The Longhorns will open the action at this year's CWS tomorrow afternoon against UC-Irvine, followed by a matchup between Vanderbilt and Louisville. All three teams provide reasons to fear them, but all three are beatable--especially in a ballpark like TD Ameritrade, for which an Augie Garrido Texas team is very much built. Texas will once again be without staff ace Dillon Peters, meaning it is even more important for the Longhorns to come through the winners' bracket than it would normally be. That means winning the first two games is absolutely crucial--for everyone, but especially Texas. Here are the squads standing in the way of Texas and a chance to play for the program's seventh national title:
40-23, Big West
Won Corvallis Regional, Def. Oklahoma State 2-0 in Stillwater Super Regional
The Anteaters have taken the most impressive path to Omaha, at least if you believe in the accuracy of the NCAA Tournament Committee's seedings. Irvine is the only three-seed to advance this far, having gone into Corvallis on the first weekend and knocked off the #1 overall seed Oregon State. They then proceeded to knock of an Oklahoma State team who, you may remember, took 4 of 6 from Texas this year in a two-game sweep in Stillwater. So this is a hot team right now.
The matchup tomorrow will, apparently, be between a pair of "Public Ivies," so that's nice. On the field, any conversation about the Eaters has to begin with pitching ace Andrew Morales. Jeff and I have been engaged in an ongoing gchat debate over whether Morales will start against Texas tomorrow. Jeff's position is, because Irvine held Morales until Game Two against Oklahoma State, it's possible they'll take the same approach in Omaha--that is, try to get past Texas with number two starter Elliot Surrey and save Morales for the winner's bracket game, where a win would propel UCI into the driver's seat.
My take is that the College World Series' four-team bracket structure is much more similar to the regional than the Super Regional, and in Corvallis coach Mike Gillespie started Morales against UNLV in their first game rather than save him for Oregon State in the second. So, in my view, it would be pretty surprising if the Longhorns do not end up having to deal with Morales, who went in the second round to the Cardinals last week. If I'm right, that will mean the two starting pitchers tomorrow will have a combined ERA of just over 3--Morales has a slight edge at 1.53 to Nathan Thornhill's 1.57. With these two on the hill in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, the game could last under two hours. Or over five, if no one ever scores and they end up just playing 50 innings until they are declared co-national champions and the other six teams are sent home.
Morales has held opponents to a meek .182 batting average and sports an eye-popping 9.5 K/9 average--i.e., he strikes out nine and a half batters for every nine innings he pitches. Add in a 4.53 K/BB ratio and a 0.87 WHIP, and the numbers show just what a monster this guy is. UCI will attempt to beat Texas at its own game, then--by shutting down the Texas offense and scoring just enough to win. At the plate, Irvine has four guys over .300 but only one over .320, with Connor Spencer the offensive leader at .370. Their power, such as it is, mostly comes from Taylor Sparks and Kris Paulino, who have five homers each--the rest of the team has combined for two.
Texas' road to victory is likely to be as patient as possible at the plate, forcing Morales' pitch count as high as they can to try and get to the middle relief. If Morales is able to take the game into the 7th or 8th inning, Irvine's closer Sam Moore also sports a sub-2.00 ERA and doesn't provide much of a breather.
49-19, SEC East
Won Nashville Regional, Def. Stanford 2-1 in Nashville Super Regional
Vanderbilt has been so consistently good in the SEC for the past decade that I was pretty taken aback to see that this is only the 'Dores' second CWS appearance. Much like Virginia in The Bizarro Bracket, Vandy has entered the Tournament as a trendy pick to win it all several times but has yet to reach the mountaintop. If Vegas has it right, the two schools have a good chance at meeting in the finals and guaranteeing that one drought will end.
Vandy may well be the most talented team in the field, but their on-field results this season were inconsistent enough that they nonetheless missed out on a national seed. They lucked out a bit, though, with Stanford staging a comeback win over Indiana in the Bloomington Regional that eliminated the Hoosiers and allowed Vanderbilt to host the Cardinal rather than traveling to play IU. Stanford proved a tough out, but Vandy finally exploded late in the deciding Game Three to emerge with a 12-5 win and a punched ticket to Omaha.
Our brethren over at Anchor of Gold saw fit to make fun of the Longhorns for boasting only two players with batting averages over .300, but the 'Dores themselves have only three--and Vince Conde teeters on the edge at .303. Bryan Reynolds is the team's best hitter across the board, with a .343 average, four homeruns, 24 doubles, 52 RBI, and a .494 slugging percentage. All of those numbers except homeruns is good enough for the team lead.
On the hill, Vandy's ace is Tyler Beede, who went to the Giants with the #14 overall pick last week--something of a slide after he was projected to go top-5, but still a reflection that he's a truly excellent pitcher. He struggled a bit against Stanford last Friday, but I wouldn't expect a repeat performance in Omaha. The good news is, he's Louisville's problem--despite a tough outing a week ago, coach Tom Corbin will almost certainly give the ball to his proven top dog.
Should Texas face the Commodores in the second game, they'll probably get Carson Fulmer, a righty who struck out nine in just 6.1 innings in a 5-4 loss to Stanford in Game Two of the Super Regional. Fulmer was not a weekend starter for most of the season, but Corbin gave him the ball in Vandy's second game last weekend and he sports a 1.78 ERA in 76 innings this season. If Corbin decides not to go with Fulmer, though, Texas would likely see Walker Buehler--who had a great year but was chased after just three innings and four earned runs in the clincher against Stanford.
50-15, AAC (ACC as soon as CWS run ends)
Won Louisville Regional, Def. Kennesaw State 2-0 in Louisville Super Regional
Baseball is often overlooked in college sports discussions. One example of that is the conversation over whether the Big 12 should have gone after Louisville as part of a plan to return to 12 schools, rather than allow them to get scooped up by the ACC. The talk was all about football and basketball, which makes sense considering those are the revenue sports. But UL baseball has become a powerhouse in its own right, and would have made the conference better on the diamond as well.
But that's in the past, meaning the best chance Texas has of playing Louisville and their terrible uniforms in the foreseeable future is to meet in this bracket. The Cards are making their second straight CWS appearance, and their third overall with their first coming in 2007. Dan McDonnell, for whom Louisville was his first head coaching job, has been in charge for all three appearances and is the man most responsible for making the school a new-money baseball power despite having competed in the Big East/AAC throughout his tenure. Moving to the ACC, one of the baseball "power conferences," in 2015 should only increase the program's profile.
Louisville's regional was paired with that of future conference foe Florida State, but the 'Noles choked to an 0-2 performance at home and the Cards took advantage, sweeping away Kennesaw State in the Super. Cole Sturgeon is the name you may have heard among hitters on this squad, leading among the Cardinals' position players in batting average, hits, runs, and by far in triples with seven three-baggers. Jeff Gardner and designated hitter Nick Solak are other hitters to watch; Gardner slugs at an impressive .538 clip, with Solak just behind at .489.
Kyle Funkhouser is the staff ace, another guy with a sub-2.00 ERA and--like Beede--not Texas' problem. Funkhouser is just a sophomore, meaning he gets to terrorize the ACC with his upper-90s fastball before entering the 2015 draft. Anthony Kidston got the second start last weekend, with his 9-0 record and 3.54 ERA, but depending on the situation McDonnell may instead go with Jared Ruxer (2.27, 7-1). Ruxer and Kidtson should probably be considered 2a and 2b in the Louisville rotation, as they have similar stats and are both very effective, though neither averages as much as six innings per start.