Final eight set for College World Series
Top university programs meet this weekend in Nebraska
Pat Burrell, Mark Kotsay, Joba Chamberlain, Jason Giambi, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Doug Mientkiewicz, and J.D. Drew -- the list of current Major Leaguers who once played in the College World series goes on and on.
According to the NCAA, there are roughly 79 active players on Major League rosters who once showcased their talent on Rosenblatt Field in the College Baseball World Series. The Series, a tradition that's more than 50 years old, kicks off this weekend with first-round action. Whether you want to know which of your team's 2009 draftees will be playing, or just what you can expect from this year's event, here's a team-by-team break down:
Arkansas Razorbacks: (39-22)
Head Coach: Dave Van Horn
MLB connection: Four members of the Razorbacks were selected this week as part of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. The Houston Astros took Arkansas staff ace Dallas Keuchel in the seventh round. The Florida Marlins chose the Razorbacks' southpaw closer, Stephen Richards, in the eighth round. Kansas City drafted senior Scott Lyons in the 15th round, and he'll be joined in the Royals organization by fifth-year senior Ben Tschepikow, who was selected in the 17th round.
Key players to watch: For the Razorbacks to advance, they will have to lean heavily on Keuchel to lock down a potent Cal State Fullerton offense that is hitting .330 on the season. Keuchel will likely start Game 1 and look to last long enough to get the ball to Richards, who has been especially tough of late. Look also for Tschepikow to make a name for himself in this Series -- the emotional leader of this club won't let his tenure come to an end quietly.
What to expect: Arkansas returns to Omaha for the second time in the past six years, with their last trip coming in 2004. The Razorbacks advanced by knocking off No. 5 Florida State in back-to-back contests. The Hogs are carried by Keuchel and will need a strong start in Game 1 to have a good chance of moving forward. Like all of the teams at the CWS, Arkansas has been playing its best baseball in the postseason and is 5-0 in the NCAA Tournament so far.
Cal State Fullerton (47-14):
Head Coach: Dave Serrano
MLB connections: The Titans had seven players taken in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft: three pitchers and four position players. The Colorado Rockies apparently had their eye on Cal State's offense, selecting three Titans -- 12th rounder and first baseman Jared Clark, catcher Dustin Garneau (19th round), and infielder Joe Scott in the 42nd. The Milwaukee Brewers selected outfielder Kris Davis in the seventh round. From the Titans pitching staff, the Detroit Tigers picked Michael Morrison in the 29th round. Wrapping up Cal State's Draft selections was righty Kyle Whitten, who was taken in the 41st round by the Seattle Mariners.
Key Players to watch: Fullerton's pitching staff should determine how far they go in this tournament. The Titans' most successful pitchers this season are all underclassmen, and like all young players, there is no telling how they will react in high-pressure situations. But Noe Ramirez (9-1, 2.86), Daniel Renken (11-2, 2.36) and Tyler Pill (11-3, 3.95) have all been extremely tough this season. Expect one of these youngsters to make a statement early in the tournament.
What to expect: Cal State is a seasoned program that understands how to win on the biggest stage -- they've won four National Championships since 1979 ('79, '84, '95, '04). They've arrived in Omaha for the fifth time in seven years and might be the most complete team on the field. They hit for high average (.330), score a lot of runs (481), are solid in the field (.976), and pitch consistently well (3.36 team ERA). It will only help that their second-year skipper Serrano is quite familiar with Omaha, as he led UC Irvine to the World Series in 2007. Serrano has opted to start freshman Ramirez in Saturday's opener over the slightly more experienced All-American Renken. This is an impressive team from top to bottom that should handle Arkansas in the opening round.
Virginia Cavaliers (48-13):
Head coach: Brian O'Connor
MLB connections: Virginia had five players chosen this week in the First-Year Player Draft. The Seattle Mariners took Cavs senior pitcher Andrew Carraway in the 12th round. The Atlanta Braves chose another pitcher in lefty Jeff Lorick in the 20th round. The Padres chose fifth-year senior Robert Poutier in the 29th round, while Cavs closer Matt Packer went to the Indians in the 32nd round. The only position player on Virginia's roster drafted -- junior Tyler Cannon -- joined the Pirates in the 41st round.
Key Players to Watch: Freshman Danny Hultzen has found unprecedented success this season, especially on the mound (9-1, 2.09). If the Cavaliers are to continue in this tournament it will be because of exciting underclassmen -- like Hultzen -- who have high potential despite a lack of experience.
What to expect: It's hard to know what to expect from Virginia these days, after they knocked off No. 1 overall Draft pick Stephen Strasberg and barreled through their Regional play to come back and knock out Ole Miss in the Super Regional. This young program is making its first trip ever to the World Series, but facing a very tough LSU team, so it remains to be seen how long they will stick around. The depth of their very young pitching staff will definitely help their cause. The knowledge of O'Connor, who played on the 1991 Creighton World Series team, will also help. He is actually coaching against his former mentor, LSU coach Paul Mainieri. This upstart team continues to be unpredictable, so the Cavaliers have a legitimate chance to be a dark horse throughout this World Series.
Louisiana State University (51-16):
Head Coach: Mainieri
MLB connections: The Tigers had a total of six players drafted this week -- all in the first 11 rounds. The Chicago White Sox selected speedy outfielder Jared Mitchell in the first round. The cross-town rival Cubs picked up sophomore DJ LeMahieu in the second round. Kansas City chose the 2009 SEC Pitcher of the Year in Louis Coleman with their fifth-round selection. Junior outfielder Blake Dean was taken in the 10th round by the Minnesota Twins, while the Blue Jays drafted Sean Ochinko in the 11th round.
Key players to watch: It's hard not to have your eye on Coleman, who returned to LSU for a senior season trip to Omaha after being chosen by the Nationals in the 14th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. Coleman has brought his team back to Omaha, and in his new role of No. 2 starter, the senior has made all the difference for the Tigers.
What to expect: The SEC Champion Tigers return to the CWS for the second-consecutive season as an early favorite to take the title. While any of the challengers have the potential to win it all, LSU has the talent, the statistics and the experience. Virginia's best shot at containing their offense has to be throwing a lefty at the Tigers, as they are only 17-13 on the season when facing a southpaw compared to 34-3 against righties. With their ace Anthony Ranaudo holding hitters to a miniscule .198 on the season, the pitching staff should have the strength to go the distance. LSU could sweep through to the finals. That being said, the College World Series has a way of turning reason upside down and anything is possible.
North Carolina Tar Heels: (47-16)
Head Coach: Mike Fox
MLB connections: Seven members of the Tar Heels were drafted by Major League clubs this week, including two in the first round. With the No. 2 overall pick, the Mariners drafted Dustin Ackley as an outfielder. The Cleveland Indians then selected righty Alex White with the No. 15 overall pick. The Mariners also chose Kyle Seager in the third round and pitcher Brian Moran in the fourth. The Reds picked up Mark Fleury in the fourth round as well. The Yankees continued the fourth-round excitement, selecting Adam Warren. The Athletics finished off the Tar Heels selections by tapping sophomore right-hander Colin Bates in the 37th round.
Key players to watch: After getting knocked around a bit in early rounds of the tournament, expect White to settle down and provide some quality starts for the Tar Heels. The veteran should come back strong and do his part to bring home the championship.
What to expect: The Tar Heels are looking to reverse this part of the script. Playing in the World Series for the fourth consecutive season, these players have seen a championship opportunity blown and are ready to get it right and bring home the big prize. As they made clear in their Super Regional victories over ECU, they have plenty of firepower and pitching to get the job done. They certainly have high-end talent on their roster, as was shown during the Draft. Perhaps most importantly, most of these players have stepped on the field at Rosenblatt, and they know the demands of the crowd and the moment. Experience may be what gets UNC seniors their National Championship.
Arizona State Sun Devils: (49-12)
Head Coach: Pat Murphy
MLB connections: Five Sun Devils were drafted this week in the First-Year Player Draft, including junior righty Mike Leake, who was taken in the first round with the No. 8 overall pick by the Cincinnati Reds. The Indians took junior center fielder Jason Kipnis in the second round, followed by the Angels' selection of Josh Spence in the third round. The White Sox drafted junior Jared McDonald in the 21st round. The Angels picked up another Sun Devil in Raoul Torrez in the 32nd round.
Key players to watch: On another incredibly complete team, the star is -- not surprisingly -- Leake. Before long, Leake will be in the Majors, so this is his last shot at winning a national championship. Leake has dominated hitters all season, allowing just two home runs over 132 2/3 innings. His efforts have led to his being named a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award and the inaugural College Baseball Foundation's Pitcher of the Year Award.
What to expect: The Pac-10 champions are yet another strong championship contender who are playing their best baseball in the postseason. The Sun Devils have swept their way through the postseason past Oral Roberts and a strong Clemson squad. Arizona State has as good of a chance to run away with this title as any club, especially because of the strength of their pitching staff. Leake and Spence provide arguably the best one-two punch in college baseball, capable of decimating teams in a best-of-three series. The Sun Devils may be the best team to face North Carolina's experience, as they themselves have been to Omaha three of the past five seasons, although only two members of the 2007 CWS team (Torrez and Leake) remain. The Sun Devils have a tough match first match in UNC, but if they get by the Tar Heels they could pull off the whole show.
Texas Longhorns: (46-14)
Head Coach: Augie Garrido
MLB connections : Two Longhorns were selected in the First-Year Player Draft earlier this week. Austin Wood and Brandon Belt were both taken in the fifth round, by Detroit and San Francisco, respectively.
Key players to watch Wood proved he was a pretty special pitcher earlier this month by tossing a no-hitter through 12 1/3 innings. Strong performances like that just don't come along every day. Right-hander Chance Ruffin is a horse for the Longhorns, with three complete games this season, 116 innings and only 23 walks. He appears to have a huge upside. Interestingly, Ruffin's father, Bruce, pitched for 12 years in the Majors with the Phillies, Brewers and Rockies, respectively.
What to expect: Here again is another team that has incredible depth, but it's the pitching staff that really stands out. The Longhorns have five pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched this season, none of whom have ERA's higher than 3.50. They have pitchers that can go the distance in Ruffin and Cole Green, as well as strikeout pitchers in Ruffin and Taylor Jungmann. They also have pitchers like Wood who have great control. Bottom line: If Texas wins the World Series it will be because of the depth of their pitching staff. Their offense, while certainly not lacking luster, may falter against some of the tournament's stronger pitching staffs.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles: (40-24)
Head Coach: Corky Palmer
MLB connections: Four Golden Eagles were selected on Day 2 of this week's First-Year Player Draft. The Minnesota Twins selected senior Brian Dozier in the eighth round. Right-hander JR Ballinger heard his name called by the Chicago White Sox in the 11th round. The New York Mets drafted senior outfielder James Ewing in the 12th round of the Draft, and last but not least, the San Diego Padres chose outfielder Bo Davis in the 24th round.
Key players to watch: To what extent Dozier is able to play in Omaha after breaking his collarbone in April will be telling for the Golden Eagles. Hitting at a .394 clip before he was injured, Dozier has been activated for the World Series and will only DH and pinch-hit, as he's not yet strong enough to throw from shortstop, Palmer announced this week. An emotional leader on this team, Dozier will need to find a way to make an impact on these games for this Cinderella story to continue.
What to expect: Joining Virginia as first-timers at the College World Series, there is little pressure on this team to advance further. Although the odds are against them, it has certainly happened before. Let's not forget the Oregon State team who won their first CWS game and first National Championship in the same season. Don't count out this Cinderella story either, as they have the talent to surprise people. Don't forget -- this team upended a very strong, World-Series caliber Florida team on their way to Omaha. With a fairly solid lineup, the question mark for the Golden Eagles is their bullpen. At 5.01, Southern Miss has the highest ERA of any pitching staff at the Series. As with Virginia, however, there is no way to expect anything from these teams that have shattered all preconceptions. The Golden Eagles have been on a tear for about the past month since Palmer announced he would retire at the end of the season. Sports have taught us again and again to never count out a team that has something (or someone) to play for.
Bailey Stephens is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.