Though college baseball typically exhibits a large amount of parity, five No. 1 seeds have made their way to Omaha for the 2014 College World Series. Thus, with many of the top contenders still alive, baseball fans will truly get to see the best of the best from this season.
As a consequence, there is also plenty of star power on display. Vanderbilt's Tyler Beede and TCU's Brandon Finnegan highlight a crop of eight players taken in the first two rounds of the 2014 MLB draft. Pitching should be a storyline for the duration of the tournament, as the majority of the remaining teams are anchored by a tremendous staff.
So what should fans expect heading into the double-elimination tournament? Here's a look at the teams with the best chance of reaching the pinnacle of college baseball.
Virginia Cavaliers (49-14)
The No. 1 team in the preseason has fulfilled expectations thus far, and stands as the favorite to take home the program's first-ever baseball title. The third-seeded Cavaliers are the highest national seed remaining, which should only heighten their championship-or-bust expectations.
Closer Nick Howard was the team's highest draft pick, going 19th overall to the Cincinnati Reds. The Cavs staff accrued a 2.24 ERA during the regular season, tops in the ACC and fifth nationally. They also led Division I in conceding just 6.35 hits per nine innings.
Offensively, Boston Red Sox first-round draftee Mike Papi powers the Hoos. The outfielder possesses a combination of plate discipline and power, as evidenced by his .311/.453/.505 slash line during the regular season. Entering the final eight, Papi is as hot as any hitter remaining:
#UVa 1B Mike Papi is 11 of 20 (.550) with 6 RBIs and 7 runs in 5 NCAA tournament games this year.— Cavs Journal (@CavsJournal) June 8, 2014
In winning two do-or-die super-regional contests against Maryland, the Cavs exhibited a resiliency befitting of their favored status. With the most all-around talent and balance, Virginia looks like the team to beat.
Vanderbilt Commodores (46-19)
After dropping four of their first five tournament games, Vanderbilt rebounded from the brink of elimination to take five of their next six contests and make their way to Omaha. No team in the field has endured closer calls than the Commodores, so they are well-rehearsed in their flair for the dramatic.
Besides Beede, the rotation boasts a trio of power arms in Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler and Tyler Ferguson. According to the Associated Press (via USA Today), manager Tim Corbin believes that the staff has the potential to power Vandy to the title:
I really love our starting pitchers, and in a situation like Omaha, if you're successful and you win, you can be riding out those pitchers for a long period of time because it gives them enough time to recover.
After entering the NCAA tournament as the favorite in 2013, Vandy faltered under the weight of expectations. With a chance at redemption, expect the Commodores to play looser than they did last season.
Louisville Cardinals (50-15)
The Cardinals return to Omaha after failing to win a game last season. This year, they boast one of the strongest pitching staffs in the tournament—one that went 10-0 in the regionals and super regionals.
Nick Burdi, who went 46th overall to the Minnesota Twins in the draft, is likely the hardest thrower left in the field. The Louisville closer can hit triple digits on the radar gun, and posted an obscene pitching line this season:
Burdi profiles as a reliever, and posted a 0.54 ERA at Louisville last year. He had 57 strikeouts and nine walks in 32 1/3 IP.— Rhett Bollinger (@RhettBollinger) June 6, 2014
However, the Cardinals are far from a one-dimensional team. Louisville's offensive strength is on the basepaths, where they swiped 132 bags during the regular season, second-most in the nation. Left-fielder Jeff Gardner was the team's most prolific bat, hitting .321/.403/.538 and driving in a team-high 68 RBI.
After upsetting Vandy to reach the final eight last season, Louisville appeared content to reach the big stage. Now, after romping through the early stages of the tournament, the Cardinals look poised to make a deeper run in Omaha this season.