SHANNON MCCARTHY: The College World Series debuted in its new home this past weekend, leaving behind storied Rosenblatt Stadium to begin a new history at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. After almost a full week of action, the field of eight was cut in half, with two more potential elimination games to be played Friday. Those four remaining teams are undoubtedly the four best teams in the country this year. They have been the most consistent all season and are the national leaders in wins: Virginia, the top-ranked seed in the tournament; South Carolina, the defending national champs; Vanderbilt, making its first appearance in the CWS; and Florida, the only other team back from last year’s field.
This year’s underdog was a California team that wasn’t even supposed to be playing baseball this season; their program was on the brink of extinction but was brought back to life thanks to some hefty donations to the cause, which made the Golden Bears the darlings of the nonpartisan locals. Texas and Texas A&M both brought hordes of fans but were the two teams first sent packing, and North Carolina’s ninth trip to Omaha once again ended prematurely.
The main storyline, though, has been the complete dominance of the SEC. Both Florida and South Carolina are 2-0; the only loss belongs to Vanderbilt, and that came at the hands of the Gators. This marks the first year in CWS history that three of the last four teams alive hail from the same conference. Not only that, but the SEC’s big three are all from the same division, which is all the more impressive. It’s only fitting those same three teams jockeyed for position at the top of the conference all season and ended up as co-champions.
Before the postseason bunting had even been hung at TD Ameritrade, an all-SEC championship series seemed incredibly likely. Now that’s almost a certainty. It’s just a shame the two best teams in the field are in the same bracket. With all due respect to numero uno and last year’s champs, the Gators and the Commodores are the deepest, most talented teams this season, and it’s a bit disappointing that one of them will have to go home before the championship series.
Don’t let the head-to-head results so far fool you; while Florida currently has the 4-1 advantage, these are two incredibly equal teams. They are similar in their strengths, namely two pitching staffs that are so deep it’s almost unfair. For the Dores, the starting pitching is key. Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin, both first-rounders in this month’s draft, provide a formidable 1-2 punch, while third starter Taylor Hill has only lost one game all year. Florida has the upper hand in the bullpen, with a plethora of arms capable of slamming the door on the opposition. Both teams also have bats that can turn a game around in the blink of an eye.
After the Gators finished off a weather-interrupted win against the Commodores on the strength of a Preston Tucker three-run shot and 4.1 innings of scoreless relief from Steven Rodriguez, Vandy first baseman Aaron Westlake stated “we’ll see them again,” and he was right. The question is will Vanderbilt be able to do in two games what it couldn’t do in five before – beat Florida twice?
I won’t predict the victor on that side of the bracket, as I have a horse in this race and don’t wish to tempt the wrath of the baseball gods. But I will say I would be shocked not to see two teams from the SEC duking it out for the title come Monday night, as South Carolina dominated Virginia pretty thoroughly in the first match-up between the two teams.
The Gamecocks could repeat and claim the distinction of closing out the old stadium with a win and being the first team to dogpile in the new digs, or their opponent on the other side of the bracket could win the school’s first national championship in baseball. Either way, it should be a thrilling championship series with the trophy going to an SEC team for the third year in a row.
Cue the “S-E-C!” chants.