The stage is set for the 2014 College World Series finals, as the Vanderbilt Commodores will take on the Virginia Cavaliers.
Both teams carried No. 1 seeds heading into the tournament, with the Cavaliers ranked No. 3 in the country by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. The Commodores came in 10 spots lower at No. 13.
ESPN.com's Keith Law was extremely complimentary of both programs after they secured passage to the championship:
In double elimination, though, anything can happen. One great pitching performance in the first game, and all of a sudden the underdog is in the driver's seat. Fortunes can change in an instant, and every run scored is vital.
That's the beauty of the College World Series.
The difference between Vanderbilt and Virginia is marginal, so the upcoming best-of-three series should be entertaining from start to finish.
Below, you can read one burning question surrounding each team.
Will Virginia's Stellar Pitching Continue?
Somehow, Virginia has improved during the College World Series. Its ERA has dipped to a minuscule 1.34, while opposing batters are only hitting .188. Only twice in nine games did the team give up more than two runs.
Over their last 33 postseason innings, Cavaliers pitchers have surrendered only two earned runs, and better yet, they have sophomore lefties Brandon Waddell and Nathan Kirby ready for the finals, per Baseball America's Aaron Fitt:
And Kirby/Waddell set up for Finals. RT @PivOWH: Virginia pitchers will take 0.55 ERA into final; have allowed just two ER in 33 innings— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) June 21, 2014
Over 19.1 postseason innings, Waddell has gone 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA. Kirby is only slightly worse, having gone 1-1 in 19.2 postseason innings with a 2.75 ERA.
As the cliche goes: Good pitching beats good hitting. Right now, there's no pitching staff hotter than Virginia's.
Who wins the 2014 College World Series?
"I thought we would be pretty darn good in Omaha on the mound. I really did," head coach Brian O'Connor said after UVA's 4-1 win over Mississippi State on Saturday, per The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "Obviously, the spacious ballpark and our ability to defend have a lot to do with it. What we've done all year is throw strikes. Our walk numbers are ridiculously low. And we've got really good arms."
For what it's worth, Virginia averaged 2.78 walks per nine innings, which ranked No. 28 in the country. That's downright pedestrian compared to its other numbers.
The fact of the matter is that everyone on the Cavaliers pitching staff is pulling his weight. The starters are going deep into games, while the relievers are shutting the door in the later innings. That's a great combination for postseason baseball at any level.
Vanderbilt will have a hard time unlocking this impenetrable staff.
Can Vanderbilt's Offense Compensate for the Commodores' Underperforming Staff?
The first question bleeds somewhat into this one. While Vanderbilt's pitching staff hasn't resembled that of the 1999 Colorado Rockies, the Commodores' staff looks like a minor league team compared to the Cavaliers'.
During the regular season, Vandy pitchers compiled a team ERA of 2.75. In the postseason, that figure is up to 3.12. Opposing hitters have an on-base percentage of .301.
Tyler Beede has been one of the biggest culprits.
In three postseason starts, he's compiled a 5.51 ERA. Oddly enough, he's only surrendered 12 hits but has also given up 10 runs in 16.1 innings.
The junior right-hander lasted only 3.2 innings in Vanderbilt's 6-4 win over UC Irvine on June 16. Head coach Tim Corbin admitted that he was forced to remove his wobbling starter, per Nick Cole of The Tennessean:
It's tough for the kid. I'd like to see him have better results, and I certainly don't want to take him out in the fourth inning. I'd like to see him go deeper. But we're at a point where he had walked two guys and hit a guy and we just needed to change it up. That's what I told him and he was fine. He was upset with himself, but he's going to have other opportunities.
All of this is a roundabout way of asking whether or not the Commodores offense can help bridge the gap between the two teams. In the postseason, Vandy is hitting a solid .297 with 52 RBI.
Commodores hitters have more than made up for a lack of power by getting on base and manufacturing runs. Vanderbilt boasts a .399 on-base percentage and has stolen 24 bases in 32 attempts.
That might be the exact right kind of strategy when taking on a pitching staff like Virginia's. Vanderbilt can slowly wear down the Cavaliers' pitchers, and the Commodores will make the most of the runners who reach base.
All stats are courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.