OMAHA—The best-of-three CWS Finals begin Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, and the matchup between South Carolina and Arizona features plenty of intrigue.
It's a showdown between teams from the two most successful baseball conferences—the Southeastern Conference and the Pacific-12. Arizona has won more national championships, three to two, but the Wildcats' last title came in 1986, while the Gamecocks have won the last two titles. The Pac-12 has the richer baseball tradition going back a half-century, but the SEC has been the nation's premier conference in recent years, winning each of the last three championships.
"When I went to the Cape (last summer) and was talking with my fellow teammates, they always joke about, 'What's the Pace-10, what's the Pace-12?' " Arizona junior outfielder Robert Refsnyder said. "So that's kind of where I realized we need to try to gain some respect nationally."
The Gamecocks have earned the utmost respect from everyone in and around college baseball. South Carolina is trying to become the first team to three-peat since Southern California from 1970-74. Three years ago, the Gamecocks never imagined they would be in position to go down as the greatest college baseball dynasty of the modern era (and since competition is so much more intense now than it was 40 years ago, the greatest dynasty of this era should be identified as the greatest of all time).
"In the first opening ceremonies for the College World Series, they tell you it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," South Carolina ace Michael Roth said. "And I was out here blowing meal money like it was nothing. I'm like, 'Probably never going to come back.'
"It's special to have the opportunity to play here for the third year in a row."
This matchup also features two head coaches who have won championships. South Carolina's Ray Tanner, of course, has won each of the last two. Arizona's Andy Lopez led Pepperdine to the title in 1992. A lot has changed since then.
"I remember in '92, we got back from Omaha and 20 people (were at) the airport, and 15 were my relatives," Lopez said. "I think we were in the paper for a little blurb for one day because the Lakers, the Dodgers, the Angels, movie stars, the water, the ocean and the traffic and smog and on and on."
If Lopez and his Wildcats become the team to end the South Carolina dynasty, it's a safe bet there will be quite a few more people waiting at the airport this time around.
Both of these teams were ranked in the preseason top five (South Carolina was No. 3, and Arizona was No. 5), so neither team is a surprise finalist. Both teams hosted regionals and super regionals, and both went undefeated in those two rounds to reach Omaha. Their paths diverged at the CWS, as Arizona went undefeated in its bracket, while the Gamecocks had to battle through the loser's bracket for the second time in three years. In that respect, these Finals are similar to the 2010 Finals, when the Gamecocks ran through the loser's bracket to face another Pac team that was better rested, UCLA.
Maybe the Bruins had the edge on paper that year, just as Florida seemed to have the edge on paper in 2011. But the Gamecocks won both of those series, illustrating that talent isn't all that matters.
Regardless, let's examine how the Gamecocks and Wildcats stack up on paper.
The Wildcats have a clear edge in Game One, as sophomore righthander Konner Wade has a full six days of rest and is coming off a complete-game shutout of UCLA last Sunday. Wade is a sinkerballer who induces loads of ground balls and lets his slick infield defense eat them up. He also has a very good changeup, giving him a nice weapon against South Carolina's lefthanded hitters.
Tanner said the Gamecocks have not decided who they are starting in the opener, but late Saturday the team released a statement listing sophomore righty Forrest Koumas as the "probable starter" for Game One. Other candidates Tanner previously mentioned were freshman righthander Evan Beal, and junior lefthander Nolan Belcher. Out of that group, Beal has faced five batters in the NCAA tournament, and the other two have not pitched. Koumas (2-2, 4.56 this season in 26 innings covering three starts and 14 relief appearances) has the most CWS experience of the bunch, but elbow issues have dogged him this season, making him something of a wild card. The Gamecocks apparently picked Koumas for his experience and because Arizona's lineup is loaded with dangerous righthanded hitters, but they didn't have an ideal option in the opener.
Roth will likely return on three days' rest to start Game Two; he's had success on three days' rest in Omaha before, and he was efficient in his complete game Thursday against Kent State, needing just 105 pitches. Considering Roth's unparalleled track record at the CWS, you have to give the Gamecocks the edge with him on the mound, regardless of who starts against him.
Lopez said his Game Two starter is TBA, but it comes down to ace Kurt Heyer on three days' rest or No. 3 starter James Farris, who hasn't pitched since regionals, because the Wildcats won their super regional in two games and did not need Farris to win their CWS bracket. Lopez has managed his team masterfully this season and postseason, but he made a curious decision to leave Heyer in the game for 123 pitches Thursday against Florida State even though the Wildcats had a nine-run lead from the early innings on. Heyer has a resilient arm, but it might have been prudent to save more bullets for the Finals.
"If we have to, we can bring him back," Lopez said of Heyer. "I want to see how he feels in the next couple of days, too. And James Farris, I think he threw an intra-squad in January—that's the last time I remember seeing James Farris throw. It's been a while; he's more than ready to go. If anything, I'm concerned that he hasn't been active."
If the Finals go three games, Heyer and Farris will both start, but certainly Arizona's starting pitching isn't in tip-top shape, considering it went undefeated in its bracket. The Gamecocks, meanwhile, can bring back freshman lefty Jordan Montgomery on four days' rest if there is a game Tuesday. Both Roth and Montgomery have excellent changeups, giving them a chance to keep Arizona's dangerous righthanded hitters in check.
In Matt Price, South Carolina has the most accomplished closer in CWS history, a man riding an 18 2/3-inning scoreless streak. In 24 2/3 career innings in Omaha, he has given up just one run and one extra-base hit, while striking out 33. His career CWS ERA is 0.36. And he hasn't been as heavily taxed in the first week of the CWS as he was in years past; he threw one inning Thursday and three more Friday, throwing 48 pitches in the latter outing.
South Carolina's other primary bullpen weapon was taxed considerably more. Lefthander Tyler Webb threw 72 pitches over four scoreless innings Friday, and he threw 80 pitches over 5 1/3 on Monday. He doesn't figure to be available until Monday at the earliest, which means Beal and/or Belcher could be called upon as a bridge to Price on Sunday.
Still, the Gamecocks must get the edge in this category thanks to Price. Arizona freshman closer Mathew Troupe pitched well in the team's CWS opener against Florida State, and lefthander Tyler Crawford has been effective when called upon, but the Wildcats haven't used any other relievers. Arizona leans very heavily on its starting pitchers by design.
"I told our starters about five weeks into the season, 'I'll come out and talk to you, but I'm just going to ask you what the weather is like on the mound, and I'll tell you what it's like in the dugout,' " Lopez quipped. "Because I'm going back in, and when it's 125, 130 pitches, then I'll come out and make a pitching change."
Edge: South Carolina.
The Wildcats had one of college baseball's most dynamic offenses in 2012, ranking sixth in the nation in scoring heading into the CWS (7.5 runs per game). Seven Arizona starters are hitting .324 or better, helping the team rank fourth in the nation with a .330 average. Good luck finding a more dangerous group of righthanded hitters than Johnny Field, Alex Mejia, Seth Mejias-Brean, Joey Rickard and Refsnyder, each of whom excels at lacing hard line drives all around the field—making them a perfect fit for spacious TD Ameritrade Park.
"It's a difficult challenge," Tanner said. "We're not exactly sure who we're going to start tomorrow. Most of the time I'll get a guy or two that kind of gets to me and says, 'I really want the ball.' But since they've watched these guys hit, I'm not getting those guys. They're avoiding me. All the pitchers are going in a different direction."
The Wildcats have been the more potent offensive team in Omaha, too, hitting .277 (second among CWS teams) and scoring six runs per game. By contrast, South Carolina is hitting .229 and averaging 3.4 runs per game in its five CWS contests. On the season, South Carolina is averaging two runs per game fewer than Arizona—5.2 runs per game, 164th in the nation.
The Gamecocks pride themselves on grinding out at-bats, and they have a knack for getting big hits (and big walks) when it matters. But the edge in this category is clear.
Big Edge: Arizona.
Both teams are outstanding defensively. Each has committed only one error in Omaha—Arizona is fielding .992 in three games, while South Carolina is fielding .995 in five games. On the season, the Gamecocks rank third in the nation with a .980 fielding percentage, while the Wildcats rank 97th at .969. But defending on the rock-hard ground at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson is a unique challenge, and the Wildcats have loved the room-service hops they get on the softer, lusher grass at TD Ameritrade.
Both teams have outstanding range in the outfield. Evan Marzilli is a premier playmaker in center field for the Gamecocks, while Adam Matthews and Tanner English have outstanding speed on the corners, though English is still refining his routes. Arizona has three quality veteran outfielders in Field, Rickard and Refsnyder, from left to right. Field also has an accurate arm; he's challenged regularly and has responded with 10 assists.
The Wildcats have the more experienced infield, led by the Pac-12 player of the year at shortstop, Alex Mejia. South Carolina freshman shortstop Joey Pankake has improved dramatically since the beginning of the year, and he has been a defensive dynamo in Omaha, but the junior Mejia has to get the edge. Mejias-Brean also gets the edge over L.B. Dantzler at third, while Trent Gilbert and Chase Vergason are probably even at second. Christian Walker has become an outstanding defensive first baseman for the Gamecocks, so he gets the edge over the freshman Joseph Maggi.
Both teams start strong-armed freshmen behind the plate: Arizona's Riley Moore and South Carolina's Grayson Greiner. Call that a push.
Arizona is teeming with savvy veterans who have proven they can handle the big stage, but South Carolina is renowned for its heart, poise, looseness, moxie—use whatever word you like. Intangibles are the single biggest reason South Carolina has won two straight championships and is in position to play for a third. This team has talent to go with truly special makeup, and it simply finds ways to win big games, even when logic suggests it should not.
Edge: South Carolina.