Well, folks - this is it. The books are all closed and the accounts are all settled for the 2011-2012 college sports year - all except for baseball, that is. It's now down to two teams - the Arizona Wildcats of the Pac-12 and the South Carolina Gamecocks of the SEC. Our myriad enemies and detractors, both foreign and domestic, may sneer and jeer about the Cocks all they want - but unless they're wearing a red-white-and-blue "A" on their ballcaps, we're still playing, and they're left scratching powerball tickets. For a third straight year, we carry the banner of the greatest league in college sports on one of the biggest stages in collegiate athletics. Win or lose, that's something we can take pride in forever.
The SEC men already hold the national crowns for football (Alabama), basketball (Kentucky) men's indoor track (Florida), and men's outdoor track (Florida). For their part, the Pac-12 men have captured national championships in swimming & diving (California), tennis (Southern Cal) and water polo (Southern Cal). Think the Westerners don't hunger to end the year by bringing home a baseball championship to the Left Coast (or at least to the adjacent desert marches as the case may be)? Think again. UA head coach Andy Lopez may have good-naturedly joked, "we’re just excited to be invited to the Ray Tanner Invitational," but the Wildcats promise to be all business when the lights come on tonight.
So which team (and by extension which conference) will bag the College World Series Championship? By all accounts in the national press, it's going to be close. Let's run down what's being said out there:
Baseball America: In CWS Finals Matchup Offers Plenty Of Intrigue, Aaron Fitt feels that starting pitching is a push between 'Zona and Carolina, with the Cocks having a bullpen advantage. The offensive edge goes to the 'Cats, while it's a push on defense for both teams. In terms of intangibles, he writes:
Arizona is teeming with savvy veterans who have proven they can handle the big stage, but South Carolina is renowned for its heart, poise, looseness, moxie—use whatever word you like. Intangibles are the single biggest reason South Carolina has won two straight championships and is in position to play for a third. This team has talent to go with truly special makeup, and it simply finds ways to win big games, even when logic suggests it should not. Edge: South Carolina.
Perfect Game: In CWS: Breaking down the title series, Kendall Rogers awards UA the edge in starting pitching, offense and defense (conceding "Arizona has the slight edge in a series between two great defensive teams"), but gives the bullpen advantage to the Cocks. With respect to intangibles, however, Rogers is sympatico with Fitt:
Chasing a third-straight national title, the intangibles definitely point the Gamecocks' way. However, don't expect them to be thinking about that third title. Edge: South Carolina.
ESPN: Writing about the Gamecocks, our old pal Travis Haney posts This team doesn't know how to quit and sums it up like this:
In the three years, South Carolina pitchers have held opponents to a .224 batting average while they have batted .288, getting just enough timely hitting to scratch out close wins. The team has won a total of 37 one-run games the past three seasons, including seven in Omaha. It's silly, all of it. An athletic program known for choking in big moments, long held as the Chicken Curse, is now recognized as clutch because of what the Carolina 9 have done during these summers. Baseball is not supposed to work like this. Given the Gamecocks' track record, however, it sure seems like it could for at least two more games.
SI.com: In Gamecocks Shooting for History, Kirk Kenny breaks down the two teams, but concludes:
And the winner is: South Carolina. Logic suggests that Arizona should win. The Wildcats rolled through their side of the bracket, which means their pitching is set up for the championship series. In addition, their offense has been productive from top to bottom. What's not to like? That said, South Carolina's pitching has been outstanding. And, while the two-time defending champion Gamecocks have their offensive shortcomings, they have displayed a resourcefulness and resilience in Omaha over the past three years that is unmatched. And so we go with the Gamecocks until someone can prove otherwise.
Bleacher Report: Over at BR, there's a difference of opinion. Ronald Martinez predicts Arizona will win in three:
Arizona has the ability to knock the ball around the ballpark. But they also know how to win tight games—they won 28 one-run games this year. Winning three-straight titles at the College World Series is highly unlikely seeing how it hasn't been done in nearly 40 years. This will be a series where you don't see the Gamecocks receive some of those breaks they saw in the past two years. Arizona will beat the ball around in Game 1 and they will win a one-run game in Game 2 or Game 3 to seal the deal.
Meanwhile, Brian Mazique thinks Dominant Pitching Will Lead Gamecocks to 3-Peat:
It's difficult for me to see a scenario where Arizona will be able to string enough base runners together to win. They don't have the pitching to keep these games low scoring. As the old adage goes, good pitching beats good hitting.
On the other hand, John Rozum predicts Arizona Wildcats to Continue Cinderella Run in Finals:
One interesting aspect of the Wildcats is their 2.66 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It ranked No. 19 in the nation and can be credited for such an impressive run. For one, Arizona isn't simply giving up runs and the fielders are greatly assisted by strikeouts. Unfortunately for South Carolina, the Gamecocks offense isn't nearly as explosive and seven of their 13 College World Series runs came in one game (four games total). As long as the Wildcats restrict South Carolina to less than four runs, Arizona will dominate from the first pitch.
If you've seen any more national coverage break-down, feel free to post links in the comments. Go Cocks!