Texas A&M and South Carolina are two evenly matched teams, but I think John Taylor gives the Gamecocks the edge on game one.
On Sunday the South Carolina Gamecocks (50-14, 22-8 SEC) will begin the last leg of their journey to defend their 2010 Baseball National Championship. Ray Tanner's Gamecocks will square off against Rob Childress and the Texas A&M Aggies (47-20, 19-8 Big 12ish). The two schools will meet for the first time ever in Omaha's new TD Ameritrade Park at 7:00 pm (ET) on ESPN2.
Texas A&M is a consensus top ten team whose last recorded RPI was 10. The Aggies placed 7th according to Baseball America, 6th in Collegiate Baseball, 8th in USA Today, and 8th in the NCBWA (National Collegiate Baseball Writer's Association). Their best out of conference series win was probably a 2-1 decision versus Dallas Baptist University. The Aggies also suffered a couple of narrow losses to Rice by a combined 3-0 margin. En route to their fifth College World Series appearance the Aggies won the Big 12ish Tournament title. A&M will be returning to the CWS for the first time since 1999, and they hold an all-time CWS record of 2-8.
The Aggies' pitching staff has put up a team ERA of 2.88 and BAA of .242. They are led by 9th round pick Ross Stripling (14-2, 2.29 ERA), who is slated to pitch opposite of South Carolina's Michael Roth (13-3, 1.02 ERA). Meanwhile, the Gamecocks hold a team ERA and BAA of 2.60 and .229, respectively. The Aggies had a total of 8 players drafted in 2011, including 3rd round draftee John Stilson (5-2, 1.68 ERA).The squads hold essentially equal team fielding percentages of .976 (TA&M) and .973 (USC).
Offensively, the Gamecocks appear to edge the Aggies by the slimmest of margins. Carolina edges the Aggies in batting average (.296 to .293), on-base percentage (.389 to .367) and slugging percentage (.433 to .405). At the plate Texas A&M is led by Tyler Naquin. He's batting .390 (highest of either team) with a .553 slg% and .459 ob%. The Aggies have hit a total of 29 home runs on the season compared to Carolina's 45.
For the Gamecocks the big story is the possible return of All-American Jackie Bradley, Jr. Bradley was cleared to play earlier this week and has been in the process of getting his swing back. Initially it looked like Bradley might not return to the lineup until late in the CWS, but a hamstring injury to center fielder Evan Marzilli means that we'll likely see Bradley start on Sunday. I, myself, have mixed emotions about this. Of course, the addition JBJ is an emotional boost to a team that's had to endure many injuries this year. After all, if you had to replace your star CF, wouldn't you rather it be with your super star CF? But the realist in me wonders how effective JBJ can be. He was hitting only .259 before his injury, and, having broken my own wrist once, I cringe at the thought of him getting sawed off at the handle by a fastball just 2 months after having a screw inserted into his wrist. But you know what? I'm not Jackie Bradley, Jr., and I think we can all be grateful for that.
Christian Walker and Scott Wingo continue to lead the Gamecocks at the plate. Walker is batting .359 with a .560 slg% (highest on either team) and a .442 ob%. He also leads both team in home runs with 10. Wingo is batting .338 with a .432 slg% and .466 ob% (highest on either team).
Even though USC's outfield continues to be a revolving door, I feel confident in our ability to win this game. Texas A&M is no slouch, but I think the combination of Roth, Taylor, and Price will keep the game close enough for the Gamecock offense to prevail . If Roth is pitching with his best stuff, we may not need them, but John Taylor (6-1, 1.27 ERA) and(18 SV, 2.16 ERA) give Ray Tanner the luxury of being able to pull out a starter before too much damage is done.
At the end of the day, baseball comes down to execution. The Gamecocks were able to execute better than UConn in the Super Regionals, and the result was two straight convincing victories. USC has not won its opening game in the CWS since 1977 when they defeated Baylor 3-2 in 10 innings, but I think USC's pitching will prove too strong for the Aggies in game one. The winner will advance to face the winner of the UVA vs. Cal game on Tuesday.