CWS Finals Preview
South Carolina, Florida face off for national title
OMAHA—For the third year in a row, college baseball will not have a Cinderella national champion. And for the third year in a row, the national champion will hail from the Southeastern Conference.
When the CWS Finals begin Monday at 7 p.m. ET, a pair of true heavyweights will battle for the national title. Marquee matchups don't get better than this: defending national champion South Carolina against preseason No. 1 Florida, which also ended the regular season atop the Top 25 rankings. The Gamecocks and Gators tied for the SEC regular-season title (along with Vanderbilt), and both teams earned national seeds in the NCAA tournament.
While neither of these teams qualifies as a surprising finalist, no team ever breezes through the long regular season and rigorous postseason—not even South Carolina, which is riding a record 14-game NCAA tournament winning streak into the Finals. Two of South Carolina's three wins in Omaha came in walk-off fashion, including a white-knuckle 13-inning affair against Virginia on Friday. And Florida had its march through the postseason interrupted by Mississippi State's come-from-behind, walk-off win in the second game of the Gainesville Super Regional. The Gators then squandered a four-run lead in the third game and had to come from behind in the late innings to get to Omaha.
Both teams have had to shoulder the burden of expectations, and they have handled it with aplomb.
"It's been a different year for us this year because we've kind of had a bull's eye on our backs since day one," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "We knew we had a chance to be good, but to be at this position at the end of the year, it doesn't always work out that way. We've had some struggles in midweek games. I don't know if it's lack of focus or it certainly has a lot to do with the competition we play, because everybody we play in midweek is good. But I think going through some of the adversity has helped us get to this point. I think I keep pointing back to that super regional game on that Saturday when we got left on the field. I think that was a turning point in our season. I think that helped us all."
O'Sullivan pointed out that the Gamecocks also wore a bull's eye this season as the defending national champions, but South Carolina's biggest challenge was more concrete than that. The Gamecocks had to replace their two weekend rotation stalwarts from a year ago—Blake Cooper and Sam Dyson. They entered the season without any pitchers who had proven themselves in starting roles over a full season, and even when they traveled to Florida on March 26, their rotation was in flux. No. 2 starter Steven Neff was scratched from his start that weekend by shoulder tenderness, so the Gamecocks turned to freshman righthander Forrest Koumas for his first career start. He responded with six innings of two-hit ball and remained in the rotation from that point forward.
"The thing coming into the season was the pitching staff—was it going to be good enough, was the starting rotation going to be good enough?" said junior lefthander Michael Roth, who became the staff ace this year and earned first-team All-America honors. "I think some of us had something to prove. And thus far I think we've done a good job."
As SEC East rivals, Florida and South Carolina are very familiar with each other, and in this case familiarity has bred respect. It was very clear in Sunday's pre-Finals press conference that the coaches and players have great admiration for each other.
The last time they met, the Gamecocks won two of three in Gainesville. But which of these juggernauts has the edge this time around? Here's a breakdown:
South Carolina finds itself in a familiar position heading into the Finals: facing a foe with a rested, perfectly aligned pitching staff, while its own staff is fatigued. A year ago, South Carolina's pitching staff was heavily taxed by its run through the CWS losers' bracket, forcing the Gamecocks to bring Cooper back on three days' rest against a fresh Gerrit Cole in the Finals opener against UCLA. South Carolina won that game, and a day later brought Roth back on three days' rest against a fresh Rob Rasmussen—and won that game as well.
This year, both teams stayed out of the losers' bracket, winning their respective brackets in three games. But Florida opted not to start ace Hudson Randall on five days' rest Friday, going instead with Alex Panteliodis. The move paid off, as the Gators beat Vanderbilt and now turn to Randall in the opener on eight days' rest.
South Carolina, meanwhile, used Roth on Friday against Virginia, so he won't be available until Tuesday at the earliest—and that would be on three days' rest. Florida has flame-throwing No. 2 starter Karsten Whitson ready on full rest for Game Two.
"They are set up a little bit better than us right now, but it's a short series," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. "Anything can happen. It's one play, one pitch, that kind of thing. If you just go on paper, they may be in a better position."
South Carolina will start Koumas in the opener, with No. 2 starter Colby Holmes likely available in the bullpen if needed or in a starting role Tuesday or Wednesday. Koumas has no shortage of rest—he hasn't pitched since June 5 in regionals, as the Gamecocks swept Connecticut in two games in super regionals and had enough time to bring Roth back for a second time in their third CWS game. When asked if he was concerned at all about Koumas being rusty, and being a freshman starting in the CWS Finals, Tanner's response was blunt.
"Yes," he said, to laughter. "Absolutely. Forrest has been champing at the bit. We won the super regionals—he was scheduled to go, didn't pitch. His bullpens have been great. Coach (Jerry) Meyers has done a great job keeping him there. But he hasn't been on this stage that Hudson Randall has. And Hudson is certainly a much more proven pitcher. (Koumas) does have good stuff. One of the better games he had earlier in the year was in Gainesville when he pitched with short notice. He's certainly talented enough, but as a coach you are concerned about if he's able to harness his emotions and all those things that come into play."
South Carolina has the nation's premier closer in righthander Matt Price—but his status for Monday is in doubt after he threw a season-high 95 pitches over 5 2/3 scoreless innings of relief Friday against Virginia. Unlike last year, when South Carolina often mixed and matched in its deep bullpen before handing the ball to Price, the Gamecocks have leaned very heavily on two relievers in the postseason: Price and submariner John Taylor, who ranks third in the nation with a 1.17 ERA. With Price likely unavailable for the first game, South Carolina will probably need some other arms to come up big, such as sidewinder Jose Mata and lefthander Tyler Webb.
Florida doesn't have Matt Price, but it has the deeper bullpen of these two clubs. No staff can match Florida's collection of power relievers, including righthanders Tommy Toledo, Greg Larson, Anthony DeSclafani and Austin Maddox plus lefties Nick Maronde and Steven Rodriguez. Maddox and Rodriguez are the most trusted options in tight spots late in the game, but O'Sullivan doesn't hesitate to call upon any of the six, giving Florida the ability to match up against righthanded and lefthanded hitters. Of course, five of those six had a part in the evaporation of Florida's three-run lead Friday against Vanderbilt, before the Gators won it with two runs in the eighth.
"We just need to throw strikes—simple as that," O'Sullivan said after that game. "This ballpark plays big, we've just got to throw more strikes. It's frustrating. We've been throwing strikes all year long."
The Gators also have taken advantage of their pitching depth all year long, spreading out the workload to keep all of their relievers as well as their starters fresh for June. So the struggles of the bullpen Friday and in the super regional against MSU are surprising—but the Gators still get the edge in this category if only because Price is fatigued.
Both lineups are deep, with tough outs from top to bottom. South Carolina made it to Omaha even with preseason All-American Jackie Bradley sidelined with a wrist injury since April 23, and he returned to give the Gamecocks a spark in the CWS. But now they might be without their other biggest bat, as sophomore first baseman Christian Walker tweaked his wrist Friday against Virginia and is considered questionable for Monday. If he can't go, the Gamecocks could move Brady Thomas from DH to catcher, then slide Rob Beary from catcher to first base. A foot injury has limited Thomas to DH in the postseason, and it's uncertain he'll be able to catch this week. If he can't, Roth could play first base. Walker has not been hot in Omaha, but his loss would still leave a gaping hole in the middle of South Carolina's lineup, as he leads the team in batting (.355), homers (10), doubles (20) and RBIs (62).
Florida, meanwhile, has not used Maddox at first base in the postseason because of his own foot sprain. His absence has not had a great effect on the offense, though, because Tyler Thompson and Daniel Pigott have played well in the outfield, allowing the Gators to shift Preston Tucker from right field to first. Tucker has been red-hot in the postseason, racking up 19 RBIs in the NCAA tournament—seven more than any other player in the postseason. He and Mike Zunino have combined for 33 home runs this season in the heart of the order, and five other Gators have at least five homers, giving Florida a power dimension that South Carolina lacks, especially if Walker is sidelined.
"When you've got Mike and Preston over here that blast a three-run homer and take the other team out, we don't do that so much," Tanner said. "We have to hang around and compete and try to stay in position to win, and we do win a lot of games from the fifth inning on. That's who we've been."
Though his team ranks fifth nationally with 68 homers, O'Sullivan said the bunt game has been an emphasis for his team all season long. Both of these teams, in fact, won games Friday by applying pressure with bunts, and forcing their opponents into mistakes.
"Florida, they're a little bit similar to us," South Carolina second baseman Scott Wingo said. "I think they hit-and-run, bunt, steal. Well, we don't steal—whatever."
Indeed, South Carolina ranks 237th in the nation with 40 stolen bases. Florida runs a bit more, ranking 155th with 56 steals. So speed is not a huge part of either team's attack, but Florida's offense is just a bit more complete—with a lot more power, a little more speed and a cleaner bill of health.
Florida actually has a slightly better fielding percentage than South Carolina—.975 vs. .974. Florida's defense has solidified since the Gators installed defensive specialist Cody Dent as the everyday third baseman, complementing stellar middle infielders Nolan Fontana and Josh Adams. Bryson Smith, a former third baseman, has developed into a quality center fielder, and the Gators are fine on the corners. Zunino is a standout behind the plate.
South Carolina's defense has been mostly spectacular in Omaha, though it did commit a pair of uncharacteristic errors in the eighth inning Friday to let Virginia tie the game. Wingo and Peter Mooney form an extremely slick double-play tandem, capable of dazzling more than Florida's keystone combination, though Mooney is not as consistent at short as Fontana. Adrian Morales is a strong defender at third, and Bradley might be the nation's best defensive center fielder. Evan Marzilli and Jake Williams flank him in an athletic outfield. If Walker plays, this category goes down as a push. But the uncertainty surrounding Walker's status gives Florida a slight edge, because there is a strong chance the Gamecocks will have a catcher or a pitcher manning first base.
Florida is not the defending national champion, but the Gators were in Omaha last year (they went 0-2), and they have benefited from that experience this time around.
"Obviously getting a taste of Omaha was great, but (it was) obviously a disappointing ending," Tucker said. "I think we had a different mindset coming in this year. Last year was the first time for all the guys getting here, I guess it was a little overwhelming; I know it was for me. But I think everyone's playing a little more comfortable, more relaxed this year, knowing that we have been there before."
O'Sullivan said his team is playing its best baseball of the year right now. Maybe the Gators were guilty of losing their focus during some of those midweek losses this spring, but they are focused, resilient and tough now. Of course, South Carolina wins the intangibles battle against every team in college baseball—just like the sport's last back-to-back champion, Oregon State.
"South Carolina, they just know how to win," Tucker said. "If they find themselves in a tough spot in the ballgame, they know how to get out of it. They make big pitches and get timely hits. I think they know how to perform late in the ballgame."
"The first thing is they're very well coached," O'Sullivan said of the Gamecocks. "And they play with a great deal of confidence. And I think that's the thing that probably is going to be the most interesting thing these next two or three games is we're playing with a great deal of confidence as well. I called it the other day—it's swag versus swag."
Not only are both teams confident, but both teams have blue-collar approaches.
"You know, if all you (media) guys went away and there were no fans, we were on the back sandlot, we flipped a coin and said, 'Who's home and visitors,' I'm not sure it would be any different," Tanner said. "I think they love to play; we love to play. Yeah, there's a lot more at stake now than there ever was before. But it's really genuine baseball. Let's go. Let's strap it on and let's try to make a play here and let's be competitive."
Nobody does that better than the Gamecocks, who always believe they're going to win—and usually do.