LSU and Florida have outlasted 62 other programs in the NCAA Division I tournament to arrange an all-SEC College World Series finals.
Oregon State hadn't lost since April 29—including a 13-1 throttling over LSU last Monday—before the Tigers sent the top-seeded Beavers packing with two straight victories. The Tigers' opening loss to Oregon State in Omaha, Nebraska, marks their only defeat in the last 21 games.
The Gators, meanwhile, advanced behind 7.1 scoreless innings from ace Alex Faedo in Saturday's elimination win over TCU. Although this marks their third College World Series finals appearance in 13 years, they're still seeking their first championship in program history.
To get that elusive title, they must best the six-time national champions in a best-of-three series starting on Monday.
CWS Finals, Game 1: LSU vs. Florida
When: Monday, June 26, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Nebraska
In order to reach the final stage, both prestigious programs leaned on their ace to survive a must-win showdown. One day before Faedo—drafted No. 18 overall by the Detroit Tigers this year—dominated TCU, LSU's Alex Lange—selected No. 30 by the Chicago Cubs on the same day—kept LSU alive by allowing two hits and one run over 7.1 innings.
ESPN Stats & Info noted the power arms' rising strikeout tallies as they conclude their collegiate careers:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Most Strikeouts in D-I This Season School Alex Faedo 157 Florida Alex Lange 150 LSU https://t.co/sCLkIxyo6g2017-6-25 04:29:38
As a result, neither starter is available for Monday's pivotal bout. One of LSU's other top starters, Erik Walker, is unavailable this series after exiting his last start with forearm and elbow pain. That likely leaves Jared Poche, who relinquished four runs to Florida State in his last outing.
The school's all-time wins leader carries a 3.33 ERA into the last round, but he has also surrendered nine unearned runs with just 73 strikeouts over 108 innings. Having allowed a team-high 14 home runs, he must also beware of the long ball.
Yet the Gators are hardly an offensive dynamo, collectively batting .259/.355/.380. JJ Schwarz is their only player with double-digit home runs, but the junior catcher's dozen long balls and .808 OPS underwhelm given his 18 homers and 1.027 OPS as a freshman.
Pitching has led Florida this far, but its strength takes a hit with Faedo only available to start a possible winner-take-all Game 3 on three days' rest. According to NOLA.com's Christopher Dabe, Brady Singer will take the mound on Monday:
Christopher Dabe @cmdabe
#LSU will face Florida pitcher Brady Singer in game one, Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said last night. He got a CG win vs. LSU in March.2017-6-25 14:09:06
Since surrendering 13 runs over two disastrous starts, the sophomore has recovered in his last three outings, yielding one run and one walk while compiling 20 strikeouts over 13 sharp innings. Last Tuesday, he contained Louisville to one run during a seven-inning gem.
Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan commended Singer's latest tune to D1Baseball.com's Kendall Rogers.
"I just think he's pitching with an edge, there's just a little more edge," O'Sullivan said. "In the first inning today, his ball was moving all over the place and it looked like a whiffle ball out there. That's against some pretty good hitters at UL."
He faces a tougher challenge in the Tigers, who have registered 6.8 runs per game with a .386 team on-base percentage. So by their standards, scoring 22 runs in five CWS contests depicts a considerable offensive slump, albeit one fueled by facing Oregon State three times.
Michael Papierski is anything but cold. The switch-hitting catcher has belted three home runs in Omaha, including blasts from both sides of the plate on Saturday. Per NCAA.com's Ryan Cooper, LSU coach Paul Mainieri discussed the junior's hot streak.
"Even when he was hitting under .200 in the year, you never saw him get discouraged because he did a workman's-like job behind the plate," Mainieri said. "He knew where the value to our team was. As he hit in the second half of the season, it's obviously made us a better team."
Papierski's heroics demonstrate the Tigers' offensive depth. Eight of their hitters with over 100 at-bats have a higher batting average than his .262, but he's now second behind Greg Deichmann with 11 homers while touting a .905 OPS.
LSU prevailed when down to its last life against Oregon State, so let's not slap an inaccurate and overdramatic "must win" label on Monday's action. Nevertheless, neither squad wants to start the best-of-three championship slate with a loss.