The Southeastern Conference had another banner baseball season as it has four of the final eight teams standing in college baseball. Now, those teams head to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series, and Chris Lee gives you a look at each.
Why it can win: No player in America had more impact on his team’s performance than Andrew Benintendi, who was selected seventh overall by Boston this week’s Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft just before he was named as Baseball America’s Player of the Year. Benintendi hit a remarkable .380/.489/.715 against a tough schedule and played a mean center field for the Razorbacks. Arkansas doesn’t have great pitching, but coach Dave Van Horn is able to roll out about nine decent arms, and if it has a lead, reliever Zach Jackson (1.91 ERA in 56.2 IP) is outstanding at closing the door.
Why it can’t: Every team in Omaha has at least one bona fide starting pitching ace; the Razorbacks have none. After Benintendi, the Razorbacks have a collection of nice hitters, but no other stars.
The verdict: Arkansas might win a game in Omaha—it gets one of the easier first-day draws in Virginia—but it’s unwise to expect much more.
Why it can win: You name it, the Gators have it. Fielding? UF oozes with athleticism and skill, especially up the middle, and led the country with an almost unheard-of .985 fielding percentage. The lineup: Florida has power in J.J. Schwarz (18 homers, ranking third in the country) and Harrison Bader (15), and six of its nine regulars have on-base percentages of .390 or better.
Starting pitching? Florida sophomore Logan Shore (2.50 ERA, 101 IP) has put together back-to-back great years, and No. 2 man A.J. Puk’s (3.96, 72.2 IP) stuff may be as good as anyone’s in the country, now that he’s been able to harness it. The bullpen? UF has guys who can go for long stints and pitch effectively (Bobby Poyner: 2.73 in 59.1 IP, with six walks and 56 Ks; Dane Dunning: 3.95 in 54.2 IP, 53/21) and about a half-dozen terrific, dependable arms that can be used in spurts. Plus, the Gators played better than anyone in the country over the last six weeks.
Why it can’t: Puk has been erratic at times, and while the Gators don’t lack confidence, how will they perform with a bunch of players that hasn’t been here before? Coach Kevin O’Sullivan, meanwhile, has been here three times, but underperformed in Omaha on the whole.
The verdict: On paper, UF may have the best chance of winning the title. The Gators were my pick before the tournament, and that hasn’t changed.
Why it can win: If consistency is the trump card, then LSU has it. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the country for most of the last two months, and their 10 losses tied Illinois for the fewest in the country. Shortstop Alex Bregman, the No. 2 pick in this week’s draft, had one of the best careers in college baseball history; he almost unfailingly puts the bat on the ball and draws raves with his defense and his smarts. He’s in the heart of what may be college baseball’s best batting order one-to-nine. There’s an ideal combination of talent and experience—seven of LSU’s regulars were drafted this week, and its outfield consists of three guys capable of playing center. The Tigers also have a true ace in freshman Alex Lange (1.89, 105 IP, 121 Ks).
Why it can’t: LSU will throw Jared Poché (2.91, 100 IP but just 69 Ks) in Game 1 against TCU because coach Paul Maineri feels that gives his best team to advance by saving Lange for either Vanderbilt or Cal State Fullerton. That’s hardly the vote of confidence you want to give your staff, but understandable given that the Tigers never developed a consistent third starter and are fairly young pitching-wise. Also, the bullpen, led by freshman closer Jesse Stallings (2.23, 32.1 IP) stumbled a good bit in the season’s final weeks. Finally, as good as LSU’s lineup is, it struggled in both regional and super regional play; it’s probably a fluke, but it could be a concern as the quality of arms ramps up in Omaha.
The verdict: The Tigers are capable of winning it all with their lineup, but may not be the smartest bet given the inexperience and inconsistency of the staff. Look for the Tigers to win a game or two, but getting past the deeper staffs of TCU and Vanderbilt may be a bit too tough.
Why it can win: The Commodores have perhaps college baseball’s best pitcher in Carson Fulmer, and two super-talented arms behind him in Walker Buehler and Phil Pfeifer; the first two were first-round picks this week, while Pfeifer went in the third. The bullpen was an issue much of the year, but at season’s end, coach Tim Corbin found a guy with the right “heartbeat” to close in freshman Kyle Wright (1.06, 51 IP) and a flame-throwing lefty to set him up in Ben Bowden (3.06, 35.1 IP, 47 Ks).
Shortstop Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, won a few National Player of the Year honors himself; he can hit, hit for power, throw, field, run and has a high baseball I.Q. He, Rhett Wiseman and Zander Wiel combined for 43 home runs, giving VU a power trio nobody can match. The Commodores put seven hitters out there every day who are to be feared, and have exceptional defense up the middle between Swanson, center fielder Bryan Reynolds, second baseman Tyler Campbell and catcher Karl Ellison, who has completely shut down running games.
Watch out for freshman Jeren Kendall, who’s hit the ball as hard as anyone but Swanson in the last month. Plus, VU has the one thing nobody else in the tournament has: the experience of winning it all a year ago.
Why it can’t: As talented as VU’s pitching is, it was quite uneven at times. Corbin still lacks right-handed strike-throwers out of the ‘pen, and Wright’s sample size as a closer, though impressive, is small. Pfeifer is good for one or two bad innings a start, and that can be fatal in Omaha. As talented as Buehler is, he’s been hittable about one out of every two starts.
The verdict: VU steam-rolled through the first two weekends by a 53-7 score and playing at a level it hadn’t all year, making one wonder if the ‘Dores might have been a little bored in the regular season. This team has everything it needs to win it all, though drawing Fullerton’s Thomas Eshelman in Game 1 and potentially Lange in Game 2 is a tough order for anyone. If VU survives that gauntlet, a Gator team that’s had its number likely awaits in the finals, and that’s where I think this is headed.