The Dark Horses of the 2011 College World Series
California Golden Bears Texas A&M Aggies
Justin Jones
AP Images
 
Michael Wacha
AP Images
 

It may not be a national seed or boast a flashy 50-win record, but California is more resilient than any team in the field, and the Golden Bears’ never-say-die approach may take them all the way to a national title.

After the program was set to be eliminated by the university due to budget cuts in September, the team carried on with its season with intentions of it ending with a bang. In April, the program was reinstated thanks to a $9 million fundraising effort, and the team set out to repay its generous donors in the best way it knew how – by winning.

A sixth-place finish in the Pac-10 earned the Bears an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, and a chance at making some noise in the regionals, which they undoubtedly did. While Cal lost its first regional game to Baylor, it battled back to play in the regional championship. Once again on the brink of elimination, Cal rallied to score four runs in the ninth inning to upend Baylor 9-8 and advance to the Super Regional round. The Bears have not looked back, sweeping Dallas Baptist by a combined score of 13-2 to advance to the CWS for the first time since 1992.

While having an edge in the intangibles’ category is nice, California also has a team that can back it up on the field. The Bears’ pitching staff ranks 11th in the nation with a 2.84 ERA, and is giving up just 7.68 hits per game, which is good for ninth in Division I. In seven postseason games, the Bears have posted a 2.76 ERA. LHP Justin Jones is 2-0 with one save, a 0.00 ERA and 15 strikeouts in four postseason appearances.

The Bears have also found their bats in the postseason, belting double-digit hits in six of seven NCAA postseason games. Caliofornia has also hit a solid .313 as a team during the hot postseason stretch – well above its .288 season average.  Shortstop Marcus Siemen is batting .393 with six RBIs in the postseason to lead Cal, while right fielder Chad Bunting has contributed three home runs and 10 RBIs in the last seven contests.

California is sure to be the fans’ sentimental favorite in Omaha, and the Bears should be happy about that.   Fresno State, seeded No. 4 in the regionals in 2008, went all the way to Omaha and took home a trophy while playing the underdog role.

Yes, California may be the Cinderella of the NCAA tournament this season, but the Bears’ glass slipper looks to be a good fit.
                               -- Amy Farnum, NCAA.com

Speed kills. One reason why Texas A&M has made it all the way to Omaha for the first time since 1999? The Aggies have some guys with wheels.

One of the two non-national seeds to make the field of eight in the 2011 College World Series, Texas A&M will need to rely on the three facets of the game that it takes to get to this point: speed, pitching and defense. Never was there a year  where those elements meant so much, and the Aggies will roll into Omaha with all three clicking – despite being down a star on the mound.

If the Aggies are going to make some noise, they’ll need to find the gaps of the spacious new ballpark and cause some havoc on the base paths, which is nothing new. The team’s 29 triples this season ranks second in the nation, led by sophomore sparkplug Tyler Naquin, who has seven.

The Aggies’ 107 stolen bases are 20 more than Virginia’s total, which makes them different than any other team in Omaha. With only one day at most to prepare, it can be a tough assignment for opposing coaches and catchers.

While speed is nice to have and can lead to stealing a win or two, the pitching staff will have to do its part to put up zeroes on the board. That task was made tougher when ace John Stilson was shut down with a torn labrum. But if you take out the 23-9 disaster of a loss in Game 2 of the Super Regionals at Florida State, the Aggies have only allowed 14 runs in the other six postseason games.

That’s thanks in large part to Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling, who have stepped up to form a dynamic duo in the starting rotation that will be needed to stick around Omaha. The staff’s 2.89 ERA fits right in with five other CWS squads that sport a sub-3.00 ERA.

Then there’s defense, which if you don’t play well, it’s rare to even make it this far. Texas A&M’s fielding percentage is a solid .975, and has been even better in the postseason at .977. One of the biggest differences between the 2010 version of the Aggies which lost in the Coral Gables Regional and this team is that the defense has committed 24 less errors.

If all else fails, there is always the reasoning that the higher seeded teams don’t do so well when they get to the CWS. There always seems to be a team like Texas A&M that cleans up shop in Omaha for a couple of weeks.
                               -- Doug Kroll, NCAA.com