Men’s College World Series: 1 reason every finalist can win it all

One of the best sporting events of the calendar year is here.

The Men’s College World Series.

A field that began with 64 teams has been whittled down to just eight, all of whom will arrive in Omaha later this week with dreams of baseball immortality.

Three teams — Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia — are back in Omaha after reaching this stage a year ago. Those three are joined by Florida State, Kentucky, NC State, North Carolina, and Texas A&M. But all eight schools will land in Omaha believing they can win it all.

Here is a reason why each team could be right.

Florida: Momentum

If you believe in momentum, then you might want to believe in the Gators this weekend.

Florida advanced to the final eight a season ago, and swept through Bracket 1 to book a spot in the Men’s College World Series Finals. After dropping Game 1 to LSU in 11 innings, the Gators forced a decisive Game 3 with a 24-4 drubbing of the Tigers.

Florida lost that game, and you might be excused for believing that the loss carried over to the start of this year. The Gators started the year strong, going 6-2 in February, but a 10-9 record in March and a 7-10 record in April — which included a six-game losing streak — led to questions about whether the Gators could even get this far.

And a one-and-done performance in the SEC Baseball Tournament did not help.

But the Gators were given a spot in the Stillwater Regional, and have certainly righted the ship. They dropped just one game in Stillwater, a 7-1 loss to host team Oklahoma State, and won two-straight to the host team to book a spot in the Super Regionals. Then they went down to Clemson and took two straight against the Tigers, including a thrilling extra innings game on Sunday to punch their ticket to Omaha.

“It just shows how tough of a team we are,’’ Gators shortstop Colby Shelton said afterward. “No matter what the score is, no matter what inning, whether we’re down or up, it just shows we’re always going to go out there and compete. We’re always in the game no matter what.”

The Gators have been here before, and this time they have momentum on their side.

Florida State: Their lineup

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Many of the final eight teams can boast about a dangerous batting order.

Including Florida State.

The Seminoles have a very deep, and punishing, lineup that sports three players — James Tibbs III, Cam Smith, and Jamie Ferrer — with an OPS above 1.000. DH Marco Dinges is not too far behind with an OPS of .999, nor is Max Williams with an OPS of .952.

This lineup absolutely battered Connecticut in the Tallahassee Super Regional, to the tune of 24 runs and five home runs on Friday (in a 24-4 victory) and then another six home runs in a 10-8 victory Saturday that clinched a spot in Omaha for the Seminoles.

Florida State can count on some quality arms, starting with lefty Jamie Arnold, but their lineup can absolutely mash.

And will punish all mistakes.

Kentucky: Chaos

Kentucky’s strength might have been summed up best by second baseman Émilien Pitre after a 10-0 win over Oregon State on Saturday put them one victory away from Omaha.


“We create chaos, whether on the bases or on defense,” Pitre said. “They were expecting it, but they weren’t prepared for it.”

Pitre was talking about a seven-run seventh inning that ballooned a three-run Wildcats’ lead into a potential rout. Over the course of that inning the Wildcats put seven runs on the board with just a pair of hits, along the way creating chaos on the bases with steals, sacrifice bunts, and more.

That chaos continued into Sunday when the Wildcats eliminated the Beavers with a 3-2 win. How did that winning run come about? When Nolan McCarthy scored on a wild pitch.

From second:

One last way the Wildcats create chaos? They live by their “[w]e do not move” mantra. Kentucky was 17th in the nation, as their hitters were hit by a pitch 115 times this year. They’ll get on — and then get over and get in — any way they can.

North Carolina: Vance Honeycutt

In putting this piece together we wanted to focus not on individual players, but rather characteristics of each team and a particular strength of theirs.

But Vance Honeycutt makes himself hard to ignore.

Honeycutt is your prototype “five tool player,” with power at the plate, speed on the bases, and the fielding skills to take control of the outfield from his spot in center. He played a massive role for the Tar Heels in their Super Regional victory over West Virginia, delivering a walk-off, two-run homer in the ninth inning on Friday night as the host team overcame a one-run deficit in the final frame.

He then led off the next game with a solo shot, on the first pitch of the contest.

UNC does a number of things well, and their staff ERA of 4.26 is 15th-best in the nation. But Honeycutt is the engine that makes this team go.

NC State: Their bullpen

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As Monday night’s decisive game between NC State and Georgia wore on Ben McDonald on ESPN — who is tremendous calling college games — made the point that if NC State starter Logan Whitaker could just get the game to NC State’s bullpen, the Wolfpack would probably be going to Omaha.

Whitaker did just that, turning the game over to the duo of Jacob Dudan and Derrick Smith who went the final 4.2 innings to book NC State’s ticket to Omaha.

Both Dudan and Smith have electric arms, with upper-tier fastballs and some impressive sliders to match. Smith has held hitters to a batting average of just .178 this season, with Dudan not too far behind with a mark of .212.

If NC State can get quality starts from the front end of their staff, Dudan and Smith give them a great chance to close things out in Omaha.

Tennessee: Pitching

At first blush, you might think the Volunteers’ lineup is a reason they can win it all.

Yes, Tennessee can absolutely mash. As a team they were at or near the top of many offensive categories, including Slugging Percentage (.613, second in the NCAA), OPS (1.029, second in the NCAA), and home runs (173, first in the NCAA and 22 ahead of second-place Austin Peay).

But they have the pitching to match those numbers.

As a staff the Volunteers were fourth in the nation with an ERA of just 3.85. They also tied with Arkansas and Lamar with a WHIP of 1.23, which was the best mark set by a team this season. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.41 was second best in the nation, and batters hit just .238 against the Volunteers this season, one of the top marks in the country.

Tennessee is a complete team, and while their lineup might get the majority of the headlines, their pitching staff might be the reason they win a title.

Texas A&M: Their bullpen

Similar to Tennessee and Florida State, the Aggies have a lineup that will strike fear in the hearts of any opposing pitcher. That batting order is paced by the trio of Gavin Grahovac, Braden Montgomery, and Jace LaViolette, who combined for 77 of Texas A&M’s 130 home runs on the season. All three hitters eclipsed the 1.000 OPS mark, with LaViolette posting a stunning 1.210.

But like NC State, the Aggies have a pair of arms at the back of their bullpen that close things out in a hurry for Texas A&M. Chris Cortez and Evan Aschenbeck make up that duo, and they make life tough on opposing hitters in a few different ways. Cortez is the more power arm of the two, with a fastball that can hit triple digits as well as an array of off-speed pitches, including a power slider and a brutal changeup.

As for Aschenbeck, the lefty’s arsenal is heavy on the breaking stuff. He went 6-1 on the season with an ERA of just 1.66, while holding opposing hitters to a batting average of only .185. Cortez was just as good, with a win-loss record of 9-3 to go with an ERA of 2.83, and an opponent’s batting average of .183.

If Texas A&M can have a lead going into the late innings, it could be lights out.

Virginia: OBP

COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAR 10 Virginia at Miami

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Like Florida and Tennessee, Virginia is back after reaching this stage a season ago.

And this year’s edition might be a sabermetrician’s dream.

The Cavaliers are one of the nation’s best teams at getting on base, as Virginia posted an OBP of .428, fifth in the nation and tops of any team in Omaha. That has helped the team post the fourth-best OPS in the country, with a 1.006 mark. The Cavaliers take a very disciplined approach at the plate, and it all adds up to a lineup that can wear down opposing staffs.

Of course having SS Griff O’Ferrall, a likely first-round pick in the MLB Draft next month, does not hurt. O’Ferrall is a wizard in the field, and has the skills at the plate to match.

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