The College World Series gets underway on Saturday. Since most of the teams left standing were the No. 1 seeds in their respective regionals, the title chase is wide open, which should lead to plenty of drama in Omaha over the next couple weeks.
Along with the parity, the double-elimination format adds to the intrigue. It forces coaching staffs to make some tough choices with their pitching because they have to think about how things could play out in the days ahead while still focusing on the current game.
Add in the college atmosphere of the entire event, and it's definitely got a unique feel. With that in mind, let's check out the top contenders heading into play and break down what gives them the best chance to emerge with the championship.
The Cavaliers entered the season among the top contenders to win the national title. They went through a few lulls during the campaign, mostly due to inconsistent offensive production. The lineup is back on track, and that moves Virginia back to the forefront.
One constant throughout the regular season was the starting rotation. The group is led by Nathan Kirby, who posted a 1.73 ERA and averaged a strikeout per inning in 16 starts. Jeff White of the Cavaliers' official athletic site passed along comments from the ace about heading to Omaha:
It's awesome. I'm already super excited for it. I'm already getting nervous, getting the butterflies in my stomach just to be out there. But it's definitely an honor, to know how hard the guys before us worked to get there and to think that our team this year has worked that hard and how well we've played all year.
Kirby is joined by Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz among the normal starters. Artie Lewicki and Alec Bettinger have split time between the rotation and bullpen. The bottom line is that whomever the Cavaliers send out to the mound, there's a very good chance they will pitch well enough to win.
The pressure therefore falls on the offense. Mike Papi leads the team with 11 homers and is its most reliable hitter. The biggest key, however, is the top-of-the-order duo of Branden Cogswell and Daniel Pinero. When they are setting the table like they did against Maryland, the Cavaliers are very tough to beat.
Texas is perhaps the most well-rounded team in the College World Series. The offense is efficient, the starting pitching is strong and the bullpen is almost unhittable at times. The only reason the Longhorns don't top the list is their lack of power.
Which team will win the national title?
The offense features a good combination of on-base ability and speed. Mark Payton, Ben Johnson and Co. hit a lot of singles and doubles to keep the line moving. They also put a lot of pressure on the defense by stealing bases and taking the extra base on hits.
Texas' staff is solid across the board. Parker French and Nathan Thornhill can match any duo, and Lukas Schiraldi has flashed more ability than his numbers show. The bullpen is led by John Curtiss, who racked up nine saves, and also features Travis Duke (0.34 ERA) and Chad Hollingsworth (1.36).
The only question mark is whether they will be able to come up with the big hit against elite competition. Johnson leads the team with just six home runs. Without that instant offense, it could be tough for the Longhorns to create enough offense to win the tournament.
Vanderbilt is another team that isn't going to win many games with the long ball. What makes the Commodores so dangerous is their speed on the basepaths. Seven different players have tallied double-digit steals, led by Dansby Swanson with 18.
For a team that's forced to manufacture basically all of its runs, those steals are crucial to success. It wouldn't be a surprise to see head coach Tim Corbin become even more aggressive. Clay Travis of Fox Sports is impressed with the job the 11th-year manager has done:
Congrats to Vandy on another trip to the College World Series. What Tim Corbin has done there is nothing short of amazing.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) June 8, 2014
Ultimately, a lot of the team's success is tied to Tyler Beede. A top prospect due to his electric stuff, the right-hander is still working to improve his command. If he can pitch like a top-line starter to pair with Carson Fulmer and Walker Buehler, Vandy will be in terrific shape.
The question marks with Beede and the lack of pop keep the Commodores from being the No. 1 choice. Yet there's certainly enough talent on the roster for everything to fall into place perfectly over the next couple weeks leading up to the national title.