UCLA, South Carolina to meet for CWS title
Bruins and Gamecocks clash in best-of-three series
OMAHA -- With the last days of Rosenblatt Stadium edging closer, the final showdown of this season's College World Series will come down to East vs. West.
It'll come down to some of the top hurlers taken in the recent First-Year Player Draft dueling it out with some of the top amateur slugging prospects. With those players potentially playing in their final collegiate games on collegiate baseball's biggest stage, it comes down to just three games. And when the players take the field on Monday night, for the beginning of the championship series, it'll come down to South Carolina vs. UCLA.
Although they are somewhat unfamiliar opponents, both teams could recognize one thing in each other: their styles are very similar as each relies heavily on starting pitching and sound defense.
"They have some arms, I'll tell you that," South Carolina center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said. "They can really pitch."
But of course, so can the Gamecocks, with three stellar pitching prospects of their own in Sam Dyson, Blake Cooper and Matt Price. Dyson, who the Blue Jays chose in the fourth round, combines nicely with Cooper, taken in the 12th round by the D-backs, for a lethal 1-2 punch.
Though their styles may be similar, UCLA and South Carolina possess a different mental game. The Gamecocks took a rocky road to Omaha and have continued to battle on the biggest stage in college baseball. Their spirited, roller-coaster style defines them and they are comfortable with that.
"We're a team that doesn't like to lose a lot. And, we've done things the hard way all year," junior Whit Merrifield said. "I think in the regionals, we fought back in every single game. And this sums up our whole season for us."
UCLA, on the other hand, boasts a relentless number of key role players and big-game threats. One of the deepest teams in Omaha, the Bruins can beat teams in a variety of ways, and for nearly the first time all season, they've been doing it with timely hitting. A year removed from a sub-.500 finish, the Bruins, led by head coach John Savage, are hungry for their first national title and offer a surprising amount of poise for such a young squad.
For all of their differences and similarities, both the Bruins and the Gamecocks have shown a penchant for the dramatic, coming within mere strikes of ending their season early, only to claw their way back from the edge and play on. South Carolina has played four consecutive elimination games in Omaha, but UCLA has done some battling of its own, especially in the Super Regional round against Cal State Fullerton. The Bruins were one out from being two and done in that round before some clutch hitting intervened.
"Certainly, we went through tremendous challenges, as did South Carolina, to get here," Savage said. "I think any team that gets here, to the final eight, has earned it. To get to the final two, I think you've really earned it."
The arms on both sides are equally impressive. It's hard to ignore the deep Draft talent that UCLA possesses, though. Seven of their eleven selections in the recent First-Year Player Draft were pitchers, led by junior lefty Rob Rasmussen, who was a Marlins second-round pick. But, it isn't just this year's draftees who will make a mark in this series. Monday's starter for UCLA is none other than sophomore Gerrit Cole, a former first-round pick of the Yankees. Cole has only gotten more dangerous with age, so the Gamecocks have every reason to be weary of UCLA's big two.
South Carolina, though, is no slouch in this department, offering up senior right-hander Sam Dyson, who Toronto picked in the fourth-round and righty Blake Cooper, a ninth-round selection of the D-backs. They haven't announced a starter for Game 1, but odds are they'll opt for Tyler Webb or Jay Brown. Either way, they've got a lot of talent in Dyson or Cooper that they could save for a potential clincher in Games 2 or 3. The Gamecocks starters are a bit more experienced, so it wouldn't be a surprise if that gives them an edge.
Because of the sheer depth and talent on their staff, it's hard not to go with UCLA here.
UCLA isn't a club that has been known for its offensive prowess, but in Omaha it has managed to come alive when it was necessary. The Bruins have found clutch hits from fifth-year senior Blair Dunlap, a 43rd-round pick of the Orioles, but the question for the Bruins is, "Will it continue?" South Carolina hasn't allowed any of its opponents in Omaha to score more than four runs, so it will need to continue to make the most of its opportunities.
The Gamecocks have been getting contributions from all around, but the player turning the most heads in Omaha is Bradley, who now has a 21-game hitting streak to his credit. Bradley has been on a tear, hitting .421 with nine RBIs to lead all players in the CWS to this point. Merrifield, a ninth-round selection of the Royals, has been a spark in the lineup as well and finished a home run shy of the cycle on Friday night. Freshman first baseman Christian Walker has hit three homers in the NCAA tournament and can do serious damage in the gaps if given the chance.
Neither of these clubs are offensive powerhouses, but with a more consistent attack all season, combined with its clutch hitting in the playoffs, the edge lies with South Carolina.
This College World Series finals matchup is oddly fitting to be the last series to be played in Rosenblatt Stadium. These two clubs represent the best of what Omaha has represented for over 50 years in college baseball. Top Draft talent, prestigious programs, dramatic finishes and gutsy baseball all factor in to make this a memorable finish to the 2010 season. On paper, the numbers boasted by UCLA and South Carolina are nearly identical. The Bruins offer an heavy advantage in depth and matchups, but the Gamecocks have shown that any man on their roster can be the hero of the night. Now, it all comes down to one series and the game plan is simple: win.
"We're a group of guys trying to play baseball. Probably not comfortable on this stage so much, but we're just trying to have some fun here and we're down to the final two. They want to win, we want to win, and you go out and play and I really believe that with the makeup we have and the makeup I've seen from them, guys are going to be comfortable. Going to go out and strap it on and see who can come up with a big hit, a big play, and make some big pitches."
-- South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, on the magnitude of the moment
Bailey Stephens is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.