Image credit: BATON ROUGE, LA - JUNE 10: LSU Tigers right handed pitcher Paul Skenes (20) throws a pitch during a game between the LSU Tigers and the Kentucky Wildcats on June 10, 2023, at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire)
The College World Series is always a great event. But tonight is going to be extra special.
Wake Forest and LSU are taking the field for a spot in the CWS finals. Whoever wins faces Florida. Whoever loses goes home.
But the extra spice that takes this from being a great game to rank as one of the best games in CWS history is this: is this the best pitching matchup in College World Series history?
Maybe. And it’s definitely the best in a long, long time.
Here’s our criteria. We’re focused on the pitching matchup. The fact that these are the only two teams to rank No. 1 all year does not factor into this discussion, even though it adds to the argument that this ranks among the greatest games in CWS history. We’re not focused on the fact that this is one of the rare do-or-die games where whoever wins advances to the CWS finals.
What we’re looking for is a matchup of first team All-Americans. Lowder and Skenes are easy choices to clear that bar.
And we’re looking at matchups of dominating draft prospects as well. Skenes is unlikely to last past pick two this year, and is a surefire top-five pick. Lowder is a likely top-10 pick as well, but to be conservative, we’ll say that any pitcher picked in the top 15 picks qualifies.
And that’s where this matchup becomes extremely hard to beat.
There have only been 181 college pitchers ever selected in the top 15 picks of the 59 MLB drafts.
So there are many years where there aren’t two top-15 picks period, much less a chance for two aces to match up.
But it did happen. In 1976, Eastern Michigan lefthander Bob Owchinko outdueled Arizona State lefthander Floyd Bannister as the Hurons shocked one of the best college teams of all time. That Arizona State team went 65-10. It had 26 of its 27 players drafted and 13 went on to reach the big leagues. The Sun Devils also had two No. 1 picks in Bannister and Bob Horner.
But Owchinko, the fifth pick overall in that year’s draft, picked up the win. Eastern Michigan ended up finishing as runners-up as Arizona claimed the title.
However, Owchinko wasn’t an All-American that year. He was only all-region. This was a few years before Baseball America debuted, so Bannister was one of only two All-Americans on the ABCA’s All-America team.
The best matchup since is arguably 1987, where Stanford and Jack McDowell beat Georgia ace Derek Lilliquist, 3-2, in a rain-marred game that took two days to complete. Lilliquist was Baseball America’s College Pitcher of the Year that year and a first-team All-American, while McDowell was a third-team All-American. McDowell went fifth in the 1987 draft to the White Sox while Lilliquist was the sixth pick to the Braves.
The other best matchup is from the much more recent past. In 2021, Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker and Mississippi State’s Will Bednar were the starters in the deciding Game 3 of the CWS finals. Bednar was the 14th overall pick of the Giants while Rocker was the unsigned 10th pick of the Mets in 2021. Rocker was a first-team All-American, but Bednar didn’t make any of the three All-America teams.
So if you want to make the case that this is the best pitching matchup in CWS history, you can make a pretty convincing argument.