If you really wanted to be a downer, you could make an argument that Cal’s path to the college world series has been a bit . . . cushy. True, the Bears did have to play and beat national seed Rice at their home ball park, but the Houston regional wasn’t the toughest pool in the tournament. And Cal was extremely fortunate to be able to host a super-regional against fellow 3 seed Cinderella Dallas Baptist.
If Cal’s path has been on the easier side, it all changes in Omaha. I think you could make a compelling argument that the 2011 College World Series field is the toughest in at least a decade. Six national seeds will play in this year’s tournament. The NCAA lists three major polls on their website, and three of the four rank every single team at Omaha in their top 10 (with the exception of Cal, of course). The current format including designated national seeds has been in place since 1999, and in that time only twice (1999 and 2001) have more national seeds reached Omaha. Want a sense of how overshadowed the Bears are? Check out this World Series preview by Kendall Rogers, perhaps the best college baseball writer out there. He runs down a few best player lists, picks out teams to watch . . . and doesn't mention Cal once.
If you’re into historical similarities, however, I’d like to direct you to 2008. That year, six national seeds also qualified for the CWS, along with near national seed Stanford . . . and lowly 4th seed Fresno State. The Bulldogs were heavy, heavy underdogs amidst such a powerful field. They beat Rice, they beat North Carolina (twice) and they beat Georgia and became the most unlikely World Series champs in NCAA history. Baseball is a funny game.
For now, we’re going to focus on the teams in Cal’s half of the bracket. That would be Virginia, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
They lead the nation in ERA and are 5th in the nation in runs. Yikes. Hell, they’re 5th in the nation in fielding percentage too. And yet, they almost lost a three game series to a 3 seed team from the UC system. I’m not saying we’ll win, but no team is invincible.
Team strength: Like I said above, they’re elite in all three phases of the game, but what really sets them apart is pitching. They lead the nation in strikeouts per nine innings and are 4th in walks per nine innings. As a baseline, you know a pitcher is pretty good when they strike out about a batter an inning. Amongst the Bears, Erik Johnson, Kevin Miller, Matt Flemer and Kyle Porter all are around that benchmark. Virginia strikes out more than a batter an inning as a team.
Team weakness: With the Cavaliers it’s more about picking their least strong strength, but the one thing they don’t do is hit for a ton of power. They only have 24 home runs as a team. Cal isn’t much of a home run team either, but they’ve still gone deep 31 times. To be fair, Virginia plays in a very home run unfriendly ballpark, and they mash plenty of doubles and have a perfectly respectable slugging percentage. But power is the one way Virginia won’t be beating you.
Pitcher to watch: Danny Hultzen was just drafted second overall by the Seattle Mariners, and barring an incredibly gutsy decision by their coach to save him for game 2 he’ll be on the hill against Cal on Sunday. As you would expect for a high draft pick, his numbers are rather comical – a 7.55 K/BB ratio, .188 opponent batting average, 1.49 ERA. He’s good. But then again, Cal has already beaten the number one overall draft pick this year, so who knows?
Hitter to watch: Catcher John Hicks and third baseman Steven Proscia. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two teammates with more similar batting lines. Consider this comparison of Virginia’s two best hitters:
Games played and started: 64, 64
At bats: 259, 260
Runs: 51, 50
Hits: 88, 87
Home Runs: 7, 8
Total bases: 132, 132
RBIs: 57, 58
On base Percentage: .381, .381
Slugging Percentage: .510, .508
Walks: 17, 18
Hit by pitch: 5, 5
The only conclusion? Virginia is illegally cloning baseball players and should have to forfeit any game left on their schedule. I think we can agree it’s the only fair thing to do.
South Carolina Gamecocks
The defending national champs are only the 2nd best team on their side of the bracket by virtue of Virginia’s comeback win over UC Irvine, but the Gamecocks look poised for another championship after a perfect 5-0 run through their regional and super-regional. In fact, only one USC win was by less than four runs.
Team strength: South Carolina’s 2nd and 3rd starters are solid, but unspectacular. They make up for it with a dominant bullpen. The Gamecocks have four guys in the pen who have all pitched between 20 and 63 innings, and all four have an ERA of 2.16 or lower. Cal has mastered the art of the comeback so far, but I’d prefer if they didn’t face a deficit if they go up against USC.
Team weakness: Like every other team in this elite field, South Carolina has a pretty awesome pitching staff. But the closest thing to an Achilles heal is walks. The Gamecocks have allowed the 7th most walks out of the 8 team field at an average of 3.26/game. Is that something the Bears can take advantage of? Probably not. Patience at the plate hasn’t been Cal’s hallmark this year and Omaha isn’t the place to start tinkering much with a plate approach.
Pitcher to watch: Michael Roth. Danny Hultzen is pretty great, but you could make an argument that he’s not even the best pitcher in his half of the bracket. That’s because Michael Roth, drafted
31st overall in the 31st round by the Cleveland Indians, has the lowest ERA of any major conference pitcher in the nation at 1.02. Admittedly, his ERA seems just a little out of whack with his peripheral statistics (he’s allowed a higher opponent batting average and struck out less batters than Hultzen over more innings), but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s talented.
Hitter to watch: South Carolina’s most important batter is one of two players to start every game on the year. Sophomore first baseman Christian Walker leads the team in every single relevant offensive category except for on base percentage, and will anchor the lineup batting 3rd. His power isn’t overwhelming, but it’s complimented with a .359 batting average and good plate discipline – true to his name, Walker takes more bases on balls than he does strikeouts.
Texas A&M Aggies
Were it not for Cal, A&M would be the “underdog” of the CWS field. I'm using the term loosely. The Aggies entered the playoffs ranked somewhere between 6th and 8th in the nation, depending on the poll, and frankly probably should have been given a national seed ahead of Rice. The fact that a consensus top 10 team could in any way be considered an underdog gives you an idea of how incredibly talented these teams are.
Team strength: Just about everybody in Omaha has one stud starter. Luckier teams have two. At one point this season Aggies had three. Ross Stripling and Michael Wacha have been lights out all season. John Stilson was even better, a likely first round draft pick. But he tore his labrum and it out for the season, depriving the Aggies of the type of pitching depth you love to have at the College World Series. Still, if Cal faces A&M in game 2 you know it’s going to be somebody good on the mound.
Team weakness: Conversely, just about everybody in Omaha has a few relievers with ERAs in the ones or twos. Texas A&M has one reliever with an ERA of 1.48, and everybody else is in the 3s or higher. Stripling and Wacha are both very capable of going deep into games, but if teams can make them work and chase them early Texas A&M could be vulnerable.
Pitcher to watch: Michael Wacha. I could have just as easily gone with Stripling, but I think Wacha is the pitcher more likely to eventually go against Cal if the Bears face the Aggies in Game 2. Wacha pitched A&M past Florida St. on Monday, meaning Stilson would have the most rest for A&M’s game 1 against South Carolina. Wacha is a fastball-slider-change up pitcher and his fastball sits in the low 90s. He combines that good velocity with excellent control (23 walks in 115 2/3 innings), making him a pitcher that could easily go in the first round of next year's draft.
Hitter to watch: Tyler Naquin. When you lead the nation in hits while batting .390 you’ve earned ‘hitter to watch’ status. The sophomore outfielder doesn’t hit for much power, but he hits for everything else, including 23 doubles and 7 triples. He’s fast, he’ll take extra bases, and he’ll spray line drives all over the yard.
It's a truly epic achievement for Cal to have reached Omaha, but moving forward and actually winning the entire thing would be an accomplishment on a truly epic scale - and that's ignoring the whole 'program elimination' thing. Rice, Baylor, Dallas Baptist - all fine teams, but none of them are on the level of every other team that reached the World Series.
Win or lose game 1, I'd marginally prefer that Cal face South Carolina in Game 2 because I think Wacha is better than any starter the Gamecocks have, but we're making rather small distinctions between teams with very similar talent levels. I'd say the big key is to win Game 1 and move into the winner's bracket, but Cal did just fine when they lost game 1 in Houston.
Am I optimistic about Cal winning? Not especially. The only advantage Cal might have over their opponents is some kind of nebulous intangible that the team keeps talking about - the toughness and camaraderie they built as they played for each other when it looked like there wasn't any hope. Maybe that matters, maybe it doesn't. But I am pretty sure that I'll love watching every minute of it, win or lose. The Bears are playing in Omaha, and it's going to be a fun ride.