OMAHA, Neb. – UC Santa Barbara and Arizona were best in the West. Thing is, the perception throughout college baseball is that the level of play was down in that part of the country this year.
The Gauchos and Wildcats are in position to change some minds now.
Both play their College World Series Bracket 1 openers Saturday, with Santa Barbara (42-18-1) facing Oklahoma State (41-20) in the afternoon and Arizona (44-21) meeting No. 3 national seed Miami (50-12) at night.
“Fly the flag for the West? Yeah, I would say there’s a bit of that feeling, considering two teams from the West made it to the World Series when there wasn’t a (regional) host in the West. That’s a very difficult and challenging thing to do,” Santa Barbara coach Andrew Checketts said Friday.
The Gauchos are 5-0 in the NCAA tournament after freshman Sam Cohen hit a pinch walk-off grand slam to complete a super-regional sweep at No. 2 Louisville last Sunday and send them to Omaha for the first time. The Wildcats have won six of seven, with Cesar Salazar’s two-out, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 11th inning giving them a walk-off win at Mississippi State last Saturday. The Wildcats are here for the first time since winning the 2012 national title.
Sunday’s Bracket 2 openers pit No. 5 Texas Tech (46-18) against TCU (47-16) and No. 1 Florida (52-14) against first-time CWS participant Coastal Carolina (49-16). The winners in double-elimination brackets advance to the best-of-3 finals beginning June 27.
As the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference dominated this season, Arizona tied for third in the Pac-12 behind a Utah team that had an overall losing record and Santa Barbara finished third in a Big West ranked eighth in conference RPI.
Eleven teams from the West made the NCAA tournament, but for the first time since 1994 no team west of Lubbock, Texas, hosted a regional. Also, no western team was higher than No. 21 in the RPI after the regular season.
“Hearing that the West is down and this and that, it’s like if you’re in the trenches of competing the way this team had to every weekend to have success, I don’t look at it that way,” first-year Arizona coach Jay Johnson said. “I know how good a coach Coach Checketts is. I know the quality in the Big West. I’ve coached in the Mountain West and West Coast Conference and now in the Pac-12. It’s great baseball out there.”
Things to know as the 70th CWS begins:
Starting pitchers: Santa Barbara’s Shane Bieber (12-3, 2.84 ERA) will be matched against Oklahoma State’s Thomas Hatch (8-2, 2.04), and Miami will go with Michael Mediavilla (11-1, 3.11). Arizona’s Johnson said he would wait until Saturday to name his starter. On Sunday, Texas Tech’s Steven Gingery (4-2, 3.25) will go against TCU’s Jared Janczak (7-3, 2.40) and Florida’s Logan Shore (12-0, 2.24) will be matched against Coastal Carolina’s Andrew Beckwith (12-1, 2.12).
Feeling pressure: Florida entered the season as the favorite to win the national championship, was No. 1 in the polls for most of the season and was made top seed for the tournament. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said the SEC schedule, particularly late road series, helped prepare his team for the final leg of its quest to win the program’s first national title. “I don’t know if there’s any more pressure now than there was from the beginning,” he said. “Our players have handled it as good as they could have. They’re excited about having the draft behind them. Since last Friday, the second day of the draft, I noticed a big sigh of relief and everyone was excited to move forward.” Eight Gators were drafted.
OSU pitching: Oklahoma State has a 1.00 ERA in five national tournament games with 44 strikeouts against 16 walks. Hatch and fellow starters Tyler Buffett and Jensen Elliott have allowed three earned runs over 34 innings.
Miami defense: Hurricanes coach Jim Morris said this is his best defensive team in his 22 years at Miami. Their .983 fielding percentage is tied for best in the nation.
Home run binge: A total of 208 home runs have been hit in 121 NCAA Tournament games, the most since the change in bat standards took effect in 2011. There also have been 11 grand slams, two by Miami. The homers should slow down at the cavernous TD Ameritrade Park. There were 15 hit in 16 CWS games in 2015, the first year of the flat-seam ball put into play to tweak offense.
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