Give us your hungry, your frustrated, your huddled masses yearning to be champion.
Hey, it’s the College World Series. And there will be more good storylines in Omaha than you can shake your TD Ameritrade Park fruit kabobs at. It’ll be an especially eager octet, especially given the fact only two of them have ever won a national title. So many familiar names headed for Nebraska, so many could’ves, would’ves and should’ves in their past. And half of them from the SEC.
They've already played that conference tournament, haven't they?
Storyline: In this academic year of redemption — Clemson getting even with Alabama in football, Virginia atoning for its first round disaster in basketball — why not the Razorbacks? Last June must still be hard to forget, when they were one out away from finishing off Oregon State for their first national championship. Then came the botched foul pop-up, an RBI single for the Beavers, a two-run homer, a 5-3 loss for Arkansas, and the next night, a 5-0 shutout by Oregon State. Anguish. Pure anguish.
Stat of note: Besides that he was born in Portugal and graduated from high school with a 4.125 grade point average, what else should we know Isaiah Campbell? He’s the Arkansas ace, with a 12-1 record, and an ERA a good deal lower than his GPA — 2.26 — with a 115-20 strikeout-walk ratio. In two NCAA Tournament games, he struck out 15, walked two and gave up nine hits and three runs in 16.1 innings. Not a bad guy to send out to quell the first jitters in Omaha.
A big league Razorback to remember: Cliff Lee. He could have been Mr. October, if there wasn’t one already. He won his first seven postseason starts and helped pitch two teams — Philadelphia and Texas — to the World Series.
Storyline: The Tigers haven’t been to the CWS since 1997, but they were close enough to Omaha last year to smell the cooking at the tailgate parties — losing in the 11th inning of the super regional championship to Florida. Such grief can give the next year’s team a mission. It apparently did. All they ask is that it not end in Omaha as painfully as it did for the Auburn basketball team in Minneapolis at the Final Four.
Stat of note: Auburn doesn’t have one man in the regular lineup hitting .300. Problems with the offense? Not hardly. Did you notice the first game of the super regional, when the Tigers scored nine runs in the eighth and ninth inning to blow past North Carolina 11-7? Or Monday’s winner-take-all third game, when they put up 13 runs in the first inning — the second highest scoring inning in NCAA Tournament history — and breezed to Omaha 14-7? The football team doesn’t usually score that much in the first quarter.
A big league Tiger to remember: Frank Thomas. He arrived in Auburn to play tight end, but his bat was too healthy in baseball and his body too battered in football for that to last. He was SEC MVP and went on to a Hall of Fame career, mostly with the Chicago White Sox. He became the first man ever to have seven consecutive seasons of a .300 average, 100 RBI, 100 runs, 100 walks and 20 home runs. Not Ruth, nor Gehrig, nor Williams, nor Aaron, nor Mays. Frank Thomas.
FLORIDA STATEStoryline: It doesn’t get much more of a sentimental journey than this. Mike Martin in his 40th and last season, landing in his 17th College World Series at the age of 75, and still trying to win one. What a retirement gift that would be. He has finished second or third five times. For that matter, Florida State has never won a national title, and this is the school's 23rd trip to Omaha. Only Texas and Miami have more.
Stat of note: Florida State came limping into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed in its own regional, and No. 50 in the RPI. Then the Seminoles got down to business, reeling off three regional wins by a combined score of 35-11, and then sweeping LSU in the Super Regional. They had not won five consecutive tournament games away from home since 1971.
A big league Seminole to remember: Dick Howser. He was an All-American shortstop at Florida State. After his major league playing career, he turned his attention to coaching and managing. He was the last Florida State head coach not named Mike Martin, then moved to manage the Yankees, and eventually Kansas City, leading the Royals to the 1985 World Series title. Two years later, a brain tumor took his life. Now the award for the college player of the year bears his name.
Storyline: Dan McDonnell has created a national power at Louisville, with the school’s fifth tip to Omaha since 2007. Now the Cardinals would like to stay a little longer. They’re 2-8 in their first four appearances. But they’re dangerous, or maybe you didn’t see the scores from the Super Regional?
Stat to remember: Louisville just plastered East Carolina pitching by a combined score of 26-1, continuing a hot streak that started when the Cardinals lost in the regional to Illinois State. Since that defeat, they have scored 50 runs in five games and shown considerable depth in their lineup, much to the discomfort of opposing pitchers. The bottom four spots have hit .346 with 23 RBI in those five games.
A big league Cardinal to remember: Adam Duvall. He’s a Louisville kid who missed his high school senior year with back surgery, but eventually ended up down the street as a Cardinal. Later, he homered in his first game as a San Francisco Giant and in his first at-bat as a Cincinnati Red. After 87 home runs in the majors, the offensive numbers have faded and he is currently with Atlanta’s Triple-A team at Gwinnett
Storyline: Hail to the Victors. Snow and sleet, too. Trying to stay relevant in college baseball in Michigan winters ain’t easy, which is one reason it’s been 35 years since the Wolverines last showed up in Omaha. But back before the southern and western teams took over this sport, the Big Ten used to be the home of champions. The Wolverines will arrive this week as the only team in town with past multiple national championships, even if those did come in 1953 and ’62. They win again, and conventional wisdom does a back flip. The Big Ten’s last champion was 53 years ago.
Stat of note: Michigan won neither the Big Ten regular season nor tournament title, but that didn’t matter much last weekend, when the Wolverines took out UCLA, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA bracket. The pitching staff that threw seven shutouts during the regular season has been the engine driving this tournament run. The weekend starting trio of Karl Kauffmann, Jeff Criswell and Tommy Henry have struck out 40 with only 12 walks in 45 NCAA Tournament innings, with an earned run average of 2.20.
A big league Wolverine to remember: You could certainly mention Hall of Famers Barry Larkin and George Sisler. But there are few sagas in any sport to match Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand but learned to make do, and pitched 10 seasons in the majors, including throwing a no-hitter for the New York Yankees.
Storyline: Could a first-year coach really win this thing? Chris Lemonis will be trying, having already savored the most successful season for a new coach in SEC history. The Citadel will be in his corner. That’s Lemonis’ alma mater. Same for McDonnell, meaning The Citadel can claim 25 percent of the head coaches in this College World Series.
HAIL STATE STARTING NINE: The Bulldogs all-time starting lineup
Stat of note: The season started with Mississippi State striking out the first five Youngstown State batters. Talk about your tone-setter. The Bulldogs finished the regular season third in the nation in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-walk ratio, so the sweep of Stanford in the super regional was pretty much on form. The pitchers mowed down 24 batters in two games, with only 13 hits, three runs and five walks.
A big league Bulldog to remember: Dave Ferriss, though everyone called him Boo. He was awarded the first full baseball scholarship in Mississippi State history in 1941. He threw a shutout in his first major league start in 1945, and his 22 consecutive scoreless innings to start a career was an American League record that stood for 63 years. Asthma and injury cut short his major league stay.
Storyline: Clearly, these Red Raiders don’t mind drama. They just survived a scintillating Super Regional with Oklahoma State, winning 8-6, losing 6-5, then winning 8-6 in a game that had five lead changes. This is their fourth CWS appearance, all of them in the past six years, so Tim Tadlock’s program-building skills at Texas Tech are on vivid display. Just like it was for that Chris Beard guy at the Final Four.
Stat of note: Texas Tech tried four different shortstops before settling on Josh Jung for good on April 14. The Red Raiders are 22-7 since then, and he has made only two errors. He just became only the second Texas Tech player to go in the first round of the draft, and the first in 30 years.
A big league Red Raider to remember: Dallas Braden had a rather modest pitching career in the majors, with a 26-36 record. Well, except for May 9, 2010. He threw the 19th perfect game in history, against Tampa Bay. For the young man who lost his mother to cancer while he was in high school, the biggest moment of his sporting life came on Mother’s Day
Storyline: The Commodores hope to party like it’s 2014. That’s when they won the national championship with an impressive display of brinksmanship, their five wins coming by a total of seven runs. So they will be the only team in Omaha with a national championship in the past 56 years. And Tim Corbin, who has led all four of Vandy’s CWS teams, will be the only man in town who has won a title.
Stat of note: Behold, balance. Vanderbilt finished the regular season fourth in the nation in batting averaging, fourth in fielding percentage (38 errors all year), fifth in scoring and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings. That gave the Commodores an answer for nearly every situation, such as the Super Regional, when they coughed up 18 runs to Duke one day . . . and had Kumar Rocker throw a no-hitter and strike out 19 the next.
A big league Commodore to remember: David Price. He led the nation in strikeouts per innings for Vanderbilt in 2007, then went on to the majors and won the Cy Young Award for Tampa Bay in 2012. By last fall, he was with Boston and trying to do something about the nasty career footnote of his team losing all of his first 10 postseason starts. The Red Sox snapped that streak in the ALCS, and Price ended pitching and winning the World Series clincher.
Just like someone will try to do in Omaha.