College World Series preview (cont.)
Bracket II: Arkansas, Florida, Kent State, South Carolina
The Golden Flashes are the first MAC team to reach the CWS since Eastern Michigan in 1976. It has been suggested that success is at least partially due to unseasonably warm whether this winter that allowed teams in the north to get on their fields in February, more than a month earlier than usual for many schools in the area. Perhaps that did allow Kent State pitchers to warm up their arms. The staff ERA was a sparkling 3.49. They were supported by an offense averaging 6.8 runs per game.
One to watch: Junior 1B George Roberts (.368, 8 HR, 64 RBIs), the MAC Player of the Year, has been one of the biggest surprise on a team full of them. Roberts batted exactly 100 points better than he did a year ago, when he totaled just one home run and 19 RBIs despite playing in a majority of the team's games. He came into his own as the team's top run producer this season.
How they got here: The Golden Flashes, seeded No. 3 in the Gary Regional, opened with a win over Kentucky, then beat host Purdue and then the Wildcats again to advance. They traveled to Eugene, Ore., for the Super Regionals and took two of three from the Ducks, scoring a run in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 win in the clincher.
CWS history: First appearance.
Well-known alum: Thurman Munson
The Razorbacks have been more dramatic than dominant in recent weeks, collecting four one-run victories in postseason play. The drama comes from batting .272 as a team and averaging just 5.3 runs per game, the fewest among the eight teams in Omaha. Arkansas, which boasts a 2.90 team ERA, must continue to pitch if the team is to stick around for an extended period. The staff has 10 shutouts on the season, including a 1-0, 10-inning victory over Baylor in the Super Regional clincher.
One to watch: Arkansas needs junior RHP D.J. Baxendale (7-5, 3.18 ERA, 89 SO) to rebound from last week's Super Regionals loss at Baylor. Baxendale, a 10th-round draft pick by the Twins, lasted just four innings against the Bears, allowing five runs on six hits. He needs a quality start if the Razorbacks are to find their way to the winner's bracket.
How they got here: The Razorbacks defeated Sam Houston State (twice) and Houston Regional host Rice once to win a regional on the road. They lost the first game of their Super Regional at Baylor, then beat the Bears two straight games to earn the CWS berth.
CWS history: This is the seventh trip to Omaha for the Razorbacks, who finished as runner-up to Cal State Fullerton in 1979 in their CWS debut. That remains the school's best finish.
Well-known alum: Cliff Lee
The Gators were installed as the team to beat this year virtually from the moment they lost to South Carolina in the finals last season. And, in fact, they received the No. 1 national seed in the postseason. There's just one problem with that: The No. 1 seed has not won the national championship since 1999, when Miami did it in the first year of the 64-team format. The Gators can make a strong argument for ending the No. 1 drought. They return last year's weekend rotation intact. Florida also packs the most punch on offense. The Gators were the leading team in home runs among those in Omaha with 67 homers last season. They're at it again this year with 75 home runs, again the most among the eight teams remaining.
One to watch: Junior C Mike Zunino (.322, 19 HR, 64 RBIs, 9 SB) proved that the 19 home runs he hit last season were no fluke by matching the total this year. An impressive feat in view of restrictions placed on the bats a year ago. Zunino was taken in the recent June draft by the Mariners with the third overall selection. They coveted the opportunity to get the best catcher in the draft.
How they got here: The Gators swept past Bethune-Cookman and Georgia Tech (twice) in the regionals, then took a pair from North Carolina State in the Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Gators are making their seventh trip overall to Omaha and third straight. Last year, Florida lost to SEC rival South Carolina in the championship series. The Gators also finished runner-up to Texas for the 2005 title.
Well-known alum: David Eckstein
The Gamecocks earned the school's first championship two years ago by beating a UCLA team that had a decided edge in starting pitching. South Carolina won again last year against Florida with a team that wasn't even expected to reach Omaha, let alone defend its title. Four key players from those championship teams -- LHP Michael Roth (7-1, 2.50 ERA, 79 SO in 115 IP), RHP Matt Price (4-4, 3.47 ERA, 11 SV, 82 SO in 70 IP), 1B Christian Walker (.315, 11 HR, 54 RBIs) and OF Evan Marzilli (.288, 2 HR, 30 RBIs 12 SB) -- are still on the roster. They have displayed an uncanny knack for rising to the occasion at the CWS and their confidence has spilled into all corners of the clubhouse.
One to watch: Roth has neither the size (he's 6-foot-1) nor the velocity (his fastball doesn't reach 90 mph) that grabs scouts' attention, which explains why he wasn't drafted until the Angels took him in the ninth round. But Roth is the one South Carolina coach Ray Tanner calls on when the stakes are highest. Roth was the starting pitcher for the clinching game of the CWS in both 2010 and 2011. He will be there once again if Tanner has his way.
How they got here: The Gamecocks extended their NCAA-record postseason winning streak to 21 games with one win over Manhattan and two more (both by one run) against Clemson in the regionals and two wins over Oklahoma in the Super Regionals.
CWS history: The Gamecocks had been bridesmaids, finishing third three times (in 1975, 1977 and 2002) before winning back-to-back national championships against UCLA two years ago and Florida last year. This is South Carolina's 11th appearance overall.
Well-known alum: Justin Smoak
South Carolina over Florida State