John: First, it's good to get back to .500. That was a hard slog, but I've caught Aaron in our picks challenge as we are both a scintillating 6-6. It's probably no coincidence that I'm having more success with picks when I'm no longer in Omaha.
Arizona was No. 5 in BA's preseason rankings because of Aaron Fitt. He loved that team from the get-go this year, and we've been higher on the Wildcats than anyone all year. I hope our readers remember that now that Arizona is in the CWS Finals. (I guess that's why I'm writing this now . . . Give Aaron some props!) When Arizona pitches, it can beat anybody because its defense is sound and its offense is dynamic. Those traits all have been on display in Omaha; it's been the most fun team to watch. Arizona will be a very tough opponent for either Southeastern Conference foe it faces in the CWS Finals.
On to the other bracket . . . It's hard sometimes to explain why pitchers using fastballs in the mid-80s can dominate when pitchers throwing in the mid-90s sometimes get lit up in the College World Series. I guess the easy way of explaining is, no one ever goes to the batting cage and sets it for a random assortment of "85 on your hands, then 75 just off the black." But there is a setting for 90 and over the plate, and going from 90 to 92 or a bit more isn't as hard for good hitters.
Michael Roth and Jordan Montgomery made Kent State and Arkansas look like two teams full of bad hitters. Quite frankly, Arkansas has had mediocre hitters pretty much all year, and really hasn't hit much in Omaha yet. First one to two in the two games between the Razorbacks and the Gamecocks has won in Omaha, and now it comes down to a winner-take-all bracket final.
These are the kinds of games the Gamecocks have thrived in for three years. Can Colby Holmes summon his inner Roth, his inner Blake Cooper, and bring it home? It does not figure to be a high-scoring affair, and Holmes gave up his share of line drives to the Razorbacks on Monday in defeat. Arkansas hasn't touched South Carolina's lefties—they barely scratched Montgomery and had little success against Tyler Webb when he relieved Holmes. I expect the Hogs to be more confident against Holmes but for Webb to be ready early again.
Meanwhile I just don't have a deep reservoir of confidence in D.J. Baxendale, the veteran Arkansas starter. I thought Arkansas used him against Kent State purposefully, to hold back Ryne Stanek for South Carolina. Now Stanek is set up for the CWS Finals and that's a nice luxury, but Baxendale will have to get the Hogs there. Coach Dave Van Horn will surely have a quick hook as well—Barrett Astin and Colby Suggs will be ready early, and Stanek could come back as well. Van Horn knows he can't just hold him for the Finals; he has to get to the Finals first. If the Hogs had hit more consistently this year, I'd pick them because I liked their approach against Holmes in the first matchup. But seeing how impotent their bats have been against Gamecocks lefthanders, and knowing Webb is lurking in the South Carolina bullpen, means I'm picking the two-time defending champions.
The Gamecocks will get a chance to go for the three-peat.
John's Pick: South Carolina.
Aaron: I have considerably more faith in Baxendale than John does. There's a reason coaches around the SEC rave about Baxendale as one of the nation's fiercest competitors. I think he'll pitch very well today and give Arkansas a chance to win—I certainly give the Razorbacks the edge on the mound, in light of Holmes' poor outing the last time these two teams met. But how can you bet against South Carolina in a must-win game in Omaha? The Gamecocks haven't lost an elimination game since 2009—like John said, they just find ways to win when it really matters. Roth and co. make sure that team stays loose, but Arkansas can't match that long track record of performing its best in high-pressure situations. I'm taking South Carolina because of intangibles, and because the outings by Roth and Montgomery kept the Gamecocks' bullpen fresh. If Holmes struggles, Webb, Evan Beal, Forrest Koumas and Matt Price are all waiting in the wings.
Aaron's Pick: South Carolina.
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