The 2017 College World Series is well underway. By now, Cal State Fullerton and Texas A&M are heading home, Oregon State has looked every bit like the behemoth they were billed to be, and we’ve been treated to some outstanding individual performances.
Here are some scattered thoughts and notes from the first four days of CWS action in Omaha.
Unusual Pitching Setups Sweep Nation
Winning game one in the CWS is vitally important. You just have to do too much winning in too short an amount of time to feel altogether great about your ability to come back through the loser’s bracket to get to the championship series. The other night during an LSU game, the ESPN commentators noted that every LSU national championship has come after the Tigers started the CWS 1-0.
And if you need any more evidence of how important coaches feel it is to win game one, look no further than how several teams handled their pitching for the opening game.
In their game against Oregon State on Saturday, Cal State Fullerton started Connor Seabold. When he left the game after five innings of work, the Titans turned to Colton Eastman, who presumably would have been in line to start a game later in the series. In this case, the move didn’t work out all that well, as Eastman didn’t have command from the start, ended up walking four batters, and was ultimately tagged with four earned runs in just two-thirds of an inning.
Oregon State, for their part, did something of the same thing in that game. After starting Jake Thompson and using Jake Mulholland as the first guy out of the bullpen, they turned to Drew Rasmussen to finish the game off. This move worked out a bit better, as Rasmussen threw a scoreless frame with two strikeouts to end it.
Later that day, LSU pulled the same move. Alex Lange got the start and was touched up a bit, giving up seven hits and four runs in six innings of work. When he was lifted after six innings, Jared Poche was brought in from the bullpen. In this case, he was outstanding in throwing 2.2 scoreless innings, giving up just two hits along the way, allowing his team to fight their way back and win the ballgame.
The move might have backfired a bit, however, when freshman starter Eric Walker left Monday’s winner’s bracket game against Oregon State early with forearm tightness, forcing the Tigers to use up a lot of bullpen arms. Now, with the loss, they’ll have to come back sooner than they would have hoped, either with Poche on the mound after his relief work or another starter with whom they’re probably not as comfortable.
These moves weren’t confined to opening day of the CWS, either. Texas A&M started Corbin Martin, who gave up five earned runs in 1.2 innings against Louisville, and then turned to Brigham Hill out of the bullpen. After dropping that game 8-4 to the Cardinals, the Aggies were forced to turn to third starter Jeremy Kolek in an elimination game to TCU. And while Kolek’s performance had less to do with A&M’s loss to TCU than the standout performance from TCU starter Brian Howard (more on him in a minute), the Aggies might have felt better with Martin or Hill on the mound in this particular game.
To be clear, you can see what these coaches were aiming for. In most of these cases, the coaches probably felt pretty good about their other starters, such as Fullerton’s John Gavin, LSU’s Walker, and A&M’s Kolek. Also, going 2-0 is the real goal for teams starting out in the CWS. If you go 2-0, not only do you get an extra day of rest in between games, but you can also stack your rotation so that you won’t need to use a third different starter until the third game of the championship series, if everything goes well. If they wanted to, for example, OSU could conceivably bring back Thompson for a Friday start after throwing Saturday since they’re sitting at 2-0. So if you take game one and then get a win in the winner’s bracket game with your third guy, suddenly your pitching is back set up just the way you want it.
Over the opening weekend of play, however, we saw some mixed results from this experiment, and it will be interesting to see if this trend continues in subsequent editions of the CWS.
Losses Follow When a Team Blinks First
We always remember the outstanding performances in College World Series history, and we’ll get into some of those here, but sometimes, a crucial win for a team comes not because of a player went above and beyond, but because they were the team that blinked first.
We saw it in LSU’s win over Florida State this past Saturday. The Seminoles were largely in control. They got to Alex Lange and their own starter, Tyler Holton, did a good job of scattering the Tigers’ hits and holding them to just single runs in the first, third, and fifth innings, keeping them away from those big innings that can send an offense like LSU’s off and running.
But then defense did them in.
FSU led 4-3 heading into the eighth inning. With Cole Freeman on at first base, Antoine Duplantis singled to right field. The ball got away from FSU right fielder Steven Wells, however, allowing Freeman to come around third. The throw to the plate got away from catcher Cal Raleigh, and Freeman scored to make it 4-4. On the play, Duplantis moved all the way to third. Next, Greg Deichmann singled, and suddenly, LSU led 5-4, a lead that they would not relinquish.
Florida State actually benefitted from another team blinking when they beat Cal State Fullerton 6-4 on Monday. If the Titans have been known for anything in recent years, it’s great pitching staffs led by pitchers who pound the zone above all else. On Monday, though, they didn’t do nearly as much of that, as starter John Gavin walked four hitters in his 3.1 innings of work and bullpen stalwart Blake Workman, in a really surprising development, walked three without recording so much as an out in his appearance.
After the sixth inning, Fullerton actually jumped out to a 4-3 lead, but FSU stormed right back. Two RBI walks, both with Workman on the mound, gave the Noles the lead once again, and an RBI infield single from Matt Henderson made it 6-4, where the score would stay.
For the Titans, that was actually the second instance of walks coming back to bite them in the tournament. In their opener against Oregon State, a four-run sixth inning that got the Beavers back in the game after they trailed 5-1 was started by four walks by Colton Eastman, who had come on in relief of Connor Seabold.
The moral of the story is that standout performances might be what you remember for years to come, but crucial games are often decided when one of the teams just simply doesn’t execute.
Oregon State Looks the Part
The winner’s bracket matchup between Oregon State and LSU on Monday night was one of the more anticipated CWS games in recent memory. OSU was coming in as the best team in college baseball, a post they’ve held for much of the season. LSU was coming in as perhaps the hottest team in college baseball not named Oregon State.
But what started as a game full of promise ended in a 13-1 laugher in favor of the Beavers.
To be fair, it was a 1-0 nothing game through four innings of play, but OSU busted the game open in the middle-to-late innings, once they got deep into the LSU bullpen after Tigers’ starter Eric Walker was lifted in the third inning due to forearm tightness.
Two OSU runs came home in the fifth on a Trevor Larnach single, five runs scored in the sixth, highlighted by a K.J. Harrison grand slam (the first in the history of TD Ameritrade Park), three scored in the seventh, with two coming home on a Nick Madrigal double, and two scored in the eighth on a Cadyn Grenier two-RBI single.
On the mound, Bryce Fehmel was outstanding in throwing eight innings, giving up two hits and one run with three walks and three strikeouts.
The Beavers were considered favorites coming into this event, and nothing they have done to this point should change that perception.
“Big Game Howie” Comes Through Again
Thanks to his exploits in postseason games throughout his TCU career, righty Brian Howard has earned the nickname “Big Game Howie,” and his performance against Texas A&M in an elimination game on Tuesday only added to his legend in a Horned Frogs uniform.
It’s tough to find a good place to start when describing how well Howard threw against the Aggies. You could say that he threw seven innings, giving up just five hits and a run. You could also start by saying that he struck out 12 batters and didn’t walk anyone. For that matter, you could mention that the first six outs he recorded were all strikeouts. Or perhaps you could start by saying that he threw 91 pitches, with 70 of those going for strikes.
No matter how you slice it, Howard gave his team just what they needed yet again, and been the story of his career in the postseason. According to stats compiled by Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in Howard’s ten postseason appearances (seven of which have been starts), he has a 6-0 record with a 1.87 ERA. In 53 innings, he’s allowed just 32 hits, walked just 18, and struck out 62.
Even though their College World Series stint was cut short after going 0-2, time should be spent congratulating Texas A&M on an outstanding season. Thanks to a whole boatload of players being lost to the draft last season, this was supposed to be little more than a rebuilding year for the Aggies. With as much talent as they had on the roster, a regional appearance seemed like a reasonable expectation, but little more was expected.
Instead, thanks to a great season from Brigham Hill as the team’s ace, a turnaround season from Corbin Martin, who emerged as a weapon in the rotation late in the season, solid seasons from the likes of Stephen Kolek, Cason Sherrod, and Kaylor Chafin on the mound, and the emergence of Braden Shewmake as perhaps one of the most exciting players in the country, the Aggies made it all the way to Omaha. Sure, they would have preferred to win some games while they were there, but that’s certainly a season they can be proud of.