OMAHA, Neb. – At the rather unholy hour of 12:59 a.m. on Friday, Texas finished off Virginia 6-2, and Omaha was down to the final four. Consider what all could happen next.
This College World Series has seen surprises, big numbers, wackiness, variety. Great weather for five days, and then a 3 ½-hour rain delay Thursday night. Very few lead changes, but five one-run games. There have been 19 home runs, which is only four off the highest total ever at TD Ameritrade Park. But also 206 strikeouts in 10 games, which is on pace to challenge the all-time record of 339 set 64 years ago. There have been 18 replay reviews, but not one call has yet been overturned.
Freshmen have thrived, but one of the biggest hits for Texas against Virginia came from a first baseman in his 182nd career start. Zach Zubia was 0-for-10 in the CWS with five strikeouts, and had only two hits in his previous 25 NCAA Tournament at-bats when he came to the plate in the ninth inning. He worked the count full, then cleared the bases with a double. “I'm going to be the first one to say, obviously my College World Series start hasn't been the greatest,” he said afterward. “It's important to every hitter, just trusting yourself, trusting your work. And I think I showed that in my last at-bat.”
Vanderbilt won a game that took 4 hours and 51 minutes, then lost a game that was over in 2:28. Mississippi State used two pitchers to strike out 21 Texas batters, and the next game needed eight pitchers to strike out only six against Virginia. The Bulldogs won both.
UNUSUAL RALLY: How Vanderbilt pulled it off
North Carolina State is still being asked how a team can go from 1-8 in its conference to one victory from the championship finals.
There had been only two rallies from four runs down in the first nine years that the College World Series was played in TD Ameritrade Park. There were two more just in the past three days.
In a sports world just emerging from the empty stands of the pandemic, total attendance will almost surely pass 300,000 for the 15th consecutive year. Especially with the Mississippi State legions rolling into Nebraska.
All that intrigue, and they haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. Nobody knows what will happen, now that the CWS is down to four teams. But any of these still could happen...
Vanderbilt could become the seventh school to repeat as champions. That would be a mighty statement for Tim Corbin’s program, since of the 17 players who saw action for the Commodores in the 2019 CWS, Kumar Rocker is the only one left. Vanderbilt has flirted with extinction all week, but maybe the Commodores are now settling in for the final run. “You have to allow them to have that awe factor,” Corbin said of all his newcomers to this stage. “It’s like going to Disney World for the first time as a little kid. You go there and your eyes are wide open to what you see. After a few days, you start to settle in and really enjoy the amusement park. Same case here.”
But now, they have to beat North Carolina State twice.
Texas could keep scoring runs. The team that struck out 21 times in its opening loss has put up eight and six runs its last two games. When the Longhorns do that, victory is in the bag, or has been, anyway. They’re 36-0 this season when scoring five or more. “I’d say we have the momentum right now,” designated hitter Ivan Melendez said. “We’re hungry for more.”
But now, they have to beat Mississippi State twice.
North Carolina State could become only the second sitting ACC member to win the College World Series in 65 years. Virginia of 2015 is the only other. The Wolfpack could also become the first unseeded national champion since Coastal Carolina in 2016. Also, the 30th school to win the title. Their bandwagon in Omaha is growing. “Former players have come out, fans have come out,” coach Elliott Avent said. “It’s not cheap to get out here. I’ve been amazed at how many people found their way to Omaha.”
THE CWS DARLING: How NC State is defying the odds
Mississippi State or Vanderbilt – or both – could give the SEC a team in the championship finals for the 12th time in 13 years. That league might have a football as its beating heart, but it summers in Omaha. For an odd testament of the conference's omnipresence here, there was Thursday night. Virginia had played its last 13 College World Series games against SEC opponents before meeting Big-12 Texas. The Cavaliers came in 13-9 all-time in CWS games, and all nine losses were to the SEC.
The baseballs could keep flying out, headed for Iowa or the zoo. There have now been 400 homers in the NCAA Tournament. Unheard of.
Larceny could be in the wind. Vanderbilt’s Enrique Bradfield Jr., leads the nation with 46 stolen bases. He’s been caught only six times. Texas’ Mike Antico is second with 41. He’s been thrown out only four times. If both get on base a lot, the CWS might set a new record for most times pitchers throw to first.
Mississippi State could finally get to the finish line in its 12th Omaha appearance. Only Florida State – here 23 Junes – has been to the College World Series more times without winning it. The Bulldog masses heading to Nebraska sniff a shot at history. “I feel like the town of Starkville, they deserve it,” outfielder Tanner Allen said. “It’s a great fan base. They support us no matter what. I feel it’s our time.”
Texas could become only the fifth team in 40 years to lose its first game and end up national champions. The Longhorns could also be the first Big 12 champion in 16 years, back to win they last won it. But it has been an arduous path; first the 21-strike stuffing by Mississippi State, and then comebacks in both their elimination games. “We're not going away. This team is just resilient,” coach David Pierce said in the wee hours of Friday after the Virginia game. “We tell them . . . we don't want it easy. It's going to be hard. We understand it. They're going to have blows. We're going to have to accept them and just keep playing.”
CWS CONTINUES: Keep up with the schedule at the College World Series
So there’s a the reigning champion in Vanderbilt, royalty in Texas, a program that has long waited for its Omaha moment in Mississippi State, and something of a surprise package in North Carolina State. What to do now? “Just scratch and claw,” Zubia said of Texas’ plans. Probably the other three teams as well.