2009 College World Series Handicapping
Trevor Whenham - 06/19/2009
The College World Series is one of the most entertaining, under-appreciated spectacles in all of sports. The setting is iconic, the format is great,and it always seems to be jam-packed with action and bizarre happenings. For proof of the potential for excitement you need to look no further than Thursday night. After four innings, No. 4-ranked North Carolina was up 4-0 on No. 5 Arizona State, and they looked like they were cruising. Both teams had already lost once, so one more loss and they were going home. Just when it looked like the Sun Devils were returning to the desert they woke up. With a vengeance. They scored four in the fifth and eight more in the seventh to leave the Tar Heels reeling. This is obviously an extraordinary performance by Arizona State, but this kind of drama is not at all out of the ordinary in this tournament.
Eight teams arrived in Omaha for the final, double-elimination portion of the road to the national championship. Now only four remain, and they are matched up in two semifinal showdowns that promise to be potential classics - LSU-Arkansas and Texas-Arizona State. The format for those semifinals is another one of the great parts of this tournament. LSU and Texas haven't lost yet in the tournament, so if they lose their semifinals games they get to play them again - the double elimination format stay true through to the end. The ultimate winners of the two semifinals will meet in a best of three finals. That means that there could be a maximum of seven games remaining. If you haven't been watching or following the tournament so far then here's a quick cheat sheet to get you up to speed:
Texas - The Longhorns haven't been to Omaha for three years, but they returned this year as the No. 1 seed. They have had a very smooth run to the semifinals - they have played the minimum possible number of games through the regionals and into the series. Even if you aren't a big college baseball fan you probably heard about their win over Boston College in regional competition - it took 25 innings, and featured an incredible 13 inning no-hit relief effort by closer Austin Wood. Texas could be better at the plate, but they are about as good as a team can be on the mound. It's not just the quality of their top starters that stands out, but also the depth they have. That pitching hasn't been as strong in Omaha as it was up to this point - they have allowed six runs in each of their games. Thankfully, their offense has woken up at the same time as their faltering pitching.
Texas has already beaten Arizona State once, and they are guaranteed two shots to get a win if they need it, so they have the clear edge to make the finals. Their pitching once they get their also gives them a big edge in the finals.
LSU - The Tigers are rolling. They have scored nine runs in each of their two games, and have looked like the strongest team in the tournament. Like Texas, LSU has had no troubles on the road to Omaha. They are also very comfortable here - they have won the tournament five times, and they were in the tournament last year. Their bats are very solid, and their pitching is strong at the top end, but lacks depth - especially in the bullpen. If the bullpen can get the through to the last inning in a tight game then they can be dangerous, though - freshman closer Matty Ott is the real deal, and can come through in the clutch like he did for 16 saves this year. I'm not personally convinced that LSU is better than Texas, but the gap between them certainly isn't a big one.
Arizona State - The Sun Devils come in as just the fifth-ranked team, but they are probably the most well-rounded squad here. They have two truly spectacular pitchers. Mike Leake came into the tournament with an amazing 16-1 record and a 1.36 ERA, and Josh Spence is not far behind at 9-1. Those two are helped out by the offensive might of Jason Kipnis and his .385 batting average. They beat a very good North Carolina team twice in this tournament, so they are very capable, and obviously very explosive. They faltered the first time they played Texas, though - they were hit hard and lost a 10-6 shootout. They'll need to find a way to beat those same Longhorns twice in a row. Confidence might be hard to find - the Longhorns beat up on Leake the first time they met, scoring five earned runs in just over three innings.
Arkansas - The Razorbacks wouldn't admit it, but they should just be happy to be here. They limped into the postseason after a terrible slump dogged them throughout the SEC season. They were the lowest-ranked team to win a regional, so not much was expected of them here. They started out strong, scoring a big upset over No. 2-ranked Cal State Fullerton. Next up they played LSU. They were crushed lifeless. A thrilling comeback extra innings win over tournament first-timers Virginia has kept them alive. They obviously have a chance, but they'll have to quickly find a way to be much, much better against LSU or it could get ugly. They will have to rely on destiny or fate, because this Cinderella is seriously outclassed on the field.