A year after taking the 2010 College World Series to win the school's first men's team national title, South Carolina baseball returns to Omaha for the 2011 College World Series. The Gamecocks will face one of the toughest fields in recent memories. Six national seeds and top ten ranked, Big 12 champ Texas A&M advanced to Omaha. So did the Cal Bears.
Cal is the feel-good story in the field, and will likely be adopted by most non-affiliated and casual fans. The Bears' program was threatened with extinction earlier this year due to budget cuts and Title IX issues, but a last minute alumni fundraising drive saved the program. The Bears emerged from the loser's bracket to win the Rice Regional as a 3 seed, then hosted at Santa Clara to defeat fellow Cinderella Dallas Baptist in the Supers.
After the jump, we answer questions from Cal Golden Blogs. Look for their answers to our questions later today.
1. So you lucky folks took the title last year. How does this year's team compare to last year's team? And are you much calmer watching the games after winning last year, or are your nerves just as shot this time around?
We lost all three weekend starters from last year's team, but this year's offense was expected to be stronger. That has not necessarily been the case, as 2011 first round pick and 2010 CWS MVP Jackie Bradley, Jr. was lost to injury in the midst of the SEC season. Though he was struggling at the plate, he is probably the best defensive CF'er in college baseball when healthy, so it was a big loss. We also played most of the season without OF Adam Matthews, the team's second best athlete. There were other short-term injuries along the way, culminating in playing the final two games at Ole Miss without our top four OF'ers. Not coincidentally, that was our only series loss of the year.
While I think most Carolina fans expected the team to return to the CWS before the season with a healthy roster, the way this team has pulled together and continued to win as guys continue to drop has been amazing. UVa is this year's UCLA - the designated super team that everyone else is chasing and rooting against. We do not have nearly the same margin of error as the Cavaliers (or even the Gators or Commodores), so I think our games against elite teams will be just as nerve wracking.
2. Since we won't be playing you in round 1, how good are your 2nd and 3rd pitchers, and your pitching depth generally? Any weaknesses that the Bears might exploit?
I think fans fail to appreciate how strong SO Colby Holmes (7-3, 3.78) and FR Forrest Koumas (6-1, 3.07) have been this year as weekend starters. They have good stuff, and each has been named SEC Pitcher of the Week at some point. Aside from inexperience, their biggest problem is they are compared to a #1 starter giving up one run a game (Michael Roth, 12-3, 1.02)
That said, the best bet for Cal would be to jump on any starter not named Michael Roth early. Holmes and Koumas are young, and both have experienced occasional control issues. If you trail Carolina in the 6th inning, you are in trouble. Our bullpen is probably the best in America. It is anchored by All-American Matt Price (2.16, 18 saves, OBA .205), but John Taylor (6-1, 1.27, .182) has a rubber arm and three quarters delivery that causes all kinds of problems for opponents. Both can go multiple innings, and there are several other strong situational relievers. If South Carolina has a lead after 5, it is extremely difficult to come back.
3. How did you guys get to Omaha? Was this expected, or did you guys play over expectations this year?
As I mentioned earlier, I think we expected to get to Omaha before the season started. Once we lost a couple of pitchers and two of our best position players, I think the matter became a lot dicier. The team has only lost that one series to Ole Miss all year though, and they rolled through an exceptionally strong Columbia Regional
, then dispatched a scrappy UConn in the Supers.
4. What is the character of your team? Big hitters, power pitching or scrappy, run manufacturing through aggressive base running and getting on base?
South Carolina began the transition away from the longball just before the move to the new bats. We have guys like Christian Walker and Brady Thomas who can quickly jump on any pitcher's mistake, but this team has produced a lot more offense from stringing together hits than relying on the homerun. I'm a big believer in advanced stats, so I believe we have a tendency to play a little too old school with regards to the sacrifice bunt and even stolen bases, but I definitely appreciate the strong team-wide strikeout to walk ratio.
5. Who are the hitters Cal pitchers should be worried about? And who might we see on the mound?
If we see you in Game 2, you will likely see the aforementioned Colby Holmes. If it is a losers' bracket game, he will be asked to go as long as possible. If it is in the winners' bracket, he will likely have a short leash if he runs into trouble after the 5th.
All-American SO 1B Christian Walker (.442 OBP, .564 SP, 10 HR) is the obvious answer of the hitter to look out for. All SEC 2B Scott Wingo has a .466 OBP to set the table, partially due to his terrible misfortune of leading the SEC in HBP. Again.
However, the guy you are likely to overlook but need to watch out for is DH Steven Neff
. Neff is a pitcher by trade. He has seven starts this year, and was drafted as a pitcher by the majors. The glut of injuries forced him into the lineup for the first time since high school, and he has responded with some fantastic power numbers. He has 5 HR's in only 71 AB's, and a team-high slugging % of .563. As you would expect for someone who has not played the field in years, he can be fooled at the plate. He strikes out a lot and has a low BA (.254), but he will absolutely crush mistake pitches.
6. What do the Gamecocks have to do to win All The Tostitos again?
We do not appear to have the starting pitching depth of last year's team, so a win from Roth in Game 1 is key. He's beaten three first rounders so far this year, and gets a chance to notch a win against Texas A&M's
Taylor Jungmann ninth rounder, Ross Stripling (14-2, OBA .200). If Roth can outduel Jungmann Stripling, it sets Carolina up to be able to go to our deep pen early from the winner's bracket. Not even Ray Tanner is perfect, but I trust him more than any other to leverage our advantage to stay in the top bracket if we can get there.
It would help a lot if Bradley and Matthews can return at close to 100%, at least at the plate. Both have started taking BP, and could be available as pinch hitters for the CWS. Our team is currently built to win 5-2 or 4-3, but having their experience and power back in the lineup would be a huge boost.
As for our pitching depth, I'd like to stress the word "appear". South Carolina has consistently recruited some of the top rated classes in the nation over the last ten years, and one of those top HS arms could just be waiting for a chance. Michael Roth is an All-American Friday night starter this year. In 2010, he was a seldom used reliever stuck behind three draft eligible SP's. His first career start was a complete game elimination game victory over Clemson at Rosenblatt, and he followed that up with a quality start in the 2-1 championship win over UCLA. It's Omaha. Just buckle up and enjoy the ride.