The South Carolina Gamecocks (48-14, 22-8 SEC) are just two wins away from a birth in the College World Series for the second straight year and reaching the 50-win mark for just the fifth time in almost 120 years of baseball. Before the Gamecocks get a chance to defend their status as National Champions, though, they'll have to contend with a talented UConn Huskies squad.
The UConn Huskies (45-18-1, 22-5 BE) are having arguably their best season in school history. The Connecticut Huskies had an NCAA RPI of 48 before the NCAA tournament started. They won the Big East regular season championship but lost twice in the Big East Tournament to eventual champion Seton Hall. Even with 16 NCAA tournament appearances the Huskies have never been to a Super Regional due to the fact the tournament changed format in 1999. Their overall record in the NCAA Tournament is 25-32 (.439) and they have reached the College World Series five times, but have not returned since 1979. Meanwhile, South Carolina has been to the CWS nine times including last year's championship run. The Gamecocks enjoy a 103-56 (.648) all-time record in the NCAA tournament. South Carolina and Connecticut have met just once before, in 1985, when the Gamecocks won 10-4 in Columbia. The Gamecocks would go on to the CWS in Omaha that year and lose two straight.
History won't help the Gamecocks in this weekend's series, though. UConn began the year as a favorite to make it to Omaha for good reason. The Huskies had 10 players drafted in this week's MLB draft - two in the first round. In fact, the average round in which the 2011 Huskies were drafted was 18.3 and their average overall pick was 558.8.
Of course, Carolina had a few players of their own drafter as well. However, if you place stock in Major League scouts to judge talent you probably would come to the conclusion that South Carolina is a less talented team than Connecticut. The Gamecocks' average round and overall selection numbers are 25.7 and 783.5, respectively. If you adjust for the absence of Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Adam Mathews, those numbers fall even further to 28.8 and 875.9. Carolina's ace, Michael Roth, was selected 919 picks after UConn's ace, Matt Barnes.
Thankfully, baseball games are not won on the opinions of major league scouts. South Carolina's team ERA is 2.65 and their opposing batting average is .229. In the same categories, UConn posts marks of 3.03 and .229, respectively. Carolina edges the Huskies in fielding percentage by a fairly wide margin, .974 - .962. Hitting-wise, UConn appears to be the stronger team. The Huskies are batting .311 as a team (a good number to be channeling when trying to reach Omaha, Nebraska) compared with USC's .296 average. Carolina has 44 home runs to its name this season, which is 10 more than UConn. The squads are essentially equal when it comes to on-base percentage (.388 USC, .386 UConn) and slugging percentage (.432 USC, .431 UConn).
What this series will probably come down to is which team can execute at a higher level. Connecticut coach Jim Penders favors a strategy that relies on stealing bases. The Huskies have accumulated 127of 170 (.747) pilfered bags this year as compared with Carolina's 37 of 54 (.685). An errant throw over the short stop's head might be all Connecticut needs to break open a tight game. For his part, Ray Tanner has not identified who his Saturday starting catcher will be. However, with the recent injury to Brady Thomas one has to think we will see Robert Beary behind the plate more often than not.
The Huskies are led by pitcher Matt Bares (11-4, 1.62 ERA). Barnes has pitched well all season but got touched up in the opening game of the Clemson Regional to the tune of 7 runs (all earned) versus Coastal Carolina. At the plate the Huskies are led by the #11 overall draft pick George Springer. The center fielder is hitting .350 on the season and leads the team in home runs with 12. His slg% of .624 is the highest on either team.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks are led by the same crew that have been doing the majority of damage for Carolina all season. Michael Roth (12-3, 1.10 ERA) returned to his mid-season form in his Regional outing versus Georgia Southern. Roth went 7.0 innings while only allowing one run and facing only three more batters than the minimum. At the plate Christian Walker (.361) and Scott Wingo (.335) continue to lead the way. Walker is enjoying the highest slg% on the team (.556) while Wingo claims the highest ob% of either team (.468).
No doubt emotions will be running high for these two teams in Columbia this weekend. During his press conference today Coach Ray Tanner was getting choked up after talking about his early struggles to make it to the CWS. He broke away from the normal "coach speak" to share a little bit about what it means to go Omaha and how much pressure he puts on himself. It was really quite striking and refreshing to hear someone in sports speak so candidly. Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to listen to all of Ray Tanner's comments. I hope for Coach Tanner's sake this team is able to punch its ticket to Omaha once again this weekend.