The College World Series starts Saturday in Omaha, and trying to predict who will win it would be foolish, because it’s a double-elimination tournament and if anyone ever needed a lesson about how fickle a small sample of baseball between two really good teams can be, it’s already here in the fact that top-ranked Arkansas isn’t.
The Razorbacks had home-field advantage for the super regionals, romped 21-2 over unseeded N.C. State in the opening game in Fayetteville, then lost back-to-back games for the first time since dropping three straight in mid-March.
Two of the teams that beat Arkansas during that March skid were No. 16 Louisiana Tech and Alabama, the two teams that the Wolfpack beat in the Ruston regional to advance to face and take down the Hogs. But the task in Omaha won’t be any easier.
The top seed in N.C. State’s bracket is No. 4 Vanderbilt, the favorites in Vegas in no small part because of their dominant starting pitching. Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker have combined to go 23-6 with a 2.32 ERA, striking out 311 batters in 202 innings. For the year, opponents are batting .185 against Vanderbilt. Not just against Leiter and Rocker, but the whole staff.
Vandy’s first game is Saturday night against No. 5 Arizona, which ranks fourth in the country with a .329 team batting average and arrives at the CWS off a super regional win over No. 12 Ole Miss — in which the Wildcats scored 28 runs over the course of three games.
This is why the College World Series is so unpredictable. One of the best pitching teams in the sport or one of the best hitting ones is going to be one game from elimination by the end of Saturday night, and present a real challenge to whoever loses Saturday’s opener between N.C. State and No. 9 Stanford, which can slug with the Wolfpack and can boast another ace in Brendan Beck, who is 9-1 with 2.96 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 100.1 innings.
The Saturday side of the bracket isn’t the only place to find elite pitching. No. 2 Texas ranks third in WHIP at 1.13 and No. 3 Tennessee is fifth at 1.15. The Volunteers get things going on Sunday with unseeded Virginia, which lost its first regional game to South Carolina, then rallied to win four straight, including a pair against No. 11 Old Dominion. The Cavaliers likewise lost the first game of their Columbia (S.C.) super regional to Dallas Baptist before storming back to extend their streak of elimination-game wins to six.
If Virginia’s pattern of losing openers continues, the next elimination game will be against either Texas or No. 7 Mississippi State, which has five players who have hit double-digit home runs and has outscored opponents 435-277 for the season.
Virginia and N.C. State being the clear underdogs might be a signal that the ACC was underrated this season. Notre Dame was the conference’s only seeded team in this year’s tournament, and went down to Mississippi State in a three-game super regional.
Vanderbilt is the defending champion, having won in 2019 before last year’s CWS was canceled due to COVID-19. Virginia is the next-most recent champion, having won in 2015, followed by Arizona (2012), Texas (2005), and Stanford (1988). It might be a surprise that Mississippi State hasn’t won in its 11 previous appearances, but the Bulldogs’ best Omaha finish was runner-up to UCLA in 2013.
Tennessee is making its first CWS appearance since 2005, and has never won a championship, finishing best as runner-up in 1951. N.C. State has never made the final.