There are just two teams remaining in the 2019 College World Series. Vanderbilt and Michigan are ready to battle in a best-of-three championship series beginning Monday night from TD Ameritrade Park Omaha with first pitch scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.
Plenty has been made about both of these teams' travels on the Road to Omaha. Many, including the staff here at NCAA.com, felt that the No. 2 national seed Commodores had as good a chance as any to win the CWS title, while nary a few had Michigan penciled into its first CWS finals since 1962.
A college baseball power from yesteryear vs. the sport's newest dynasty. Neither team has had to play an elimination game yet, both perfect in their run to the CWS finals. Let’s take a look at what you need to know heading into Game 1.
College World Series finals: Who to watch
|Expected starting lineups:|
|Jordan Nwogu, DH||Austin Martin, 3B|
|Jesse Franklin, CF||JJ Bleday, RF|
|Jordan Brewer, RF||Ethan Paul, SS|
|Jimmy Kerr, 1B||Philip Clarke, C|
|Blake Nelson, 3B||Pat DeMarco, CF|
|Christian Bullock, LF||Stephen Scott, LF|
|Jack Blomgren, SS||Harrison Ray, 2B|
|Joe Donovan, C||Ty Duvall, DH|
|Ako Thomas, 2B||Julian Infante, 1B|
Michigan: The Wolverines' offense is coming off a big 15-3 victory over Texas Tech, putting up numbers that compared to some of the best performances in TD Ameritrade Park history. The 15 runs are tied for the most scored in this ballpark with Florida, who dropped 15 in 2015. Michigan scored a run in each of the first three innings of Friday’s win, just the second time in TDAPO history of the feat.
Jimmy Kerr led the way, becoming the first Michigan Wolverine to hit two home runs in a College World Series game. Jesse Franklin has also been scorching hot with five hits, four runs scored and five RBI in the CWS, so far. Getting through those first four hitters has been a challenge thus far in Omaha, as Michigan has opened up a lead in the first inning in all three of its ball games.
The pitching has been on fire. At least the starting pitching has. Michigan has only needed to use three pitchers thus far. Karl Kauffmann picked up his second CWS win on Friday and now has allowed just eight runs all NCAA tournament. Normal starter Jeff Criswell has now pitched five innings of shutout relief in Omaha, striking out ten over that span. But Tommy Henry, who is on plenty of rest, should get the Game 1 start. Henry was utterly dominant in his last outing, tossing a three-hit, complete game shutout. He struck out 10 batters and walked none, becoming the Michigan single-season leader in strikeouts with 127 so far.
Vanderbilt: Maybe the question is who not to watch? JJ Bleday has had quite the curious postseason. He extended his on-base streak to an incredible 48 games, but the Division I leader in home runs hasn’t launched one in 10 games. That’s okay, because Austin Martin and Stephen Scott have helped with the fireworks, becoming the first pair of teammates with two home runs in two different CWS games since 2009.
Martin, who leads DI with a Vanderbilt single-season record 86 runs scored, and Bleday get the motor running, and the rest of the order does well capitalizing on opportunities. That’s what Ethan Paul did on Friday, tying the game in dramatic fashion with an RBI double, the 63rd of his career, breaking the Vanderbilt record.
Though not as lightly used as Michigan’s staff, the Vandy Boys pitching has been equally impressive. The rise of Kumar Rocker in this tournament has only climbed higher with another stunning performance in Vanderbilt’s second game. He had a streak of 22-straight swinging strikeouts beginning with his 19-strikeout super regional no-hitter and has 25 total over his last two starts. Mason Hickman was strong over six on Friday, and Tyler Brown has saved all three games in Omaha, becoming the program’s single-season leader with 17. But the veteran Drake Fellows should draw the Game 1 start, after becoming the first pitcher in DI in 2019 to 13 wins with a victory in Vanderbilt’s first win, becoming the program’s seventh pitcher to reach 300 strikeouts as well. It is his responsibility to set the tone early against this opportunistic Michigan offense.
Michigan vs. Vanderbilt prediction
Fellows vs. Henry is the Game 1 matchup college baseball fans could only hope for. The thought that a Rocker vs. Kauffmann showdown in Game 2 could follow that up makes this a CWS finals for which we should be very excited.
But that's one of the big questions. How does the NCBWA coach of the year Erik Bakich manage this staff? He hasn't had to throw three starters yet. Is Jeff Criswell heading back to the rotation since proving to be such a reliable weapon in the NCAA tournament? That could be an edge in Vanderbilt's favor.
But how about that Game 1 dream matchup? Henry has struck out 16 batters while walking none, allowing just two runs over his last two starts. He and his .221 batting average against will have to figure out a Vanderbilt offense that is sixth in DI with a .314 batting average and has set its program record with 97 home runs this season.
Fellows has had quite the journey this postseason. He tossed a complete game against Ohio State to open regional play before getting lit up by Duke in the super regional tournament. He redeemed himself with a strong start in the College World Series and now has to contend with an underrated Michigan lineup thriving at the right time.
Michigan has trailed for about 10 minutes this entire College World Series, falling behind 3-2 in the top of the second on Friday before taking the lead for good in the bottom half of the same inning. The Vandy Boys? This offense that has steamrolled teams for the bulk of the season — including early in the NCAA tournament — showed it knows how to come back, and late in games as well. It took all nine innings for Vanderbilt to finally secure its third trip to the CWS finals. That moxie, that experience in winning games in such dramatically different styles, may give them another slight edge.
We're not going to lie. At the beginning of the College World Series, it looked like the Commodores were going to sweep their way to the program's second national title. We're now not so sure Michigan will go so quietly, easily the most impressive team in the 2019 NCAA baseball tournament. No one gave the Wolverines much of a chance to take down the No. 1 national seed in UCLA, and now they have to deal with No. 2.
Vanderbilt's pitching, whether it's Fellows, Rocker, or Hickman, has to come out strong and figure out a way to slow the Michigan offense down right out of the gates. If Kauffmann and Henry get comfortable behind even a small lead, the Vandy Boys could be in some real trouble. But if the 'Dores come out and set the tone, the 2019 CWS title should be theirs.
Prediction: Vanderbilt wins the College World Series in three games.