Breaking down the field in Omaha
As the college baseball season enters its final two weeks at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., it has become increasingly clear that everything you thought you knew about the 2010 season was wrong. Here's just some of the conventional wisdom that has been disproved over the past two weeks:
1. "Arizona State, Texas and Virginia are head and shoulders better than the rest of the field."
I guess one out of three isn't so bad. These three teams dominated on the field and in the polls for most of the season, but only the Sun Devils advanced to Omaha. Texas ran into an in-state rival with just as much pitching as the Longhorns in TCU, while Cody Reine and the Oklahoma bats kept the best team in Virginia history from reaching the CWS.
2. "While they're a step below the top three, there isn't much controversy surrounding the other national seeds."
There might not have been a whole lot of controversy when the national seeds were announced, but only three of the eight seeded teams advanced to Omaha, which is tied for the lowest total ever (2007). South Carolina and TCU narrowly missed out on earning national seeds and both advanced to the College World Series.
3. "Beyond the No. 1 seeds, anything can happen."
This was a combination of the parity outside the top 16 and the recent results of some notable underdogs. Two of the past three national champions were from the bottom half of the field (regional No. 3 or No. 4 seeds), and Southern Miss extended the underdog in Omaha streak last year. Well, this year's "underdog" is Clemson. The Tigers were the only regional No. 2 seed to survive, and this "Cinderella" won the ACC Atlantic Division and had a top-20 RPI for most of the season.
Unlike last year's field with LSU, Texas and Arizona State, there aren't a lot of traditional powers among the eight teams that will take part in the final College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium. Arizona State has won five titles, but Oklahoma (two) is the only other school with a championship trophy. As we look back on 60 years of college baseball at the stadium atop the hill, eight teams are looking to write their own happy ending.
Below is a quick synopsis for each team in the order in which they'll take the field this weekend.
CWS appearance: first
All-time CWS record: 0-0
Best finish: none
Key player: Starting pitcher Matt Purke was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft, but spurned the Rangers to land 20 miles west in Fort Worth and leads the nation with 14 wins.
Unsung hero: Reliever Tyler Lockwood has been there throughout the program's ascension from regional contender to Omaha-bound. Like highly acclaimed Longhorns closer Chance Ruffin, he moved from the rotation (first-team all-conference in 2008) to the bullpen to finish his career.
Why they can win: The pitching staff was good enough to beat Texas at its own game during the super regional, so they come to Omaha with lots of confidence.
Why they won't win: No school making its first trip to Omaha has made the championship game since Georgia Tech in 1994; no debutante has won it all since Minnesota in 1956 (the 10th CWS).
CWS appearance: 20th
All-time CWS record: 25-38
Best finish: second (three times, most recently 1999)
Key player: OF/RP Mike McGee hit the game-winning homer in Game 1 of the super regional before earning his 12th save in Game 3; he leads the Seminoles with 15 home runs and allowed runs in just two of 18 outings on the mound.
Unsung hero: SS Stephen Cardullo was a first-team All-American last year but has struggled this year; he's still second on the team in runs and steals, and the Seminoles need a strong performance from him in Omaha.
Why they can win: Experience matters in the College World Series, and the core of this year's team was in Omaha in 2008; Fresno State is the only champion since 1992 with no CWS experience.
Why they won't win: The starting pitching has been inconsistent all year, and the Seminoles have some bad karma at Rosenblatt (their 19 trips without a title are the most of any school).
CWS appearances: sixth
All-time CWS record: 8-11
Best finish: second (2005)
Key player: OF Matt den Dekker came back for his senior year after being drafted by the Pirates and is a key leader on and off the field; he is one of the few Gators who was there when Kevin O'Sullivan was hired as head coach.
Unsung hero: C Mike Zunino is just a freshman, but he has kept the young pitching staff in line through a tough SEC schedule and postseason run.
Why they can win: They are one of the best defensive teams in the country, and the heart of the order is as productive as any college foursome in the country.
Why they won't win: The young pitching staff (rotation is two freshmen and a sophomore) has never pitched on a bigger stage, but they haven't shown any butterflies yet.
CWS appearances: third
All-time CWS record: 0-4
Best finish: tied for seventh (twice)
Key player: 3B Cody Regis could move to second to cover for the injured Tyler Rahmatulla and will be a key bat in the middle of the order. Unsung hero: 1B Dean Espy leads the team with 48 RBIs and is tied for the team lead with eight homers; he's also the most likely candidate to take Rahmatulla's spot in the order.
Why they can win: The best pitching staff in the CWS field combined with the desire to move out of the shadow of UCLA's other sports by claiming their first title (the 107th overall championship for the school).
Why they won't win: The loss of 3-hole hitter Rahmatulla to a broken wrist suffered during the super regional celebration weakens an offense that already lacked punch in comparison with the other Omaha teams.
CWS appearances: 10th
All-time CWS record: 14-14
Best finish: first (twice, 1951 and 1994)
Key player: 3B Garrett Buechele leads the team in most offensive categories; his father (Steve) spent 11 years in the majors, so he's been around baseball his whole life.
Unsung hero: OF Cody Reine turned the Charlottesville Super Regional in the Sooners' favor by hitting four homers and driving in 11 runs in their two victories after entering the series with six homers and 31 RBIs in 45 games.
Why they can win: The Sooners have hit 100 home runs this season while allowing just 51; with their solid defense, that's a great combination when the runs start coming in bunches during the CWS.
Why they won't win: It's been a long time since the Sooners finished the year in Omaha (1995, one year after winning the title), and this is head coach Sunny Golloway's first experience on the big stage.
CWS appearances: ninth
All-time CWS record: 17-16
Best finish: second (three times, most recently 2002)
Key player: SP Blake Cooper is the undisputed ace of the staff with a 12-1 record and 2.81 ERA; there was some concern after he was hit by a line drive while in the dugout during the super regional, but he is expected to pitch the opener.
Unsung hero: 1B Christian Walker hit the game-winning homer to get the Gamecocks to Omaha and is part of a deep lineup that features nine players with seven or more home runs.
Why they can win: Power throughout the lineup is great to have when the wind blows out at Rosenblatt, plus the pitching staff is better than normal for the Gamecocks.
Why they won't win: The SEC has won seven titles as a conference, but six of those were captured by LSU; South Carolina has been the bridesmaid three times, but needs to get over the hump with a group that has never been to Rosenblatt.
CWS appearances: 22nd
All-time CWS record: 61-36
Best finish: first (five times, most recently 1981)
Key player: SP Seth Blair stepped into the role of staff ace with Josh Spence out for the entire season due to injury, and leads one of the most underappreciated pitching staffs in college baseball.
Unsung hero: Head coach Tim Esmay stepped in when Pat Murphy resigned in November and didn't have his interim tag removed until the end of the regular season, but the talented club has rallied around his leadership.
Why they can win: The Sun Devils are the only returning team from last year's CWS. The previous time there was a lone returnee, that team won the title (Oregon State, 2006). All eight of ASU's losses this year have come to Pac-10 teams, and it was 3-0 against the only Pac-10 team in Omaha.
Why they won't win: The top overall national seed hasn't taken the title since Miami captured the crown in 1999.
CWS appearances: 12th
All-time CWS record: 10-22
Best finish: third (twice)
Key player: OF Kyle Parker hit 20 home runs this season, following up his 20-touchdown pass campaign as the Tigers' quarterback.
Unsung hero: 1B Richie Shaffer has the fewest at-bats in a three-way 1B/DH platoon, but he's been the best performer of the group in support of the big bats in the middle of the order.
Why they can win: Parker, John Hinson and Jeff Schaus each have at least 15 home runs, and the Tigers have been able to score against all competition, so their offensive style should play well at Rosenblatt.
Why they won't win: In the past eight years, seven national champions have ranked in the top 20 in fielding percentage; Clemson has the worst fielding percentage (and ERA) in the CWS field. The Tigers are just 9-16 in games decided by two runs or less and could suffer if the tournament becomes a nail-biter.
Jeremy Mills is a researcher for ESPN and is a contributor to ESPN.com's college baseball coverage.
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