OMAHA—As South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said yesterday, 300 or so teams started this journey in February and now it's down to two—East vs. West, South Carolina vs. UCLA for the national championship. I broke down the matchup in detail yesterday; now it's time to get to the picks:
John: "It's telling that I was dejected about being just 6-6 in the picks, and yet it is I who enters the CWS Finals with the picks lead at 8-6 to Aaron's 7-7. I'm very glad that I didn't jump off UCLA's bandwagon after Tyler Rahmatulla's injury in the Super Regional dogpile. Otherwise, I might have gone with the Horned Frogs. UCLA has provided nearly half of my victories in these picks blogs, kind of like the Drover provides about half of my meals each year in Omaha.
"South Carolina is a sentimental favorite here in some ways, because of the deep respect that I have for head coach Ray Tanner, as well as his assistants, Chad Holbrook and Mark Calvi. South Carolina's baseball program is the best high-profile program that University has going, and really is probably the best foot forward the school could project. It's got a showplace ballpark, a consistent winning team, a classy coach and exciting players. It's an easy team to root for.
"UCLA is no villain, not with the amazing pitching it puts on the mound to dispel the notion of college baseball as gorilla ball, and not with the legacy of John Wooden that the baseball team smartly has adopted. Coach John Savage is a longtime favorite, back to his days at Nevada and then Southern California, then through becoming head coach first at UC Irvine and then UCLA. I admit (as I admitted to coach Savage last Saturday) that I felt like I helped build the John Savage bandwagon at the turn of the century—we named him the top assistant coach ready to become a head coach just before he was hired at UC Irvine—and then felt guilty for jumping off the bandwagon, which happened in stages in 2008 and '09.
"I jumped back on after the Bruins won the regional, beating Irvine and LSU to do it. That's defending champ LSU and Savage's old school (UCI) and old mentor (Anteaters coach Mike Gillespie, Savage's boss when they were at USC). That set up the super regional against Cal State Fullerton, and for once karma was on UCLA's side for the way Fullerton pushed aside longtime assistant Rick Vanderhook when it hired Dave Serrano. I completely understand why the Titans hired Serrano, and he's a tremendous coach. But pushing Hookie aside seemed like bad form, and Hookie got the last laugh this year, as a Bruins assistant, by helping fashion the offense that beat the Titans for a trip to Omaha.
"I don't know that either side has karma on its side in the Finals, but UCLA does have the more-rested pitching staff and more importantly it has Gerrit Cole. He's a legit power arm and ace, and South Carolina struggles to score. I see Cole winning the opener for the Bruins and then UCLA closing out the Finals in three games behind CWS MOP Trevor Bauer in the title game.
"Good luck to both clubs and to Aaron, who looks destined to owe me a lunch when it's all over."
John's Pick: UCLA.
Aaron: I'd like to echo everything John said about South Carolina. That is a first-class program, and I simply love Ray Tanner and his coaching staff, as well as his players. Judging by all the not-so-polite e-mails and tweets that I get, South Carolina fans seem to think we have it in for the Gamecocks—but then, my conversations with other media members suggest South Carolina fans seem to think everybody has it in for the Gamecocks. Memo to the fans: relax. You've got an incredible program, and everyone in college baseball has immense "respect" for it. Follow the lead of your ultra-classy, ultra-gracious head coach.
Still, UCLA has to be considered the favorite in the Finals—the Bruins are just in much better shape on the mound. Tanner's choice to start ace Blake Cooper on three days' rest in the opener perplexes me. The series is guaranteed to go at least two games, and I don't see any way the Gamecocks can bring Sam Dyson back until Wednesday at the earliest, so what advantage is gained by throwing Cooper today? It would make more sense to me to hold him until Tuesday, and try to piece together pitching today. Maybe Tanner is planning to bring back Michael Roth to start Tuesday. Tanner and Calvi certainly gave this decision a ton of thought (as of late last night, they still hadn't settled on a starter), and they know what they're doing, but I'm just not convinced it's the right move.
Regardless, I expect UCLA to win the opener behind a well-rested Cole, and I think the Bruins will close it out in Game Two. Tuesday, I'll have a chance to pull even with John, but even if I lose this picks competition, I won't be buying him lunch. He still owes me for a bet we made last year about Tyler Holt's draft stock—he said Holt would go in the top three rounds, I said no, and he went in the 10th. So the worst I can do is break even.
Aaron's Pick: UCLA.
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