Louisville facing Indiana, UNC in the College World Series


Louisville Cardinals first baseman Zak Wasserman connects for a base hit against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the 2013 NCAA baseball tournament. Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

So, yes, the Louisville Cardinals have reached their second College World Series and the school is officially having the best season in college sports history. But that’s already old news, so let’s take a look at the field of eight to see what the Cards are facing as they try to pin down one last championship to end a phenomenal year. Fans who usually don’t watch college baseball and so aren’t familiar with how the CWS works should keep in mind that the basketball tournament golden rule still applies: survive and thrive. The difference is that losing a game won’t keep you from a championship, it just makes it more difficult.

First, the really good news. With 14,000 votes in (as I write this you can still vote), fan polling at ESPN’s SportsNation places Louisville at #3 as a top contender for the trophy. Beyond each team’s base, most fans seem to be voting based on number of wins, with UNC (56) and LSU (57) in the top spots, and UofL (51) just ahead of Oregon State (50). None of the other four teams have reached 50 victories so far, and for UofL to be in the same company as the #1, #3, and #4 ranked teams in the country marks this as an elite team with a good shot at the title games.

Should the Cardinals make it through their bracket, which seems the most preferable of the two, the expected opponent would be the University of North Carolina. Or maybe it’s LSU… it depends who you ask. Therein lies the ‘less good news’: Las Vegas oddsmakers have UNC as the favorites with 2-1 odds, followed closely by Oregon State and Louisiana State. North Carolina and LSU are on the same side of the bracket, so Louisville just has to contend with Oregon State (or Miss. State) if the Cards beat Indiana to start the tournament. Vegas has UofL with either the fourth or seventh best odds according to two of the top sports books.

For a good primer on what this year’s Cardinals hope to accomplish, the Omaha World-Herald’s piece ‘Louisville comes to CWS with loftier expectations’ is recommended. Actually, there’s a lot of great College World Series material on their site – Omaha definitely takes its college baseball seriously.

Here are the announced matchups and things to watch for when the Series starts on Saturday:

Louisville (51-12) vs. Indiana (48-14) 

Saturday’s game will be the fourth meeting this year, with the Cardinals looking to even the season series and take a (major) advantage in the first round of the CWS. The story heading into the series looks to be the Cards’ strong arms against the Hoosiers’ hot bats. UofL has a great corps of pitchers, both starters and relievers, highlighted by the fact that two Louisville hurlers were among the first 100 players selected in this year’s MLB draft – including righty Jeff Thompson, who’s likely to start game 2 against either Miss. State or Oregon State.

Thompson’s been a true ace, giving up .58 hits an inning with an Earned Run Average of 2 a game. As Cam noted in a post about the team’s All-Americans, that’s just over 5 hits a game. Chad Green is expected to start the first game against Indiana, and though he wasn’t exceptional against Vandy he’s been very tough to hit this year. There’s no dropoff with the relief team either, a group headlined by closer Nick Burdi, whose 0.78 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 34.2 innings pitched is scary good.

Not giving up hits hasn’t been an issue for the Hoosiers lately. The team with the 6th best ERA in the NCAA (Louisville was #5) got hammered during the Super Regionals but still won both games, giving up 15 runs while scoring 21 en route to a sweep of Florida State. Those games might be an aberration, but Louisville, especially stars like Ty Young and Coco Johnson, are going to need to keep hitting IU’s pitching, connecting as often as possible while UofL’s aces try to lull IU’s hot bats to sleep. Indiana’s top three sluggers – Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis and Scott Donley – are a murderer’s row, and they’re not the only ones.

The Hoosiers are playing for history, too – this is the first time they’ve ever been in the College World Series, and, for that matter, the first time any Big Ten team has been in the CWS since Barry Larkin led Michigan in 1984. So they’re basically playing to try and prove that Someone Besides Hall Of Famer Barry Larkin can lead Big Ten players to baseball victory.

This is a classic hitting and pitching faceoff, and should be exciting to watch, if at times a bit cringe-inducing. Cardinal fans should hang in there, and invent a drinking game or chant a mantra if needed to get through an inning.

Oregon State (50-11) vs. Mississippi State (48-18)

Mississippi State fans: you’re underdogs, and maybe you’re feeling a little unloved as a result. After all, though Oregon State was the #4 seeded team in the country going into the tournament, they lost the first game of their Super Regional against KSU before rolling to victory in the second game and then a much tighter 4-3 win to advance. With that said, Oregon State’s a tough team with a pedigree – they’re looking for their first championship since the second of their back-to-back titles in 2007, and are counting on their aces Andrew Moore and Matt Boyd to carry them to victory.

The upshot for Miss. State fans is that being an underdog doesn’t mean you can’t take home the hardware. I can think of college football and women’s basketball teams that also took down more highly regarded teams. The Bulldogs swept a good Virginia team on their way to the CWS; though the quality of their starting pitching and the overall offense may be questionable, they’ve got a deep bullpen with 4 guys who have an ERA under 2.00 and outfielder Hunter Renfroe is one of the best hitters in the NCAA. Expect the relievers to come in early, and stay in front of the TV when Renfroe’s on deck – the #13 pick in the major league draft is that good.

North Carolina (56-10) vs. North Carolina State (49-14)

In-state, in-conference rivalry? Check. Nominal David vs. Goliath? Check. This is definitely Sunday’s game to watch. These conference rivals have already played 3 times this year, and you can get the backstory on those matchups from Clint Hannah at Keeping It Heel. As noted, #1 UNC is considered by pro bettors and many others to be the team to beat, and they’ve had one of the most consistent programs in the NCAA with 6 Series appearances in the past 8 years. In particular, watch for third baseman Colin Moran, who is widely considered one of the game’s best hitters which led to his selection with the #6 pick in this year’s MLB draft.

NC State has a 1.53 ERA in the first 5 games of the NCAAs, giving up just 6.6 hits a game. That’s some hot stuff. NC State has some guys who can get on base at the top of the lineup, but if they’re going to win they’ll need strong performances from their pitching staff.

Louisiana State (57-9) vs. UCLA (44-17)

Okay, that part where Las Vegas’ bookies thought UNC would win it all? I’m not sure I understand, because LSU does, in fact, look like the team to beat. The perennial powerhouse is looking for its seventh national championship since 1991, and one more win will set a school record at 58, an accomplishment that seems assured in this Series. Their game 1 starter is Aaron Nola, an undefeated phenom with a 1.68 ERA, and he’s got plenty of backup with a lineup of exceptional hitters. Watch for National Freshman of the Year Alex Bregman; he hits for average and has the pop in his bat to drive the ball to all fields.

All hope for UCLA isn’t necessarily lost, the Bruins swept through the regionals and Super Regionals and they’ve got a good starter for the first game in Adam Plutko. But it is safe to say LSU’s favored for a reason.

Watching the games

The College World Series games start Saturday at 3:00 EST with Oregon State vs. Mississippi State, followed by Louisville vs. Indiana at 8:00, and are being carried by ESPN2 and ESPN respectively (yes, the UL-IU game gets top billing on the mothership on a Saturday night, the other 3 Series openers are on ESPN2). If you can’t make it to Omaha, which is a day’s drive, plunking down in front of a TV with a friend or two (hundred, even) is going to be a worthwhile experience. Sadly, this guy won’t be watching then, as I’m still in Europe. But hey, go have some fun of your own!