We are getting closer to the College World Series finals, with six teams remaining in the quest for the championship.
Kent State knocked favored Florida out of the tournament on Monday, while Florida State uprooted Cinderella Stony Brook on Sunday.
Here's a look at what I expect to be the final four teams come Thursday.
Arkansas defeated South Carolina on Monday in much the same way as it has won 46 games this season: Through its pitching.
Arkansas is sixth in Division I college baseball in team ERA (2.87). Starting pitchers Ryne Stanek, DJ Baxendale and Randall Fant have each compiled a 2.97, 3.07 and 3.00 ERA respectively this season. Stanek pitched six innings of one-run ball on Monday against the Gamecocks, giving up three hits.
But despite the Razorbacks' collective .274 batting average, they can still put up runs, primarily because of Matt Reynolds, Tim Carver and Dominic Ficociello. They rank in the top three in at-bats for the Razorbacks, and they're hitting .333, .300 and .298 respectively. Reynolds and Ficociello have seven and six home runs respectively.
But even though Reynolds, Carver and Ficociello have been the primary hitters for Arkansas this season, other hitters are beginning to emerge. In the Razorbacks' 8-1 victory over Kent State, Reynolds, Carver and Ficociello went a combined 0-for-9, but Joe Cerrano, Brian Anderson, Bo Bigham and Jake Wise went a combined 9-for-13 with five RBI.
Arkansas is a dangerous team right now because they are not only pitching well, but hitting as a team when it matters most.
Arizona is already in the final four, awaiting the winner between Florida State and UCLA on Tuesday.
The Wildcats defeated Florida State and UCLA en route to where they are, beating the Seminoles 4-3 and the Bruins 4-0. They have mainly gotten by on their hitting (.329 average), but Konner Wade stepped up big time for them against UCLA, shutting out the Bruins.
Five Arizona juniors were selected in the first nine rounds of the MLB draft this year, including Alex Mejia, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year (St. Louis Cardinals, No. 150 overall). Mejia is batting .360 this season for the Wildcats, and he went 2-for-5 against both Florida State and UCLA.
Next Two In
Florida State (49-16)
Florida State faces UCLA on Tuesday, with both teams needing a win to stay in the tournament.
UCLA is supposedly the better hitting team, with a .307 batting average on the season, but try telling that to Florida State, who just ousted Stony Brook with a 12-2 thrashing on Sunday. It doesn't hurt when you have outfielder James Ramsey, who was selected No. 23 overall in the 2012 MLB draft. He's hitting .382 this season.
Overall, I like Florida State better in this matchup. UCLA really only has one above-average starting pitcher this season, Adam Plutko (12-3, 2.48 ERA). In that sense, it wasn't that shocking when UCLA beat Stony Brook in Plutko's start but lost to Arizona 4-0 when Nick Vander Tuig pitched.
Florida State has four starting pitchers this season who have recorded a 3.99 ERA or better.
South Carolina (46-18)
South Carolina won 7-3 against Florida but lost to Arkansas on Monday, 2-1. Then again, given the way Arkansas has been playing lately, that's not all bad.
South Carolina still has a 3.06 ERA as a team (16th in the nation), led by starters Michael Roth (8-1, 2.60 ERA) and Colby Holmes (7-2, 2.90 ERA).
The offense, however, is up-and-down. The Gamecocks had 12 hits against Florida, but just four hits against Arkansas.
Kent State, on the other hand, is almost the exact opposite: solid hitting but suspect pitching. Kent State has hit .300 as a team this season (26th in the nation) with a .439 slugging percentage (22nd), but owns a 3.60 ERA (64th). The Golden Flashes have five players hitting over .300, but they don't have much in the starting pitching department beyond David Starn and Ryan Bores.
In the end, I see South Carolina's pitching being the difference, keeping the Kent State offense at bay while squeaking out enough runs to emerge victorious.
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