We'll be dividing our preview of the seven teams joining Texas in Omaha into three parts. This one focuses on the four teams making up the other side of the bracket.
First thing's first: for those readers who have not followed the CWS closely in the past, it is basically two tournaments. Each four-team bracket participates in its own insular double-elimination competition (exactly like the sub-regionals two weeks ago), and the two bracket winners then play a three-game series (exactly like the super regionals) for the national title. Therefore, Texas will only play one of the four teams in the other side if they can win their bracket. This means a Texas vs Texas A&M final is possible; but we don't see it. Don't get us wrong; we'd like to see the Ags come out of that side of the tournament. We just don't think they're built to win in this setting.
Winning a double-elimination, four-team bracket generally takes at least three great starting pitchers and a great bullpen. Incidentally, that's why we have thought all year that Texas has a very respectable chance of winning this whole thing; it'll be heart-stopping and insanely close, but the Horns have the arms to take this thing. No other team in this tournament (save Virginia) has a #4 hurler nearly as good as Hoby Milner. And Texas can also hand the ball to a 'pen that has produced an unbelievable 35-0 record when leading after six innings this season.
Side note: think about that for a second. Texas' pitching is so good that, with the combined efforts of starters going late into games and relievers shutting the door, they are able the shorten the game by a THIRD. In the Major Leagues, a great closer means you win almost all games you lead after eight; they hardly even keep stats on who wins games they led after six. It's just unreal.
Back to the main event. So here's the thing about the Aggies: they actually ARE built to win a bracket like this one. But, like anyone else, they weren't built to withstand an injury to their ace John Stilson. Ross Stripling and Michael Wacha have both been fantastic for Little Brother this postseason, but Game Two in Tallahassee showed just how awful the drop-off is after Wacha. The Seminoles put up a hilarious number of runs against the rest of the staff last weekend; if, somehow, A&M can survive the double elimination format against top-tier competition then Stripling and Wacha give them a good opportunity to win the championship series. But they probably won't get there. With Stilson, we'd call them a dark horse to be national champions. Without him, they're an underdog.However, the Aggies did get a little bit lucky in that their half of the bracket is somewhat easier than the Texas side. Cal joins A&M, Virginia, and South Carolina; those three are as strong a bunch as you could ask for, but Texas' half of the tourney doesn't have a Cal equivalent. The Bears are easily the coolest story in this year's CWS. The program was brought to the brink of destruction at the hands of California's budget crisis just last year, and here they are in the promised land. Cal is in Omaha through a confluence of playing their best ball in the postseason and lucking out in terms of competition. They won the Houston regional, hosted by the spuriously-seeded Rice Owls. The Bears then got to play Dallas Baptist in a super regional, which they "hosted" in Santa Clara. DBU is not a bad squad, but for a regional 3-seed to be able to host a super regional is a rare advantage.
Reality is about to kick in--in the form of the Cavaliers. Cal is obviously a very good team, and they have played very well to get here. But aside from Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda, we don't see anyone on the roster who's real likely to do much against UVA's vaunted pitching staff.
Which, incidentally, is why we see Virginia as the favorite to come out of that side of the bracket. The top-seeded Cavs will probably take the calculated risk of tossing third starter Tyler Wilson against Cal. Wilson is a real slouch, with his 8-0 record and 2.29 ERA. Assuming he gets the job done, the 'Hoos will then have all-world starters Danny Hultzen (12-3, 1.49) and Will Roberts (11-1, 1.58) to pitch them through the winner's bracket to the championship weekend. That's a pretty sweet setup.
But don't sleep on the defending champs. South Carolina has also had a rather easy road to Omaha (as such roads go), having only to take care of Stetson, Georgia Southern, and UConn. Still, they proved their mettle during the regular season in the impossibly stacked SEC. Remember that stat above about how great Texas is when leading after six innings? South Carolina is also perfect in those situations, only they've had more chances. The Gamecocks are a silly 42-0 when leading after six, and 46-0 when leading after eight. They flat-out shut you down, particularly behind closer Matt Price and his 17 saves. The Gamecocks' batting average numbers look a little more like Texas and UVA than your average SEC powerhouse, but they still hit the ball and score runs. Imagine a team with slightly less impressive pitching than Texas but also better run production. That's them. They could certainly win this whole thing as well.
So that's the other side of the bracket. We'll have something on the Gators and a preview of the rst of Texas' bracket shortly. Hook 'em!