The 2018 College World Series commences on Saturday from TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Just eight of the original 64-team field are still standing, and they’re seeded off into two four-team brackets for a double elimination first-round rotisserie. The pair of winners that advance out of those tilts with one loss or fewer will then couple up for a best-of-three deciding series the following weekend. Let’s go.
This is the premier event of the college baseball season, and it never fails to offer some of the more zany baseball one can watch. This year’s installment of the tourney has already held outstanding theatrics, headlined by myriad power hitting, which is reminiscent of the 2016 tournament that saw no less than 54 home runs in one day. TD Ameritrade indeed plays long as a ball yard, but given the constituents assembled in Omaha this year, one expects more of the same hard hitting as the last two CWS tilts.
Among those traveling to middle America are the defending national champion Florida Gators. Kevin O’Sullivan’s club features two MLB Draft first-round picks in pitcher Brady Singer and infielder Jonathan India, both of whom did what they needed to do in a hard-fought super regional against Auburn, where the Gators won after a dramatic 11th-inning walk-off home run that popped off the Auburn right fielder’s glove at the top of the wall.
What a way to send yourself through to the College World Series.
So with action in Omaha beginning on Saturday with two games, the first North Carolina vs. Oregon State and the second Washington vs. Mississippi State, let’s get to know the Series’ field, and weigh each team’s respective chances at winning it all. First, though, here are the two four-team brackets.
Each of these tilts are stacked with formidable bats and arms. Bracket 2 gets the nod for the more difficult path to the College World Series’ second weekend, though, since it has a full four overall national seeds. Our ranking criteria here are part eyeball test — how well is this or that team playing coming out of the regional and super regional round — and part season-long résumé, though much of those latter analytics fly out the window in a high-stakes environment like Omaha, where personnel chess matches and situational hitting make for unpredictability up and down nine innings of play.
So, from eight to one, here is SB Nation’s ranking of each CWS team’s chances at taking home the title this year.
The Huskies earned the program’s first College World Series bid ever this year. Washington also won the Conway regional hosted by No. 15 overall national seed Coastal Carolina, the national champions from two years ago. Obviously the Chanticleers aren’t the team they were then. They won their first regional bout over LIU Brooklyn, then dropped two in a row — the first to Washington, so credit where it’s due — but the Huskies looked a bit tipsy in a 9-6 win over UConn to take the first-round advance.
Washington slotted into Bracket 1, which includes Oregon State and North Carolina, two national seeds with infinitely more recent memories of playing in Omaha, and the Huskies’ upset of Cal State Fullerton in the Fullerton super was frankly surprising.
Washington may feel like a hot team right now — and to be sure they can hit the hell out of the ball — but there’s a sense in playoff ball, regardless of sport, that a team needs to climb a ladder of sorts, and a first year appearance on college baseball’s biggest stage isn’t a context in which to take down the Floridas or Texases of the world. Sure, Coastal did just that not two years ago, beating Arizona in three games, mind, but they were a Cinderella fluke.
Sorry, Huskie fans, but if the boys from Seattle make it even to the CWS’s second weekend, it’ll be fairly miraculous.
7. Mississippi State
Like Washington, CLANGA is playing with house money at this point. Not one month ago there were serious doubts that the Bulldogs would even sneak into the field of 64. Well, they did, and did so under interim coach Gary Henderson, and they’ve already been informally turned down by a number of skippers who announced their happy returns to their current clubs.
Henderson won national coach of the year for 2018, no small feat for a man who only this past February took the helm in Starkville. If Mississippi State has designs on advancing out of a stacked bracket, they’ll need a significant performance from Elijah MacNamee, who’s currently batting .333 in the NCAA tournament. He’s hit five home runs, no less than TWO of which have been walk-offs. He hit the walk-off homer in the Tallahassee regional that punched the Bulldogs’ ticket to the second round, and thence to Omaha.
It’s MacNamee, Jake Mangum, and everybody else, so the Dogs have their work cut out for them.
With 36 trips to the College World Series, the Longhorns are far and away the bluest blood shop in Omaha this year. They’ve played with their hair on fire all year — especially in Austin — and rightfully so, after learning of the passing of their longtime former skipper, Augie Garrido, in the middle of the season. The Horns keep his jersey in the dugout, and painted center field with a giant Longhorn logo and the number 16. Fans also installed a monumental AUGIE sign down the left field wall.
Led by second baseman and power hitter Kody Clemens — Roger Clemens’ son — and a good pitching staff and even better bullpen, the Horns somewhat lack for a writeable second and third big bat, which feels frankly lazy to say, sure, but until someone comes up with consistent contact, the Horns can worry elsewise.
Clemens was the standout star of the Austin super, going 5-of-8 with home runs in each of the three games they played. He’s fiery and has, um, pedigree, but there’s real drop-off in this lineup that could potentially grow worrisome as Texas gets into an Omaha dogfight.
Here’s where things get tricky, given that Arkansas plays in a different conference from our previous team and next two teams. The Razorbacks can slap the ball all over the yard with the best of them, and they are seeded higher than Texas and Texas Tech, but they got tossed around in the second game of the Fayetteville super by a South Carolina club that was otherwise overmatched from top to bottom.
Arkansas will undoubtedly rely on the right arm of ace pitcher Blaine Knight, who is 12-0 on the year with a 2.84 ERA. Opposing batters are averaging just .226 against him, and if Arky wants to steal this bracket, Knight will have to keep clean with a low pitch count in the opener and go full workhorse as the tilt unfolds.
4. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders are one of the tougher teams to pin down here, given what’s around them in the second bracket. They handled a stout Louisville club twice on consecutive days in the regional round, then just sort of checked out in Game 2 of the Lubbock super to lose to Duke, 11-2. They followed that up with a white-knuckle survival game to clinch a spot in Omaha, 6-4, but their bullpen did the Raiders few favors that day.
Thing is, TTU struggles in close games, and the bad news for the Red Raiders is that every game in Omaha is a close game. Tech is 34-3 when scoring six or more runs. They’re 10-15 when scoring five or less. They can be inconsistent as well, not just from game to game — which is a must in the CWS — but from inning to inning. When they’re on, they’re on, but when it’s bad, it can be bad.
But it’s that floor-to-ceiling roller coaster that just might well propel these guys into a championship series with whoever comes out of Oregon State’s side of the affair. If you like power hitting, my friends, well, do I have a team for you.
3. North Carolina
Other than Texas Tech, the Tar Heels are perhaps this College World Series’ dark horse. They have yet to lose a game in the tournament, for instance, dancing happily through the Chapel Hill regional (twice in a row over a crafty Houston club), and downing No. 14 overall national seed Stetson in the supers. They scored seven runs in each of those super regional games, and their pitching stifled the Hatters down the stretch.
As for the Heels’ pitching, one narrative to follow out will be the health and longevity of Gianluca Dalatri. He hasn’t thrown more than 73 pitches in a game since returning from injury, and even then he’s only thrown three times since. If the Heels can get more than five innings from him at a pop — even given the logic puzzle that is CWS pitching decisions — they could have a real shot at Oregon State.
One making predictions of this sort is always tempted to pick the No. 1 overall seed as the most likely to win the whole thing, and in all honesty Oregon State and Florida are the presumptive favorites to meet in the tournament’s final weekend. The Gators’ pitching staff — helmed by No. 18 overall draft pick Brady Singer — can push this thing in favor of Florida. No. 5 overall pick Jonathan India can hit power with the best of them.
But Florida’s chances at repeating depend to a greater extent than Oregon State’s on the other teams in their first-round bracket. Texas and Texas Tech are terribly difficult outings, and the Gators went through a rough 1-6 stretch as recently as May 13-25, the last of which bounced them right out of the SEC tournament after winning the overall season title.
Florida’s X-factor here will be the capabilities and preparedness of JJ Schwarz, one of the Gators’ many heroes in last year’s championship campaign. Schwarz suffered a small fracture in his right hand after it was struck by a foul ball in a series game in which the Gators were swept by none other than Mississippi State, who sits on the other side of the bracket. The good news for the Florida faithful is Schwarz took batting practice on Wednesday in the lead-up to the CWS, and if he can come back and perform at a replacement or higher level, the Gators just might be able to pull this off.
But like everyone in this bracket, they’re gonna have to face Oregon State in the final series, probably.
1. Oregon State
Though Florida ranked No. 1 for most of the season, the short span in which the Gators didn’t was dominated by Oregon State. The Beavers held the top spot for most of last season, and were 2017’s top overall national seed in the tourney.
What Oregon State needs to do to win this thing is the exact opposite of what they did last year: they completely collapsed in Omaha after a remarkable season. The Beavs got beat up at the plate, were hit all over the park, and made bad decisions on the base paths and in fielding. Perhaps that’s a recipe for success this second time around: learn from your mistakes. After all, Nick Madrigal is back and presumably healthy, and OSU’s staff is as deep as any challengers. They just need to maintain composure and put together a complete performance from game to game this time around.
The Beavers will win it, if they don’t.