Greetings from Omaha. The College World Series is upon us and fortunately our beloved Stanford Cardinal are once again participating. While the NCAA Regionals weren't much of a test for Stanford, last week's Super Regionals provided two memorable, nail-biting contests. And if you're a Cardinal baseball fan, you have to like where this team is right now. Not just in terms of playing in the CWS, but in how they got here. To beat Abe Alvarez and Jered Weaver in back-to-back games says something about this Cardinal team and how talented they are. And while it may not have been pretty at all times (thanks Troy Tulowitzki for a couple of big errors at shortstop), Stanford found a way to win and they did it against arguably the top 1-2 starting pitching combo in the country.
But that's all in the past now. And although Stanford holds claim to being one of the top baseball programs in the country, without a national championship in the last 15 years, there's definitely something missing. So, here are some news, notes, and commentary to soak in as we get set for the 57th NCAA College World Series…
* From the looks of it, the brackets seem pretty fair. I would say the Stanford side is slightly tougher, but not by a whole lot. You have #1 ranked Rice and #4 ranked Texas on one side while #2 Cal State Fullerton and #3 Stanford are on the other side. I agree with those rankings that those are the four best teams in Omaha. Rice is scary because of their starting pitching. Their top three starters are all sophomores and all could be first round draft picks next June. They don't scare you with their hitting, but when you only give up three runs per game, you don't have to score much. Fullerton probably doesn't have as dominating starting pitching, but it's close. Their staff is also much deeper as they go 10-deep, and the highest ERA on team is a whopping 3.82. Fullerton also hits better than Rice with a .333 team batting average and an offense that knows how to score runs (the Titans do a great job of turning a double into a triple or moving runners over, for example). Texas, as the defending champs, has lots of experience. They've had to almost completely make-over their rotation from a year ago, but they posses an amazing closer in Huston Street which basically makes every game a seven-inning affair. The Longhorns don't have the most impressive stats, but they have guys that know how to win when it matters and a coach who is one of the all-time greats.
* Looking at the other four teams, you obviously see some dangerous clubs. LSU may not have the same caliber of team as they had back in the 90's, but they're dangerous for one reason in particular. Rosenblatt Stadium will be packed full of Tiger faithful whenever LSU takes the field and that gives them an enormous advantage. LSU can also swing the bats a bit as evident by their 20-5 victory over Baylor in Game Three of the Super Regionals. CWS veteran Miami wasn't supposed to make it back to Omaha this year. Despite garnering two national titles in the last four years, the Hurricanes were unranked in the preseason, but behind a young club, Miami is once again playing for a championship. Continuing on, South Carolina struggled mightily early on this season, and at one point, it was in doubt whether they would even qualify for their own conference tournament. But the Gamecocks got hot at the right time (16-3 in their last 19) while also benefiting from a lucky tournament draw (they have yet to play a #1 seed in the tournament). Finally, the Cinderella of this year's CWS: the Southwest Missouri State Bears. SMS shocked the college baseball world when, as a #3 seed, they went into Lincoln and knocked off the Nebraska Cornhuskers. They then defeated fellow #3 seed Ohio State (in Columbus) in the supers to advance to the CWS.
THE FIRST ROUND MATCHUPS:
South Carolina vs. Stanford – for an in-depth look at these two teams, check out Sean's preview. The Cardinal are certainly favored, but the Gamecocks should not be overlooked. They'll likely start their ace David Marchbanks, who was the SEC Pitcher of the Year and is definitely capable of shutting down the Cardinal. But, you still have to like Stanford's chances with how hot they've been (18-1 in last 19 games), the fact they are a hitting team and Rosenblatt is a hitter's park, and the Cardinal will have their own conference pitcher of the year going for them in John Hudgins.
Cal State Fullerton vs. LSU – probably the most intriguing matchup of the opening round. Fullerton is the higher ranked team, but the Tigers are coming off some kind of emotional high with their annihilation of Baylor in Game Three of the Supers and as mentioned above, LSU will have tremendous fan support. Nevertheless, this is a Fullerton staff that shutdown the potent ASU offense last week. It's hitting versus pitching in the nightcap on Friday.
Southwest Missouri State vs. Rice – This would be quite an upset if the Bears can pull it off. SMS is playing good baseball, but they'll be up against the #1 ranked team in the country and their fearsome starting pitching. The crowd in Omaha should be behind the underdogs, but will it be enough?
Miami vs. Texas – Another interesting matchup. You could call it the Matchup of the Cheaters (both Miami's 2001 title team and Texas' 2002 title team were sanctioned by the NCAA for rule violations). Still, it should be a fun one to watch on Saturday night. Texas will probably go with their ace J.P. Howell who's had a tremendous year after transferring from USC (you think the Trojans would have liked to have kept him?). Miami is a young club and could be a little over the heads against the much more experienced Longhorns.
* The team is ready to go as final exams are finally complete and baseball can be their top priority. The team left the Bay Area very early on Wednesday and have now had a day to adapt to the Midwest setting. Thursday was a practice day for the Cardinal while the evening brought the opening ceremonies at Rosenblatt Stadium.
* John Hudgins is scheduled to start Friday's game versus South Carolina. Hudgins is coming off a stellar complete game performance in Game One of the Super Regionals. The junior righthander allowed just one run on seven hits while walking just two and striking out six. He'll be up against a South Carolina offense that hasn't put up great numbers this year, but they've been hot of late.
* It should be interesting to see how the bullpen reacts on Friday if they are needed. The starters have been doing such a great job in the postseason, which has left the relievers with very little work. David O'Hagan has thrown just 1/3 of an inning this postseason. Ryan McCally hasn't pitched since his complete game win over UIC back on May 30th. While guys like Kodiak Quick, Jonny Dyer, and Drew Ehrlich have yet to see any action in the postseason. Matt Manship is the only one to have seen any extended time on the hill, but still has only thrown 2 2/3 innings.
* One negative from last week's games against Long Beach State was the lack of situational hitting from the Cardinal. Numerous times, Stanford was unable to get the bunt down or get a guy home from third with less than two outs. These shortcomings will be magnified this week with a national championship at stake.
* The time is now for Carlos Quentin. The junior rightfielder has had two very difficult trips to Omaha in his career, but now has one more chance to turn things around. He's had an outstanding year up to this point, but another difficult week in the CWS could certainly leave a lasting image.
* Marchbanks is a lefty, so that means Donny Lucy will likely be in the lineup and batting fifth. If he can, expect Marchbanks (who is more of a crafty lefty like Abe Alvarez) to work around Quentin and Ryan Garko to face Lucy. It would not be surprising at all if Donny comes up in some very big spots in the game. And if he can't come through, the red-hot Danny Putnam should be hitting right behind him.
* Is this another bad streak for the streakiest hitter in America, Brian Hall? Hall, who suffered through a 1-for-31 slump at one point this year, had an 11-game hitting streak snapped last weekend. In fact, Hall went 0-for-8 in the two games against Long Beach. With the Cardinal likely facing the lefty, Hall should be moved up to the #2 spot in the order and will be expected to produce.
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