OMAHA, Neb. — Omaha's annual summer party, the College World Series, begins Saturday at TD Ameritrade Park. Familiar faces like LSU and North Carolina, along with newcomer Indiana and quasi-newcomer North Carolina State, are among the eight teams vying for the national championship of Division I baseball. Here are 10 things to talk about while you tailgate in the parking lot, sit in the stands or watch at home.
The way the NCAA tournament has played out so far, it's anyone's guess which team will raise the championship trophy on June 25 or 26. Only three of the eight national seeds reached the CWS — No. 1 North Carolina, No. 3 Oregon State and No. 4 LSU. That's tied for the fewest since the NCAA went to the current tournament structure in 1999. The five other teams that made it to Omaha won super regionals on the road, the most ever.
No pressure, Indiana, but it's been awhile — three decades, actually — since the Big Ten has made it this far. The 1984 Michigan Wolverines were the last Big Ten team in the CWS, but the conference hasn't won a game in Omaha since the Wolverines beat Stanford 11-4 in 1983. The last Big Ten national champion? Ohio State in 1966.
Oregon State's top three starters have done all that's been asked of them and more. Andrew Moore, Matt Boyd and Ben Wetzler have combined to go 33-5, and they've pitched six innings or more in 35 of their 47 starts. Moore, a freshman right-hander, has won nine straight, and his 14 wins are tied for most in the nation.
In his first 22 years as a head coach, Mississippi State's John Cohen required players to be clean shaven. Sophomore pitcher Trevor Fitts convinced Cohen to ease the facial-hair ban after giving him a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation that showed all the baseball greats who sported beards and mustaches. Given the green light, about a dozen players put away their razors, and the Bulldogs rolled off 17 straight wins to start the season and reached the CWS for the first time since 2007.
UCLA comes to Omaha batting .251, ranking 253rd out of 296 Division I teams. No team in the last decade has made it to the CWS with a lower average. In fact, no other CWS team over that span has come in batting lower than .271. Pitching and defense are what it's about for the Bruins, who are 15-2 in one-run games and 34-1 when allowing the opponent three runs or fewer.
North Carolina State's Carlos Rodon's nation-leading strikeout numbers are impressive, but so is his ability to keep on dealing when other pitchers would have called it a day. The burly left-hander has started 17 games, tied for most in the nation, and has thrown 104 or more pitches in 12 of them. He's gone over 125 in six games, including his season high-matching 133 against Rice last Saturday.
North Carolina's Cody Stubbs can't escape the shadows of two teammates — No. 6 overall draft pick Colin Moran (Marlins) and third-round pick Kent Emanuel (Astros). Fact is, Stubbs would be the biggest star on most other teams. The senior first baseman, taken by the Royals in the third round, is batting a team-leading .366 and is third nationally with 76 RBIs and fourth with 26 doubles.
Louisville sure does have a knack for getting smacked by baseballs. The Cardinals have been hit by pitches a nation-leading 128 times. Few players have been beaned as often as Coco Johnson. The Cards' cleanup hitter has been hit 23 times, including twice in Sunday's super regional-clinching win over Vanderbilt. It didn't seem to bother him. He reached base four times.
LSU's .980 fielding percentage is best among CWS teams and fifth-best in the country, but the Tigers are just .964 in five NCAA tournament games. Most of the sloppy play occurred in one regional game, against Sam Houston State. LSU committed five errors that day, almost 10 percent of its season total of 51. The Tigers made just one error in their super regional against Oklahoma.
The situations where CWS umpires can use video replay have been expanded to include balls hit down an outfield line to determine if they're fair or foul. Last year, instant replay was approved at the CWS for the first time and was limited to reviewing whether a batted ball cleared the fence, went foul or whether a fan had interfered. No plays were reviewed in 2012.