College World Series Championship Preview

June 26, 2011
By

Breakdown With Guest Analyst Mike Rooney…

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CollegeBaseball360 welcomes current ESPN college baseball analyst Mike Rooney as a guest contributor – lending his unique perspective in previewing the upcoming College World Series Championship series.

Mike Rooney

Mike Rooney graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1992 and played four years of baseball for the Irish on teams that averaged 47 wins per season. He has spent 15 years in coaching, including six seasons as an assistant at Arizona State. Rooney also was the head baseball coach at Phoenix (Ariz.) College for three seasons. He has coached 18 players who have gone on to reach the Major Leagues, including Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox and Andre Ethier of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Rooney currently is a color analyst for ESPN college baseball broadcasts. …

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By Mike Rooney

The National Championship Series – Version 2011 … South Carolina (53-14) vs. Florida (53-17) … “What’s it gonna take to get this done?”

This preview is going to be from a coaching perspective. As we look into the belly of these two “beasts,” where are the holes in the boat for the Gators and the Gamecocks?  When you have two teams that already have combined for 106 wins, the list of weaknesses is a short one. We are going to go macro and micro in this breakdown and find out what makes these two championship clubs tick. Finally, we’ll dissect specific areas where they may be somewhat vulnerable.

The bottom line to winning college baseball games are the three core fundamentals:
1. Play Catch
2. Throw Strikes
3. Put the Ball in Play

Whoever makes it harder on their opponent usually will be crowned the champion. That means: no extra outs for the opponent (it’s hard enough when they have 27 to work with); no free bases with walks or hit batters; and minimizing the number of easy outs for the opposing defense (you simply can’t beat a quality team with unproductive outs such as fly balls and punchouts). Both of these title hopefuls are very fundamentally sound – but look out for moments of poor play (they will be costly).

THE MACRO …

The Gators and Gamecocks have three commonalities that jump out at us: the SEC East Division, 53 victories each, and 11 players drafted per team without a lot of high picks (of the 22 drafted, only five total were selected in the first 10 rounds). Here are the themes that make these two behemoths uniquely dominating:

South Carolina won series earlier this season vs. eventual fellow SEC tri-champs Vanderbilt (pictured) and Florida.

South Carolina = “Baseball Maturity” – The Gamecocks are the most “baseball-mature” team in the country. Led by junior ace Michael Roth and its senior core – third baseman Adrian Morales, second baseman Scott Wingo, and the catching duo of Brady Thomas and Robert Beary – the Gamecocks are totally focused on “winning baseball.”  So many great teams get knocked off track by distractions such as the draft, agents, velocity, power, individual stats, the opponent, records, and results. This team stays in the moment better than any other group and they also possess a rare swagger that you would expect of the defending champion. The Gamecocks know how to win baseball games and they don’t get ahead of themselves. They are well-coached, have bought into quality principles, and they believe they’re the best … Can you say “winning combination!”

Florida's Kevin O'Sullivan has stockpiled an impressive collection of talent over the past few years.

Florida = “Overwhelming Ability” – Members of the media have stated half-jokingly that if you split the Gators 35-man roster in half, both teams would have made an NCAA Regional! Think about this: the Gators had 11 players drafted and that doesn’t include their six “super sophs” who are hands-down the most talented group in any class in any program in America. This sophomore group – pitcher Hudson Randall, shortstop Nolan Fontana, two-way standouts Brian Johnson and Austin Maddox, catcher Mike Zunino and setup man Steven Rodriguez – are college baseball’s answer to college basketball’s Fab Five in regards to their impact on our game. This young core likely will take the Gators to three straight College World Series – and we haven’t even mentioned freshman righthander Karsten Whitson (who one year ago was selected #9 overall in the first round of the MLB player draft). The Gators can beat you so may different ways and their depth is overwhelming. Playing the Gators is like trying to hold off a blitzkrieg.

THE MICRO …

Both South Carolina and Florida are near-perfectly constructed college baseball teams.  They are talented, experienced (only two freshmen, Whitson and SC’s Forrest Koumas , will have any role at all in this series, barring injury), and they know how to win.  However, there are weaker (we said weaker, not weak!) areas that can be attacked.  You cannot let teams of this caliber sit back and find their comfort zone – they are too good for that. Here are some places of discomfort:

South Carolina –

South Carolina ace Michael Roth has performed under CWS pressure during the past two seasons – but he won't start the opener vs. Florida (after starting Friday vs. Virginia).

Controlling the Running Game: Neither Robert Beary nor Brady Thomas is a great catch-and-throw catcher, but they are experienced. The Gamecocks pitchers are excellent at holding runners but we feel Florida has to gamble here. If the Gators take chances, there are extra bases to be had by pressuring the Gamecocks with the running game. And any opponent is going to need those extra bases to beat these guys!

Revisit the Bullpen: The three-headed bullpen monster of John Taylor, Jose Mata and Matt Price is as formidable as there is in college baseball. These relievers are critical to South Carolina’s success. However, Price threw 90 pitches on Friday and he was exhausted by the end of it – while Mata and Taylor are submariners who become more vulnerable with familiarity from the opposing lineup. If the Gators can extend the South Carolina starting pitchers’ pitch count and get into the bullpen throughout the series, there could be solid scoring chances for Florida later in the games.

Florida –

Florida's infield is strong up the middle, with shorstop Nolan Fontana (left) and second baseman Josh Adams.

Attack the Corners: The Gators are an extremely confident group and that has been an Achilles heel at times. They have been accused of letting teams hang around, which is what happened in the Super Regional with an under-manned but valiant Mississippi State team. However, the least confident players (from a defensive standpoint) for the Gators are third baseman Cody Dent and current first baseman Preston Tucker. Dent has made only 20 starts and is hitting a lowly .211, while Tucker spent most of the year in right field before switching to first due to the Maddox injury. You need to pressure both of these players with the bunting game because the middle of this defense is just too strong with second baseman Josh Adams and shortstop Nolan Fontana.

It will be interesting to see if Florida two-way talent Brian Johnson makes a return to the mound during the CWS title series.

Play for One with Florida Bullpen: The Gators bullpen will be a factor in this series, as skipper Kevin O’Sullivan is super-conservative with starters’ pitch-counts and he believes in these relievers. However, most relievers are notoriously bad at holding runners and defending the short game. In addition, the team’s closer Maddox is a position player – so while pitcher’s fielding practice is going on, he typically is in the batting cage hitting. The same principle would apply to fellow two-way talent Johnson.  The Florida relievers can dominate opposing batters with their stuff, so the opponents need to play for one run: get on base any which way, move runners over, and knock them in in however you can.

. . .

Overall, two championship-caliber programs will be vying for the national title this week.  Someone is going to win this three-game series – even though it seems statistically nearly impossible, as the Gamecocks and Gators have combined to win 31 of their 34 three-game series in 2011 (SC won 2-of-3 at Florida in late March but lost 2-of-3 at Mississippi in early May, while the Gators were losing 2-of-3 at Arkansas that same weekend).

One thing we know about these keys to success are that they are easy to say and hard to execute against teams of this caliber.

South Carolina hopes to be celebrating a second straight national title – but they will need to post two more wins over Florida to complete such a repeat.

We are guaranteed to crown a member of the SEC as 2011 national champion. The SEC used to be a one-trick pony in Omaha with LSU and “gorilla ball” – but it currently is the premier conference in college baseball, with a soon-to-be three straight national champions. The University of Tennessee hiring Dave Serrano only strengthens the SEC’s ability to sustain its recent dominance. For these final three games, it is time for the rest of college baseball to kick back, take notes, and enjoy SEC-style championship baseball.

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