College : : Story
Sunday, June 24, 2012

Teams, not talent, define CWS

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

OMAHA, Ne. – Three days removed from the 2012 National Showcase, with one day in the office sandwiched in between, I found myself in Omaha for the College World Series, the pinnacle of college baseball, and a city that has become synonymous with the event itself.

While both events are among the most prominent on a national level for what they represent, the two couldn't be more different than their purpose and overall meaning to the sport of baseball.

Talent defines the National Showcase, with the top 300 high school players that are eligible for the following year's draft in attendance to help themselves, as well as the scouting and recruiting communities, understand how they stack up against one another. Showcases in themselves aren't competitive by definition, although it's impossible to remove competition from any athlete's inner being.

While talent is what led the Florida Gators to the No. 1 overall seed prior to the beginning of the College World Series, that talent on paper has not resulted in ultimate success in Omaha. Florida lost each of their first two games, the first to SEC rival South Carolina (who defeated Florida in the finals a year ago), and the second to an upstart Kent State program.

With seven former PG/Aflac All-Americans, and 15 National Showcase alumni on their roster, Florida is loaded with professional talent. 31 of the 33 players on their roster had previously attended a Perfect Game event, and had five players selected in the top three rounds of the draft, including the No. 3 overall pick, catcher Mike Zunino.

Their sophomore and freshman classes are also loaded, most notably by sophomores Karsten Whitson and Jonathan Crawford. Whitson has been an early favorite to be the first player selected in the 2013 draft ever since he stepped onto Florida's campus, and both are expected to form the heart of the Gators' weekend rotation next season, when expectations will continue to be high until the program figures out a way to bring home the championship trophy.

However, none of that talent will be on display for the national audience in the Championship Series this year.

The roster of the two-time defending CWS champions, South Carolina, may not have the same high-impact level talent on their roster, but there are still plenty of recognizable names.

The Gamecocks had four players selected in the top 10 rounds of the 2012 draft, and 32 of the players on their 34-man roster have previously participated in a Perfect Game event. One of those, Ethan Carter, is a former PG All-American, while Carter and five others have attended the National Showcase, including team leader and slugger, Christian Walker.

The Gamecocks are starting to make this whole College World Series experience in Omaha look pretty easy. The two-time defending champions entered Thursday with a pretty daunting task: They first had to defeat Kent State in an early game, a game postponed from the day before due to rain, and then had to beat Arkansas later that night just to be able to play another day.

Left-handed starters Michael Roth and Jordan Montgomery decided to pick up the entire South Carolina team and carry them on their backs in those two games. Roth went the distance against Kent State, allowing only 2 hits and no walks while striking out 8, and Montgomery followed that with 8 scoreless innings of his own in a 2-0 win over Arkansas.

CWS hero Matt Price pitched the final three innings to secure South Carolina's second win on the day, and went on to toss the final three innings of the team's win over Arkansas the following day to advance to the Championship Series for the third consecutive year.

Price picked up his fifth win in the CWS, setting the all-time mark in that category after playing an integral role for the 2010 and 2011 teams (more on Price's CWS dominance is listed below).

With the season on the line, Head Coach Ray Tanner was quick to turn to his bullpen after Gamecocks starter Colby Holmes gave up a pair of runs in the first three innings. Left-hander Tyler Webb bridged the gap between Holmes and Price, working four scoreless frames and handing a 2-2 ballgame over to Price in the seventh.

No pitcher has been turned to as frequently as Webb this season for South Carolina, who has made 38 appearances out of the bullpen, posting a 6-1, 1.58 record in 57 innings of work.

(The bullpens for the Arkansas and South Carolina were incredibly productive in postseason play. Prior to the go-ahead run that South Carolina scored in the seventh on Friday, the Arkansas bullpen had not given up a run in 25- 2/3 innings.)

And when South Carolina's more clearly defined leaders weren't providing game-winning hits, someone else always did for a program in which the team effort is emphasized. The team plays together as a unit, which is most evident on defense, a rare collection of disciplined players from top to bottom that rarely beat themselves.

Even after current team leaders such as Roth, Price, Walker and Evan Marzilli move on to begin their professional careers, the program welcomed a promising crop of freshmen this past year that contributed as everyday regulars.

Tanner English, Grayson Greiner and Joey Pankake should define the team up the middle for the next two years, while Kyle Martin could slide in to replace Walker at first. T.J. Costen will continue to serve in an expanded utility role should he not find a regular defensive home in the starting lineup.

Montgomery has clearly made a strong impression this season, while Evan Beal and Joel Seddon will look to receive increased roles next year.

Of course, the Gamecocks still have two wins to claim their third consecutive CWS title, something only one other team has accomplished (the other USC, Southern California), but the results are still impressive no matter the outcome.

Big arms come up big

The College World Series has never been known as a scouting event. That said, while the amount of professional-caliber talent fluctuates from one year to the next, there are always players that stand out as prospects to watch at the next level.

The most notable of which this year is Arkansas right-handed pitcher Ryne Stanek, who worked six dominant innings in a win over South Carolina earlier in the week, snapping the Gamecocks NCAA postseason record of 22 consecutive wins, as well as their 12-game consecutive win streak at the College World Series. Armed with a 93-96 mph fastball that regularly peaks at 97/98, and a wicked slider, Stanek joins Whitson in the conversation for the early favorites for the No. 1 overall 2013 pick.

Although Stanek's Razorbacks were eliminated from Omaha by the Gamecocks on Friday, he finished the season incredibly strong, and showed great improvement from his freshman season in 2011.

Overall the SEC should be loaded with draft-eligible pitching talent, including Whitson and Crawford as detailed above, as well as Ryan Eades of LSU and Bobby Wade of Ole Miss.

Another premier power arm eligible for the 2013 draft, Konner Wade, also had a masterful performance in the CWS, shutting out UCLA, Pac-12 co-champions, 4-0 on Sunday. Wade allowed only five hits in the complete game effort, striking out four, and he could be turned to start Game 1 of the Championship Series against South Carolina.

Overall the Wildcats' pitching staff should be incredibly fresh heading into today's game. Arizona has only played one game since last Sunday, a 10-3 trouncing of Florida State on Thursday in which only two pitchers were used to pick up the win. Starter Kurt Heyer worked the first 7.1 innings, while Tyler Crawford worked the final 1.2.

Wade, James Farris, Matthew Troupe, Tyler Hale and Stephen Manthei, the members of the Arizona pitching staff that have received the most work this season, will all have had at least a week of rest, giving Head Coach Andy Lopez the opportunity to be as creative as he likes to get through the best-of-three series.

Arizona's lineup could be one of the toughest tests the South Carolina pitching staff has faced all season. Seven of the nine regulars have hit .324 or better, five of those with an on-base percentage greater than .400, and four with at least 10 stolen bases. Joey Rickard and Johnny Fields get everything started at the top of the lineup, while Alex Mejia, Rob Refsnyder, Seth Mejias-Brean and Bobby Brown make it difficult to go through any part of the lineup unscathed.

The team also plays very strong team defense, giving them a very well rounded team in all three phases of the game.

Game notes

Here is a running list of the things and plays that stood out to me during my two-day, three-game stay in Omaha.

The second game on Thursday was in stark contrast of the first game of the day, when Roth went the distance against Kent State, a game that was finished in just over two hours.

Florida State got off to an ominous start after falling to the Wildcats in Game 2 of the CWS nearly a week before. Leadoff hitter Sherman Johnson led off the game with a single, only to be thrown out at second base by left fielder Johnny Field as he tried to stretch a double. In the bottom of the first, Brandon Liebrandt (son of Charlie) got a chopper tailor-made for turning a double play back to him off the bat of Field after Rickard led the game off with a single. Liebrandt fired the throw to second into centerfield, allowing Rickard to advance to third and Field to reach, the beginning of a 6-run first inning for Arizona and a very short outing for Liebrandt.

Had that double play been made, that game could have evolved in a much different fashion.

32 of the 34 members on Florida State's roster had previously attended a PG event, including right-handed pitcher Luke Weaver, another PG National alum, who relieved Liebrandt in the first. Weaver showed a live arm with a promising three-pitch mix, but just when it looked as though he was finding his groove, he gave up three of the four runs that Arizona scored in the fourth, leading to their big 10-3 win and eliminating FSU from the CWS.

Rob Refsnyder and Bobby Brown each hit big home runs in the four-run fourth. Refsnyder's was a solo shot yanked down the left field line, while Brown's was a two-run shot pulled to right. Brown was the overall star of the day, going 2-for-2 with three walks and two runs scored.

Overall Florida State used eight pitchers in that game, a CWS record for a nine inning game. Alex Mejia, the final batter in the Wildcats' fourth, was the 30th Arizona batter that came to the plate.

Indicative of the loss, Seminoles captain and 2012 first-round pick (St. Louis Cardinals), James Ramsey, went 0-5 in the contest.

With such a commanding lead early in the game, many didn't expect Lopez to stick with his starter, Kurt Heyer, for long in this game. Facing off days on both Thursday and Friday, it seemed likely that Lopez would turn to a fresh bullpen looking for a committee effort to close the game out while keeping Heyer's arm fresh with a lower pitch count. That didn't happen, as Heyer tossed 123 pitches in the game, getting one out in the eighth before being removed.

Seth Mejias-Brean is a rock at third base, making several plays looked incredibly easy at the hot corner.

In Game 2 of the day, the aforementioned contest between South Carolina and Arkansas, left-handed starter Jordan Montgomery and reliever Matt Price combined on a three-hit shutout in which they faced only two batters over the minimum. Montgomery only threw 89 pitches in the process, as he could be available to pitch in Game 3 of the Championship Series if needed.

The Gamecocks scored both of their runs in the second inning off of left-handed pitcher Randall Fant. The Razorbacks quickly turned to their bullpen, with Brandon Moore coming in the second inning and carrying Arkansas through the seventh. Left-hander Trent Daniel tossed the final two frames, as the two combined to allow only four hits, after Fant allowed four in 1- 1/3 innings.

South Carolina opened the second inning with back-to-back doubles by outfielder Erik Payne and Tanner English. After running 6.37 in the 60 at the 2011 World Showcase, English showed off his speed by stretching two. He later showed his impressive arm strength (97 from the outfield at the World) by gunning down Bo Bigham at third base who tried going from first to third on a single by Derrick Bleeker. While English doesn't project to hit for much power, he's hitting on the sunny side of .300 during his freshman year, and should enjoy a productive college career.

Arkansas made three crucial outs on the basepaths during this game.

The team's two catchers, Grayson Greiner (South Carolina) and Jake Wise (Arkansas) showed incredible arm strength behind the plate. While Greiner has the stronger of the two arms, Wise has a very quick release making numerous accurate, online throws.

Matt Reynolds joined Seth Mejias-Brean as one of the more impressive defensive players during the CWS, making a handful of diving stops and strong throws to first base. A second round pick of the Mets, it's easy to envision him beginning his professional career at second base.

Joey Pankake is one of the better all-around college players that I saw all season. He doesn't have great range, but makes all of the plays he can get to, making consistent, strong and accurate throws to first base. He made consistent hard contact at the plate, with a knack for driving in a run when most needed.

Overall, the team defense exhibited by Arkansas, South Carolina and Arizona was impressive.

Arkansas got off to a quick start in their elimination game against South Carolina on Friday, scoring single runs in the first and third innings to take a 2-0 lead. As noted above, Tyler Webb and Matt Price combined to throw the final seven innings after Colby Holmes worked the first two, allowing only three hits while striking out eight.

Overall this game moved at a fairly slow pace for such a low scoring affair. Four Razorbacks pitchers combined to walk nine Gamecock batters, including five by starter D.J. Baxendale. The pace was not helped by the homeplate umpire's questionable strike zone, which was both small and inconsistent, especially in the late innings.

TD Ameritrade is a beautiful facility. While Rosenblatt had more charm, a lot of that had to do with the illustrious history of the College World Series (and TD Ameritrade doesn't exactly roll off the tongue). The stadium is very clean and well kept, with a wide open, airy feel that makes it very inviting while watching baseball on a hot summer night. Whether it be for the CWS, Creighton Baseball or the Omaha Royals, if you enjoy hitting the road to visit new cities and a variety of ballparks, be sure to put Omaha and TD Ameritrade Park high on your wish list.

South Carolina pitchers Michael Roth and Matt Price have cemented their status among the best players to ever participate in the College World Series. Here are some fun, fast facts to help illustrate their dominance:

  * Roth: 4-0, 1.54 ERA, 52.2 IP, 31 H, 9 ER, 37 K, 15 BB
  * Price: 5-0, 0.35 ERA, 4 SV, 25.2 IP, 18 H, 1 ER, 33K, 7 BB
  * Price has appeared in 12 of South Carolina's 16 College World Series games the last three years
  * He made an appearance in all five of South Carolina's 2011 CWS games
  * Two of the games that Price didn't make an appearance in were complete game efforts by Roth
  * In those 12 appearances he has either won (5) or saved (4) nine of them
  * Of the seven walks that Price has issued, five came in one game

No matter how the rest of the series shakes out, Price, and to a lesser yet still notable degree Roth, have clearly put their names among the all-time CWS greats.

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