The 2013 College World Series hasn’t lacked excitement. The road to Omaha, Nebraska, was paved with tremendous games, and we saw yet another last night.
In a thrilling 5-4 contest, Mississippi State came from behind to upend Indiana and secure a berth in the semifinals. The Bulldogs now wait for Oregon State and Indiana to battle it out in the loser’s bracket for a chance at redemption in the semifinal round.
No. 1 North Carolina earned its place in the next round with a 4-2 victory over No. 4 LSU on Tuesday. The Tar Heels are already in the loser’s bracket after having lost 8-1 to NC State a round prior and will wait for the loser of the NC State vs. UCLA matchup set for 8 p.m. EDT on Tuesday.
Let’s take a look at keys to victory for each of the six remaining teams in the tournament, highlighting the most crucial factor for each squad as it closes in on a College World Series title.
It’s All About the Pitching
Playing winning baseball doesn’t require a complicated formula. At its core, the game is all about pitching, hitting and defense.
But NC State hasn’t needed much offense to get this far in the College World Series. Wolfpack starting pitching has been absolutely dominant, starting with college baseball’s strikeout king, Carlos Rodon.
NC State has held opponents to an average of 1.8 runs per contest in the tournament. And while scoring a little more than five runs per game hasn’t hurt its cause, the hottest team in the country hasn’t needed that run support.
Unfortunately for UCLA, hitting hasn’t been the strongest facet of its game this year. With a team batting average of .250, the Bruins are going to need a few clutch performances at the dish to have a chance against NC State.
If the Wolfpack continues pitching as it has throughout the tournament, though, this game might not even be a contest.
As already noted, UCLA hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut this season. It’s going to take more than a couple runs to upend NC State on Tuesday night.
The Bruins offense has been consistent throughout the tournament—it just hasn’t been all that explosive. Averaging just 4.5 runs per game without a single performance topping six runs, UCLA can’t hope to open things up against a tremendous NC State pitching staff.
However, teams don’t have to score in bunches to win in the tournament. Sometimes getting timely hitting is enough.
Two runs were enough to upset LSU in the previous round, courtesy of some terrific pitching. If UCLA can get a similar performance from its hurlers on Tuesday and find a way to string together some timely hits, the Bruins will have a chance of cooling off the red-hot Wolfpack.
Yes, baseball is a team game. But it’s also a team game predicated on individual matchups and performances.
Catcher Kyle Schwarber is the heart of Indiana’s team, both behind the dish and next to it. When Schwarber doesn’t perform, the Hoosiers are at a big disadvantage.
But in his last two games, the team’s leading slugger and No. 2 hitter has struck out six times and notched just three hits in 10 at-bats. At the top of the lineup, Schwarber has to find a way to put the ball in play.
With an elimination game on the horizon against an Oregon State team that dominated Louisville 11-4 on Monday, the Hoosiers need to come prepared to put up some runs. Schwarber will be the key to doing just that.
Don’t Change a Thing
No one expected Oregon State to take it to Louisville as it did on Monday evening. With an 11-4 drubbing that saw both clutch hitting and strong pitching, the Beavers look primed for another big performance against the Hoosiers on Wednesday.
If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
The top of Oregon State’s lineup is far from broken. In the Beavers’ win over the Cardinals last round, each of the team’s top five hitters notched at least one hit, including two or more from the top three spots. With that kind of production at the top of the order, it isn’t difficult winning ballgames.
It may be easier said than done, but Oregon State doesn’t need to change anything to beat Indiana on Wednesday. An 11-run performance goes a long way toward building confidence and lessening the pressure, and the Beavers should look loose and confident when they face the Hoosiers.
Keep the Pressure off
It took three runs in the eighth inning to pull ahead of Indiana and leave enough cushion to withstand a ninth-inning run from the Hoosiers en route to a 5-4 victory. But at this stage in the tournament, the Bulldogs can’t afford to back themselves into a corner like that.
Mississippi State got on the board first in that contest with a run in the first inning, but its offense remained mostly stagnant until the eighth inning. The Bulldogs may not be so lucky in a potential rematch.
Mississippi State will await the winner of the Indiana-Oregon State contest set for Wednesday night. But regardless of their opponent, the Bulldogs can’t afford to fall behind early and rely on a late-inning rally to save them again.
If Mississippi State falls behind early, it has to hope its relief pitching can hold out long enough for a late-inning comeback—not the ideal situation for a team that has dipped into its bullpen fairly often in the tournament.
The Big Boppers
North Carolina is one of the most explosive offensive squads in the nation, led by Landon Lassiter, Colin Moran, Brian Holberton, Cody Stubbs and Sky Bolt. All five hitters (No. 2 though No. 6 in the lineup) are hitting over .300 on the season and combined for nine hits in the Tar Heels’ 4-2 win over LSU on Tuesday afternoon.
That string of mashers is a veritable gauntlet for opposing pitching, and as long as the quintet continues hitting as it did against LSU, it won’t matter what the bottom of the order does.
Terrific starting pitching was critical in their win over LSU, but the Tar Heels don’t need to hold opponents to two runs or fewer to win ballgames. Even against the tough pitching of NC State or UCLA, North Carolina should have a decided advantage.
North Carolina is No. 1 for a reason. If the middle of their lineup continues performing at this level, there is no team remaining that can stop the Tar Heels.