You can say what you want about the NCAA Baseball Committee's handling of the seedings and placement of teams (and there's certainly plenty to say), but I think it's pretty obvious that the top four teams in the country are the last four standing in Omaha. Ignore the national seeds and take a look at the rankings. Rice and Fullerton are ranked #1 and #2 respectively and those two clubs are in the drivers seat. While #3 Stanford and #4 Texas definitely still have a shot to advance to the championship series, it'll just take some more work. Nobody in the SEC or ACC could really lay claim to being an elite team this year and that was eventually shown in the NCAA Tournament.
South Carolina and LSU both looked a little over their heads in Omaha this year. The Tigers' chances of a deep run in Omaha took a hit very early in the season when their top two starting pitchers went down with season-ending injuries. Their hitting definitely carried them a long way, but it wasn't enough to get anywhere in the CWS. South Carolina, very frankly, had a very easy road to Rosenblatt Stadium. They played fourth seeded Stetson twice in their regional and then were fortunate enough to play North Carolina (a #2 seed and an ACC team) at home in the Super Regionals. Still, this was a club with a lot of very talented players, but they just weren't any match for Stanford.
Looking at the other side of the bracket, Southwest Missouri State was a nice story this year and they represented themselves quite nicely in Omaha with two good games. They just lacked the experience and just weren't as talented as the other teams in their bracket. Miami was a very young team this year that definitely overachieved. They also benefited from playing Florida in the Regionals and N.C. State in the Super Regionals (two SEC and ACC teams and it's probably fair to say neither of those conferences had their best seasons). The Canes had some good hitters, but their pitching and defense wasn't anywhere close to the level of Rice and Texas, so they were eliminated.
Now for a look at Wednesday's games at Rosenblatt…
STANFORD (2-1) vs. CAL STATE FULLERTON (2-0), 11:00am (PST) – A rematch of Sunday's 6-5 Titans victory. The Cardinal need a pair of wins to advance to the championship series while Fullerton needs just one victory to move on. The Cardinal has officially announced that they will start John Hudgins on the hill. Hudgins will be going on four days for the first time all season, but he did only throw 84 pitches over eight innings in his last start against South Carolina. Cal State Fullerton will counter with freshman lefty Ryan Schreppel. Schreppel was roughed up in his last start in the Super Regionals against ASU (3 IP, 6 H, 4 ER), but he's still a Freshman All-American and he defeated the Card in his start against Stanford back in February. Expect another low scoring game where every mistake is magnified. Both teams have rested bullpens (David O'Hagan possibly the only exception for Stanford) although Fullerton's is certainly deeper. A key for Stanford is that they can't fall behind late in the game as Titan closer Chad Cordero showed why he was a first round pick by completely shutting down the Cardinal hitters in his two-inning stint on Sunday.
TEXAS (2-1) vs. RICE (2-0), 4:00pm (PST) – The first game of the day is a matchup of California teams while the second game pits a pair of Texas ballclubs against each other. The Owls smoked Augie Garrido's bunch on Monday evening and clearly has the upper hand with their undefeated CWS record thus far. And while Stanford has the luxury of bringing back their ace pitcher on four days rest in the first game of the day, Texas is in the Saturday-Monday bracket, so they probably can't bring back their ace, J.P. Howell, who threw about 120 pitches in their game against Miami on Saturday. An Achilles heel for the Longhorns this season has been their starting pitching as it's been a revolving door in their rotation after Howell. Rice has a very solid #3 starter in Phillip Humber who is expected to throw, so you have to give Rice the advantage in this game. Texas may have to go with a pitching-by-committee strategy to win this one. Still, if the Longhorns have a lead late, I'm sure they won't hesitate to go to their All-American closer Huston Street who's nearly unhittable. And if Texas can pull-out this victory, they should be able to come back with Howell on Thursday. The flip side is that Rice will probably answer with their ace, Jeff Niemann, who's 17-0 this season.
It's quite an accomplishment for a team to not only advance to the College World Series five consecutive seasons, but to also reach the "final four" of the event all five times. In the last four years, Stanford has finished second at the CWS twice and tied for third twice.
John Hudgins will start for the Cardinal on Wednesday against CSF's Ryan Schreppel. The pitching matchup would appear to favor Stanford as Hudgins is an All-American and has been pitching very well of late. Schreppel though is very capable of shutting down the Cardinal as he's 5-3 with a 2.45 ERA on the year while opponents are hitting only .227 against him. He did struggle quite a bit his last time out which is why he hasn't appeared in Omaha until now (he's been Fullerton's #2 starter for most of the year, at least when he's been healthy). If Schreppel labors early, don't be surprised to see the Titans go to their very deep bullpen. Righthander Darric Merrell (4-0, 3.23) and lefty Ricky Romero (3-0, 3.21) both have experience starting so they could eat up some innings in long relief. Fullerton also has, of course, Wes Littleton and Chad Cordero available if needed in more of a short reliever role. Bottom line, Stanford needs to take advantage of their opportunities to score because they'll likely not get too many against this staff.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal offense continues to impress as they put up 13 more runs in their victory over South Carolina on Tuesday. Danny Putnam had a huge game with four hits, a home run, five RBI, and a couple of great catches in the outfield. Jonny Ash continued his hot hitting in Omaha with three more hits while stars Sam Fuld, Carlos Quentin, and Ryan Garko also came through with multi-hit games. Wednesday is obviously a huge game for the Cardinal, so it's time for the big-time players on this team to step-up. Neither Quentin nor Garko has homered yet in this CWS and the Cardinal may need a big two or three-run homer from one of those guys to propel them to victory. In addition, hopefully someone at the bottom of the order can produce some offense. Jed Lowrie, Brian Hall, and Tobin Swope have all struggled with bats in Omaha (with the exception of Hall's homer on Sunday), and any offense from these guys would obviously help the cause. One of the downfalls for Stanford at the 2002 College World Series was the lack of production from the bottom of the order. One can hope that won't be the case again this season.
Looking ahead to possible future games, there are lots of questions as to how the coaching staff may handle the starting rotation. The consensus among the Stanford media group is that we'll see either Tim Cunningham or Matt Manship on Thursday. Manship has had a much better season than Cunningham, so if he isn't used in Wednesday's game, it's possible the coaching staff would have him start on Thursday. The only down side to that is that would likely knock Manship out of any possible action later in the CWS. In addition, if Stanford wins on Wednesday, it's highly unlikely it will be a comfortable win, which would mean Manship will have to pitch. Cunningham, despite his difficult year, brings a lot of experience to the table, and had been showing signs of returning to his 2002 form in his last few starts of the regular season.
News and Notes:
* Fullerton has won all four meetings between the teams this season. The last time an opponent swept a season series from the Cardinal was when USC took all six games played between the teams in 1997.
* Stanford is 20-2 in their last 22 games, is 7-1 in postseason play this season, and has outscored their opponents by a 76-29 margin in the postseason this year.
* The Cardinal committed their first error of the CWS on Tuesday when second baseman Jed Lowrie threw a ball away in the ninth inning. Still, Stanford has a spectacular .991 fielding percentage in their three games played.
* John Hudgins has had quite a bit of success in his postseason career as he boasts a 5-0 all-time record to go along with a 2.91 ERA. This year he's won all three of his starts and has a 2.42 ERA, while opponents are hitting only .189 against him.
* In eight postseason games, Danny Putnam has hit four homers while driving home a whopping 18 runs.
* Sam Fuld now has 21 career CWS hits which is third most all-time. Keith Moreland ('73-'75) of Texas had the record with 23 hits, while Stanford's own John Gall ('97-'00) is second at 22.
* Jonny Ash rapped out three more hits in Tuesday's game against South Carolina which improves his career CWS average to .457 (16-for-35); his updated career postseason average now stands at an even .400 (42-for-105).
* With a lefty expected to start against Stanford, look for Coach Marquess to move Brian Hall up to the #2 spot in the order with Jonny Ash dropping down to the #8 hole. In addition, Donny Lucy has been starting at DH and batting fifth against lefties lately with Putnam moving down to the #6 spot. John Mayberry, Jr. has had two good at-bats in Omaha (a walk and a single) in his only two times up, so he may get some consideration for a spot in the starting lineup.
* Stanford will be the home team on Wednesday. The Titans would be the home team if there was to be a game on Thursday.
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