OMAHA, Neb. -- The eight teams in the College World Series have plenty in common. This year's field of eight clubs is particularly interesting because it includes teams that all entered the season with very high expectations in their respective conferences.
However, not all of these programs come with the same long-term expectations. During the coaches press conference Friday morning, a reporter from Louisiana promptly asked LSU coach Paul Mainieri what it was like to finally get back to Omaha. Finally? The Tigers won a national title the last time they were here in Omaha in 2009. But of course, until last weekend, rich in the minds of LSU fans and folks in the Pelican State was the ugly Baton Super Regional series loss to Stony Brook last summer.
Mainieri answered the question nice as can be. After all, with the type of money LSU is throwing at its college baseball program, it at least makes some sense to think that way. While Mainieri and the Tigers are aiming for their seventh national title during the next two weeks, a program such as North Carolina State is making just its second College World Series appearance, and astonishingly, there was a 45-year hiatus between the two appearances, with the last coming in 1968.
If there were nerves surrounding this N.C. State club entering the CWS, head coach Elliott Avent certainly isn't seeing it. If anything, the Wolfpack appears to be soaking in the elements of Omaha. Thursday night, Avent looked out of his hotel room window to find two of his players -- Jake Armstrong and Logan Ratledge -- playing whiffle ball with a little league team in the parking lot. Meanwhile, earlier in the day, several N.C. State players rolled around downtown Omaha on bicycles checking out the sights and sounds.
For teams like N.C. State and Indiana, who aren't exactly traditional powers in Omaha, their first-round matchups couldn't be better. Indiana will open things up with Louisville, whom it has played three times this season, winning two of those contests. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack will open CWS play against arch-rival North Carolina, whom it went 1-2 against earlier this season, the final game between the two teams going 18 innings in the ACC tournament.
"If we weren't here playing each other, we'd be out recruiting," N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent said. "We kind of like playing each other out there."
North Carolina coach Mike Fox shook his head in disapproval, but added this: "For the first time ever, I think I agree with Elliott," he said. "It's good four our league and good for the State of North Carolina. It's not fun to face Carlos Rodon, though."
The matchup between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack should be the showcased game in the first-round action here in Omaha. The Tar Heels will send junior left-handed pitcher Kent Emanuel, while the Wolfpack will counter with sophomore left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon, who has been simply fantastic in the postseason. The last time Rodon faced the Tar Heels he struck out 14 batters, walked two and allowed just a run and a hit in 10 innings of work.
Since then, Rodon, who has a stocky frame, a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s, and a wipeout slider, has been almost as good. He struck out 10 and allowed just two hits in a complete game shutout against William & Mary, while he struck out nine and walked two in 8 1/3 innings against Rice.
"I've seen way too much of him," Fox said about Rodon. "He has pitched as well as anyone down the stretch, and as anytime in his career. He is completely under control and has good command of both his fastball and breaking ball. He's as good as I've seen in all my time in coaching. He just continues to get better and better, and that's an extremely difficult task."
As for UNC's Emanuel, the All-American left-hander has an impressive 2.93 earned-run average for the season, but hopes to bounce back from a poor showing the past couple of weekends. Emanuel has a 10.22 ERA in four postseason appearances, allowing 14 runs in 12 1/3 innings of work. However, there's no doubt Avent expects nothing but the best from Emanuel on Sunday.
"He's been Mike's guy for several years. You like to say he's crafty, but you usually save the crafty comments for guys with lesser stuff," Avent said about Emanuel. "He has command of three big pitches and he'll bust that fastball in. He's smart, competitive and holds runners well. He's well in control out there."
While first-round action is highlighted by yet another Tobacco Road showdown, it's only the tip of the iceberg to what should be yet another fantastic CWS.
UCLA's offense plays up
Almost all the teams in the College World Series, with the exception of North Carolina State and UCLA, are considered potent offensive clubs. And even then, the distance between the Wolfpack and Bruins is staggering, with N.C. State hitting .279 entering the CWS and UCLA hitting for a rather low .251 batting average.
It's not every day you see a team hitting .251 in Omaha, but the Bruins are the exception to the rule, thanks to a very opportunistic offensive approach.
"We are opportunistic. We've put together some better at bats here of late, and we chip away at the starting pitcher with hopes of running up his pitch count," Savage said. "Also, even though the bullpen is one of our strengths, it isn't the strength of most programs in college baseball. We've faced a lot of big-time arms this season and we've had some success against those guys.
"But overall, our guys know the style of baseball we play."
The Bruins aren't going to scare anyone with their bats, but they find different ways to get on base. For instance, Kevin Kramer, who has struggled in the postseason, has been hit-by-pitch 14 times this season, while Eric Filia and Brian Carroll have been hit, 10 and 14 times, respectively.
Meanwhile, though the statistics won't indicate this when you look at the overall numbers, a few hitters, including Filia, Gallagher and Williams have been hot in the postseason, while even second baseman Cody Regis, who only is hitting .200 in the postseason, has potential here in Omaha after competing in three of the last four College World Series.
Filia is hitting .524 in the postseason with three RBIs, while Gallagher and Williams are hitting .471 and .294 respectively, with Gallagher earning Los Angeles Regional Most Outstanding Player honors a couple of weeks ago.
"We're a little better than we are on paper from an offensive standpoint," Savage said. "I don't think coaches look at our team in person and think we have a bunch of easy outs. It may look like that on paper, but it's not that way in reality."
UCLA begins the College World Series against Perfect Game First Team All-American right-handed pitcher Aaron Nola on Sunday.
* We've spent the past couple of seasons waiting for LSU second baseman JaCoby Jones to have a breakout campaign. Well, we're finally seeing that. Jones has always had the tools to be an elite player. He has a long frame with plus speed, as well as good defensive skills. However, until the past month of this season, Jones has always struggled with the offensive aspect of his game.
Jones was hitting around .250 in early March. Now? Jones enters the College World Series hitting close to .300, perfectly illustrating his rise to the top, including leading the Tigers offensively last weekend against Oklahoma in the Baton Rouge Super Regional.
"We always saw great potential in JaCoby. He has great bat speed, but he had a tendency to chase some bad pitches in the past," Mainieri said. "He was phenomenal last weekend. He might not admit this, but I feel like the draft kind of took a big amount of pressure of him. Everyone thought he was going to be a first-rounder going into the season. He obviously went in the third round [to the Pirates], so after that, he seemed a lot more relaxed and care-free. He really carried us last week."
So far in five NCAA postseason games, Jones is hitting .389 with seven hits, a double, triple, home run and two RBIs, ranking fourth on the team.
In the meantime for the Tigers, I'd keep an eye on third baseman Christian Ibarra in the CWS. Ibarra is one of the better pure hitters in the LSU lineup, but he's hitting just .105 in 19 postseason at bats with a .261 on-base percentage. Ibarra, along with UCLA's Cody Regis, are two big-time breakout candidates for the CWS.
* We'll write plenty about the limited pitch count debate that has spread like wildfire throughout college baseball after the College World Series, but it was a big topic of discussion on Friday, so we're at least going to touch on that a bit.
Interestingly, the discussion began Friday with a question posed to all coaches. However, the moderator of the press conference called on North Carolina head coach Mike Fox to speak first about the issue. Fox, of course, who has a good reputation handling pitchers, came under fire the past two weekends for pitching Kent Emanuel four times in a matter of two weeks, two of those obvious relief appearances.
Some over the past year or two have proposed instituting a pitch count limit in college baseball, specifically in the college baseball season. Fox, though, isn't a fan, and neither are others, such as N.C. State coach Elliott Avent.
"I would be against that proposal. I don't think it's necessary," Fox said. "College coaches know what they're doing at their university. I just don't think it's necessary."
As for Avent: "It's a tough question. I understand what your'e asking, and it's tough to answer. I kind of concur with Mike, though," he said. "I'm against it. As college coaches, we know what we're doing, and a lot of how a pitcher is used depends on different situations."
For the record, American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Dave Keilitz reiterated the points made by Fox and Avent, so don't look for movement on the issue this season. Still, it's something rather interesting to watch.
* Saturday afternoon's matchup between Mississippi State and Oregon State is intriguing for several reasons, but none more fascinating than the pitching matchups involved.
The Beavers enter the CWS with the field's best starting rotation with Andrew Moore, Matt Boyd and Ben Wetzler leading the charge. OSU was considering bringing back Boyd on short rest after starting and appearing in relief last weekend. However, they've opted to go with Moore, who has put together a terrific freshman campaign.
But while the Beavers possess an excellent rotation and only go to the bullpen when need be, the Bulldogs have absolutely no problem piecing things together out of the bullpen. MSU has one very solid starting pitcher in Kendall Graveman, but Luis Pollorena and Jacob Lindgren have been iffy at times throughout the spring. Given that situation, John Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson have employed a system where relievers sometimes come in as early as the third or fourth innings, piecing things together the rest of the way.
Perhaps only at Mississippi State, this situation has worked to perfection.
"We feel really fortunate. Our guys have bought in, I mean, how many guys say they want to come in and be the middle guy in our bullpen?", Cohen said. "We have a great group of guys, and Chad Girodo has been on a roll for us. Ross Mitchell also has been on a roll, and overall, we've just had the luxury of being able to turn things over to relievers after two or three times through the order.
"I'm not sure there's another reliever in the country that's 12-0 [like Ross Mitchell]".