fresno became the league's power broker after Rice left in 2005 and now the Bulldogs will open against Rice in Omaha.

Arizona State started the year 28-1, and sat atop the polls all year. ASU coach Pat Murphy called his team sloppy after its Game 1 win and then it didn't play with much urgency in Game 2, leaving 12 runners on and twice leaving the bases loaded. ASU was short on pitching all year and never played the kind of defense it did during its 2007 Omaha run. An offense that scored in double figures 32 times in 59 games entering super regionals covered these warts all year, but failed to be enough against Fresno State.

Are my seats in the outfield bleachers going to be good ones?

[+] EnlargeGordon Beckham
Richard Clement/Icon SMIGordon Beckham will continue his home run chase at the College World Series.
If you like catching home run balls. The national home run chase comes to Omaha, with Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham, Florida State catcher Buster Posey and LSU first baseman Matt Clark entering Rosenblatt Stadium tied with 26 home runs on the year. (College of Charleston's Michael Harrington also has 26, but he's been in the clubhouse since the Cougars lost in the tournament finals of the hyper-offensive Southern Conference.) Posey has stroked seven home runs in the postseason to vault into the top spot, and with the nation's best batting average (.460) and RBI total (92), the Giants' first-round pick (fifth overall) has a shot to capture the triple crown (as long as he doesn't run into any of the hoof problems that derailed Big Brown's attempt). Beckham was picked eighth overall by the White Sox, one spot after the Reds tabbed Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso. Alonso stroked two homers against Arizona and enters Omaha with 23 and an outside shot at leaving with the mantle of nation's top slugger.

Hey, don't I remember you guys?

Traditional powers Florida State and Stanford now have 35 combined CWS trips in their rich histories, but these two Omaha stalwarts haven't visited the Henry Doorly Zoo or grabbed a Zesto's hot fudge shake in a while. Stanford gets back to the CWS for the first time since 2003, a trip made more special after last year's senior class not only missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993 but also was the first group of graduates to fail to make the trip to middle America during its four years on campus since the Class of '81. Stanford returns thanks to a slugging offense led by Astros first-rounder Jason Castro, a strong defensive catcher who leads the club with a .379 average and 69 RBIs. He hit his 13th homer of the season as Stanford beat No. 5 nation seed Cal State Fullerton on Friday, then collected three hits and four RBIs Saturday to complete the sweep. But Stanford's biggest lift has come from the return of junior lefty Jeremy Bleich. He opened the season as the staff ace, but missed about half the season with an elbow injury. The Yankees still liked Bleich's stuff enough to pick him in the supplemental first round, and he backed up that lofty status by holding Fullerton to one earned run over six innings in the first game of the super regional.

Florida State, with 46 trips to the NCAA tournament to its credit, has never won the CWS title. More than that, the Seminoles hadn't been to Omaha since 2000 and had lost five consecutive super regional series before vanquishing Wichita State. (The Shockers now have failed to reach Omaha since 1996.) Florida State is getting the job done with offense, and lots of it. Thanks to Buster Posey and his band of merry mashers, the Seminoles lead the nation with a .354 team average. That offense has been at its best with its backs against the wall. FSU lost the first game in both the regional and super-regional rounds, but responded by averaging 16.5 runs in six elimination games. That offense, and a defense that has at times proven troublesome for FSU, took a hit over the weekend as junior shortstop Tony Delmonico (.380-8-69) injured his knee on Friday when Wichita State's Ryan Jones slid into him breaking up a double play. Delmonico didn't play in the final two games of the series.

How much does momentum matter?

[+] EnlargeLSU Tigers
AP Photo/Tim MuellerLSU's 23-game winning streak may have ended, but the Tigers enter the CWS with momentum.
A lot, as LSU showed us, and it can turn at any point. UC Irvine ended LSU's 23-game win streak in the super regional opener and had LSU down to its final three outs of the season with a 7-4 lead entering the ninth inning of game two Sunday. Then LSU, backed by a raucous collection of fans at the final series in 70-year-old Alex Box Stadium, scored five times in the ninth inning to win 9-7 for its 29th comeback win of the year. LSU then opened Monday's decisive game with a six-run first inning that featured three consecutive homers as well as an error and a balk by UC Irvine. The Tigers kept pouring it on, finishing with 21 runs on seven homers -- including two by No. 9 hitter Ryan Schimpf and one apiece from reserves Johnny Dishon and Buzzy Haydel, who entered the game after the outcome was all but decided. LSU's offense heads to Omaha on a high, but it must be mindful of the adage about momentum only being as good as the next day's starting pitcher. And Omaha will bring the Tigers more mound opponents like Irvine starters Scott Gorgen and Daniel Bibona, who held LSU to five runs over 14 combined innings in the first two games.

UC Irvine has experienced enough success over the past two years to not be afraid of any team in any ballpark. It showed that for the first 17 innings of the super regional series against LSU. But just three outs shy of reaching the CWS for the second straight year, the Anteaters finally blinked as their upset bid turned into a very upsetting ending to a strong season under first-year coach Mike Gillespie.

Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at wkimmey@gmail.com.