The College World Series will open on Saturday, as Miami faces Florida and Virginia matches up against Arkansas. Of the four teams on this side of the double-elimination tournament, Florida is the clear favorite, though the Gators will be tested.
Below, you'll find predictions for Saturday's slate of games and a preview of each contest.
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Miami vs. Florida
Here's one reason why it is so hard to bet against Florida: The Gators have won nine games in a row, and they have done so by a dominant margin of 53-12. Per Jeremy Mills of ESPN Stats & Information, "The only other team with that large a run differential entering Omaha in the BBCOR bat era won the title."
Momentum in baseball may be the next day's starting pitcher, but the Gators haven't exactly run into a "next day's pitcher" they couldn't score a bunch of runs against during this stretch.
Of course, they've been pretty good all season long, coming into this game as the No. 4 seed overall. Shortstop Richie Martin—who was selected No. 20 overall by the Oakland Athletics in this year's MLB Draft—leads a very talented roster that includes JJ Schwarz, whose 18 home runs are third in the nation, and A.J. Puk, who is striking out a whopping 12.3 batters per nine innings.
But the Gators don't beat themselves, either. Per The Associated Press (via USA Today), "The Gators are the best defensive team in the nation with their .985 fielding percentage. No one is better than third baseman Josh Tobias, who has committed one error in 131 chances."
So yes, the Gators are a justifiable favorite in this tournament. Really, they have all phases of the game going at full strength right now, as coach Kevin O’Sullivan told Mark Long of The Associated Press (via The Washington Post):
I feel good about this team. They’re playing with emotion. We’re playing great defense. Pitching has been really good. Starting pitching has been good, relief pitching has been good. We’re getting some timely hits. ... I think the freshmen have infused a lot of energy into our program. They’ve contributed and kind of kept things simple. It has been neat to watch.
Well, it's been neat to watch for everyone except the teams unlucky enough to stand in Florida's path to this point.
Miami won't be scared, however. Per the AP, "The Hurricanes have 11 players hitting better than .300 this season and are sixth in the country with a .311 team batting average." So if any team remaining in the tournament can thump with the Gators, it's Miami.
But the Hurricanes don't have the overall balance of Florida. That will hurt them in this one, and Florida should defeat their fifth team from Florida en route to what they hope will be a national title.
Virginia vs. Arkansas
"Streaky" might be the best way to describe these teams.
After starting 9-2, Arkansas went 6-13 during a brutal midseason stretch. Since, they are 25-8. Virginia started 11-15 in ACC play, won five in a row, lost three of four in the conference tournament and has now won five straight.
Arkansas has the best player in this game, outfielder Andrew Benintendi, who was the No. 7 pick in the MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox and has hit 19 home runs this season, tied for most in college baseball. With his recent selection by the Red Sox, comparisons to Jacoby Ellsbury started popping up, which Jim Callis of MLB.com responded to:
Benintendi will have help. Per Mills, the team has "three players hitting more than.300 this season and seven more hitting between .280 and .300."
The Hogs can rake.
Virginia is no pushover, and when the Cavaliers get hot they are as dangerous as any team in this tournament. They are a loose bunch, with talented pitchers in Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell and Josh Sborz. Whereas last year the Cavaliers had a ton of pressure on their shoulders, this year they are playing ball like a team that knows they weren't expected to make a run and are simply enjoying the experience.
But the SEC, once again, was so strong that year that when comparing two teams that seem fairly even, it's tough not to give the more battle-tested SEC side the edge. This should be a close matchup, but expect Arkansas to escape with the win.