And then there were five.
With just one game left to play before semifinals action, the College World Series is nearing its crescendo. In the tournament’s double-elimination format, there won’t be more than five games to play before deciding the championship matchup.
For Oregon State, NC State and North Carolina, reaching the finals means winning out. All three squads have already dropped a contest in the College World Series, and either North Carolina or NC State will notch its second loss before the semifinals matchups are determined.
For each of the remaining teams to avoid elimination, a lot has to go right. This is the end of the road for college baseball’s best teams.
Let’s take a look at a player from each squad who must step up to give his team a chance for glory in college baseball’s finale. None of the players on this list can afford to falter in the upcoming College World Series action.
Cody Stubbs, 1B
North Carolina and NC State are set for a rematch that will decide the final spot in the semifinals. If the No. 1 Tar Heels hit like they did against the Wolfpack on Sunday, it will be an untimely exit for the tournament’s top team.
In that 8-1 loss, first baseman Cody Stubbs went 1-for-3 from the five hole but struck out twice and failed—along with the rest of his team—to get anything going against NC State’s phenomenal pitching staff.
In North Carolina’s next contest against LSU, Stubbs went hitless in two official at-bats, though he did draw one of the team’s three walks.
But in that game, Stubbs was the only hitter in the top seven of the lineup without a hit, sandwiched between Brian Holberton and Skye Bolt, who had two hits apiece. If North Carolina is to get to NC State’s pitching this time around, players like Stubbs are going to have to help string together some timely hitting.
As the team’s leading slugger this season (.363), a lot is expected of Stubbs, especially in the heart of a tremendously talented lineup. If he fails to show up against the Wolfpack on Thursday, his squad could be headed for an exit short of the semifinals.
Trea Turner, SS
NC State finds itself in the loser’s bracket after dropping a 2-1 contest to UCLA on Tuesday—a UCLA squad that isn’t exactly a powerhouse at the dish.
But the Bruins are tremendous both defensively and on the mound, and NC State struggled to overcome a fantastic effort from starter Nick Vander Tuig and reliever David Berg. The Wolfpack can’t afford to have the same stagnant offensive performance against North Carolina.
When the teams last met, NC State blasted the Tar Heels with eight runs, but much of that production came from a bottom half of the lineup that features only one player hitting .273 or better. It was a welcome performance from hitters six through nine, but the top of the order has to step up if it hopes for a repeat performance.
Despite leading the team with a tremendous .373 average, Trea Turner is 2-for-8 in his squad’s last two games, scoring just one run in that span. As NC State’s leadoff hitter, he’ll be expected to do a lot more than that at the dish on Thursday.
Turner has to set the offensive tone for the Wolfpack. Anything short of a quality performance could leave them headed for the exit just a few games short of a national title.
Pat Valaika, SS
UCLA isn’t a team that is going to put up runs in bunches. The Bruins have gotten this far with some timely hitting and a tremendous pitching staff.
But pitching and defense only go so far. At some point, the well is going to run dry. If the Bruins can’t find a way to break out the bats in the very near future, they may not get another chance.
UCLA doesn’t feature a position player hitting better than .280, and there really isn’t a hitter in the lineup who is consistent enough to carry the offense game in and game out. That will have to change in a hurry.
Shortstop Pat Valaika has the talent to be that player, though, and he’ll have to start living up to those expectations as the team’s cleanup hitter. He went hitless in each of UCLA’s last two games and struck out twice—performances he can’t afford to repeat against either North Carolina or NC State on Friday.
Valaika isn’t the only player who will have to step up in the semifinals, but he’s certainly one of the most important.
Hunter Renfroe, RF
Outfielder Hunter Renfroe is more than just a big name. After being selected No. 13 overall by the San Diego Padres in this year’s MLB draft, he’s also under as much pressure as any player from the tournament’s final five teams.
Renfroe will be strapped with lofty expectations in his team’s final games—and for good reason. Mississippi State has yet to lose a game and finds itself within three wins of a national title. Renfroe simply must step up.
He hasn’t played poorly in the team’s last two contests, but Renfroe also hasn’t played like the team’s best player. With just two hits in his last two games, he hasn’t exactly carried the offense.
That’s not a bad thing, given the Bulldogs’ balanced offensive production, but that kind of balance is never a guarantee. For Mississippi State to upend Oregon State on Friday, its best players have to find their form.
Given cleanup hitter Brett Pirtle’s three-hit performance in Mississippi State’s 5-4 win over Indiana, Renfroe has even more reason to perform well on Friday. If he can get on base ahead of the red-hot second baseman, he may find himself padding his runs-scored stats in the semifinals.
Jake Rodriguez, C
Oregon State has been tremendous at the dish in its last three games, and it’s hard to pick out a player who needs to pick it up heading into the semifinals.
Nearly every player in the lineup has had at least one solid game recently, but catcher Jake Rodriguez has clearly struggled to keep pace. In the team’s last three games, Rodriguez hasn’t recorded a hit and has struck out four times in 10 at-bats.
Provided the top of the order continues stringing together big hits, Rodriguez may be able to get by without playing all that well on the offensive side. But if that top-of-the-order production diminishes against Mississippi State, players like Rodriguez are going to have to answer the call.
Coming out of the loser’s bracket, the Beavers are one game away from elimination. Friday’s contest is a must-win affair, and Oregon State needs all hands on deck.