DIbaseball.com's Kendall Rogers and Aaron Fitt examine some intriguing storylines, key players and themes to keep an eye on at the 2022 Men's College World Series.
Bracket One: Notre Dame, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma
By Kendall Rogers
1. The Texas duo of Ivan Melendez/Murphy Stehly
Going back to fall workouts, it was evident that Murphy Stehly was capable of putting together a breakout campaign. Meanwhile, Texas hard-hitting slugger Ivan Melendez spurned overtures from the Miami Marlins last summer, and his return clearly was a huge key for the Longhorns. But who would’ve known this tandem would turn into the most dangerous in college baseball? Sure, Melendez has had a campaign that makes him the easy choice for National Player of the Year. The Hispanic Titanic is hitting .396 with 32 homers and 94 RBIs. Simply ridiculous. But what would be happening to Melendez if not for Stehly? Chances are good teams would choose to simply walk him. That’s where Stehly has evolved into the ultimate security blanket for Melendez. Stehly, if you remember from my fall report, was outstanding during fall workouts. He was hitting the ball with authority, prompting me to make a prediction that he would be a breakout hitter for the Longhorns. That hunch proved right, as he has had an insane year at the plate, hitting .375 with 23 doubles, 19 home runs and 61 RBIs. He also has an impressive 1.114 OPS. He’s an All-American slugger slugger in his own rite, and both are worth watching at the Men's College World Series.
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2. Texas A&M in the latter innings
The Aggies have put together a season thus far that yours truly certainly didn’t see coming back in February when Jim Schlossnagle’s club lost a series to Penn and had a poor showing at the Frisco College Classic. But the Aggies have been a different team since the LSU series, and two things have been a common denominator — late-inning surges and an always-evolving bullpen. The Aggies surged late to beat Louisiana in the middle game of the College Station Regional, then beat TCU in the championship game with a seven-run ninth inning. A&M proceeded to beat Louisville in both games last weekend — both because of clutch-hitting in the final few innings with Jack Moss, Dylan Rock and others leading the charge. Furthermore, what the Aggies might lack in a dominant weekend rotation they’ve made up for with a bullpen that is infinitely better than it was two months ago. Lefthander Will Johnston has evolved into a strong option out of the pen, freshman righthanded pitcher Brad Rudis is a strike-throwing machine, Chris Cortez is up to 98 mph with his fastball, lefthander Moo Menefee has turned the corner since struggling to start the season and lefty Jacob Palisch has been incredibly clutch the entire season. In essence, the Aggies are a tough team to deliver a knockout punch to.
3. Oklahoma’s red-hot, opportunistic offense
One thing that is incredibly cool about this side of the bracket is the impact that volunteer coaches are having on their programs. Michael Earley has turned around A&M’s offense, Troy Tulowitzki has proven to be one of the premier hitting coaches in college baseball, and at Oklahoma, Reggie Willits, who was the first base coach for the Yankees last year, has been phenomenal with the OU offense all-season long. Peyton Graham is hitting .336 with 20 homers and 70 RBIs, Blake Robertson and Jimmy Crooks have been productive, especially with runners in scoring position, and Tanner Tredaway is having a strong postseason and season as well with an average north of .360. There’s also surprising John Spikerman and exciting Kendall Pettis. Pettis has been the hero of the postseason with consistent offensive production — he won Regional MVP honors in Gainesville — along with outstanding defense (if you saw the Blacksburg Super, you know what I’m talking about). OU is one of those teams that if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Be advised, opposing pitchers.
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4. Notre Dame playing with house money
The Fighting Irish entered the season with one of the oldest teams in college baseball, and to no surprise, put together an impressive regular season. What didn’t happen for the Irish was being a Top 16 seed or hosting an NCAA regional. That struck a chord with Link Jarrett’s club, and they played like it through the first two rounds of the postseason. They used strong pitching to storm through the Statesboro Regional and used a little of everything to take two of three from Tennessee. What’s evident from Notre Dame’s showing in Knoxville, though, is that this team won’t be wowed by the bright lights of the Men's College World Series. They’re older and will enter this tournament feeling like they’re playing with house money. If they can beat the vaunted Vols in Knoxville, who can’t they beat? They have a point. John Michael Bertrand is a true staff ace, and the offense was opportunistic late against the Volunteers. Carter Putz, David LaManna, Jack Zyska, Ryan Cole, Zack Prajzner and Jack Brannigan are all guys who have seen a lot of at bats in their careers — Zyska and Brannigan are worth watching from a power standpoint. I’ve got a funny feeling about this Irish club in Omaha.
5. Welcome to the great wide open
I was on too many radio shows to count over the past few days, and each time the host would ask me to pick a Bracket One winner, I’ll be honest, I think I might have picked three different teams to win the bracket. That’s how close and competitive I expect the next week to be in this bracket. Texas has the glitz and glamour of Ivan Melendez, but will need Tristan Stevens to pitch in Omaha like he did the final game against ECU, Notre Dame has the veterans you want and need to win a national title, Texas A&M has the offense and bullpen, but will Nathan Dettmer and the rotation give them just enough to win a national title? We’ll find out. Then, there’s Oklahoma, which like A&M, is incredibly hot entering the CWS. The Sooners might have the most ‘balance’ of any team in this bracket. Will that matter? We’ll soon find out. Buckle up.
Bracket Two: Stanford, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn
By Aaron Fitt
1. Star-studded position player groups
If you like star power — and why wouldn’t you? — then you’re in for a treat in Omaha. Some of college baseball’s most talented and most accomplished players will be showcased in Bracket Two. Here are the four biggest stars, one from each team:
- Stanford’s Brock Jones is one of college baseball’s biggest stars, a surefire first-round pick in center field with a background as a two-sport athlete, though he has given up football to focus on hardball. After a slow start, he heated up as the season progressed and enters Omaha hitting .327/.455/.665 with 20 homers and 15 steals, showcasing his dynamic power/speed tool set.
- Auburn first baseman Sonny DiChiara became a sensation this spring after transferring from Samford, charming the Auburn faithful with his joyous nature, his delightful and infectious walk-up song, his big righthanded power and his flair for the dramatic. With a season line of .392/.560/.809 with 22 homers, DiChiara leads the nation in OBP and ranks third in OPS.
- Timothy J. Elko. Already a folk hero for his series of clutch home runs last year while playing with a torn ACL, Elko has cemented his legacy as one of the most beloved players in Ole Miss history with another huge season yet this spring, hitting .302/.412/.656 with a school-record 22 home runs and 71 RBIs. They call him The Captain, and the 6-foot-4, 240-pound first baseman brings a larger-than-life presence to the ballpark every day.
- Third baseman Cayden Wallace is the pick for Arkansas. Like Jones, Wallace is a slam-dunk first-round pick this summer as an eligible sophomore, and he can do just about everything on the baseball field: hit for average and power, run, defend at an elite level and throw. Like Jones, he’s a bona fide five-tool talent who is playing great baseball when it matters most.
2. Can Alex Williams find his form?
As the No. 2 national seed, the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament champion and a team loaded with Omaha experience from a year ago, Stanford looks like the favorite in this bracket. But for the Cardinal to win it all, it surely will need a rebound from ace righthander Alex Williams, who earned Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year honors after posting a 1.67 ERA in the regular season. But Williams has struggled in the postseason, allowing four runs in 4.2 innings at the Pac-12 tournament, then five runs in 4.2 innings in regionals against Texas State, then seven runs (six earned) in just 1.1 innings against UConn in super regionals. The Cardinal still found a way to win the Pac-12 tourney, and the regional, and the super, but making a deep run in Omaha without Williams on his game won’t be easy.
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3. Pick your bullpen stopper
Teams that win the Men's College World Series always have at least one true lockdown reliever who comes up huge in Omaha. All four teams on this side of the bracket have a bona fide stud with swing-and-miss stuff at the back end, and these arms will play a crucial role in deciding which team emerges from this side:
- Stanford lefty Quinn Mathews (9-1, 2.62, 9 SV) is an extremely valuable piece who can shorten the game at the back of the bullpen or step into a starting role as needed (nine starts). A 6-foot-4, 192-pound southpaw with tough angle and good fastball command, Mathews also has a serious weapon in his deceptive changeup.
- Auburn righty Blake Burkhalter is much better than his 3.89 ERA suggests; his 15 saves rank second in the nation, and his 66-7 K-BB mark stands out for a guy with legitimate power stuff. Burkhalter attacks hitters with a 93-96 mph heater that has deception and life, and his changeup is another devastating pitch.
- Arkansas relies upon a true freshman at the back end in righthander Brady Tygart (3-4, 3.82, 51-21 K-BB in 37.2 IP), who might have the best pure stuff of this group, with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a devastating power breaking ball that spins in excess of 3,100 rpm — elite even by MLB standards.
- Brandon Johnson (11 saves and a 52-14 K-BB in 39.2 IP for Ole Miss) can overpower hitters with his mid-to-high-90s fastball — but the Rebels have a second shutdown reliever who presents a different look in righty Josh Mallitz (1.30 ERA, 41-10 K-BB), whose calling card is his ability to spin the heck out of a breaking ball.
4. Premium defense up the middle
Defense does win championships, and in college baseball it all starts with being strong up the middle. This bracket has two teams that play elite team defense in Arkansas (.982 fielding percentage, eighth in the nation) and Auburn (.981, 10th nationally). The Hogs have the nation’s premier double-play tandem in Jaylen Battles and Robert Moore, along with rock-solid veterans behind the plate in Michael Turner and Braydon Webb, and a web gem factory at third base in Wallace.
Auburn does not have as much big-name star power up the middle, but veteran Brody Moore has shined since taking over the shortstop job for the departed Ryan Bliss, and catcher Nate LaRue has improved dramatically as a receiver (just three passed balls) while using his bazooka arm to shut down opposing running games (throwing out 12 of 20 basestealers — 60 percent). Cole Foster can run hot and cold at second base, but he’s a quick-twitch athlete capable of making the standout play, and Kason Howell is a stalwart in center field.
Ole Miss has serious talent up the middle. Shortstop Jacob Gonzalez is one of the leading candidates to be drafted No. 1 overall in 2023, and he’s a big league-caliber defender with a gritty playmaking double play partner in second baseman Peyton Chatagnier. Hayden Dunhurst is well known for his arm strength but has not had a great year defensively, allowing 28 stolen bases in 38 tries. Converted infielder TJ McCants blossomed defensively in center field this year, and when he suffered a hand injury in the postseason Ole Miss was able to shift another speedster to the middle garden, Justin Bench. The Rebels have the personnel to be an excellent defensive team, which is why their lackluster .971 fielding percentage is surprising.
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Stanford is a very good defensive team, fielding .975 (44th nationally). Kody Huff is a reliable field general behind the plate, and Adam Crampton (.980 fielding percentage) is a whiz at shortstop, teaming with under-appreciated second baseman Brett Barrera (.985) to form another standout double-play tandem. Jones is fun to watch in center field, and his arm is a real asset.
5. Who has the starting pitching advantage?
None of these four teams truly stand out for their starting pitching. The aforementioned Williams is the most accomplished starter on this side, but he has struggled of late, and Stanford’s next two starters (Ty Uber and Joey Dixon) both failed to get out of the first inning in super regionals. Likewise, Auburn’s game one starter Trace Bright was chased in the first inning of supers. Mason Barnett (who has power stuff but an inconsistent track record) lasted 4.1 innings against the Beavers, and sinkerballer Joseph Gonzalez went five. Arkansas has a reliable veteran anchor in Connor Noland (7-5, 3.86), who doesn’t have sexy stuff but competes hard and gives his team a chance to win, and redshirt freshman Will McEntire has come out of nowhere to settle in as the No. 2 starter down the stretch. Ole Miss found a workhorse in converted reliever Dylan DeLucia (6-2, 4.35) and has a rising star in lefty Hunter Elliott (4-3, 2.82), but neither guy is an established star yet, and the No. 3 starter spot remains a concern.
Good luck trying to figure out which of these four teams has the edge in the rotation. Perhaps the team whose starters step up most will emerge from this bracket. Or perhaps all of these teams will just rely upon their bullpens to do the heavy lifting. It has worked so far, after all.