CWS Finals Breakdown

College World Series

No. 3 national seed Florida will take on No. 4 national seed LSU in the best-of-three CWS Finals this week, starting Monday night at 7 p.m. ET. This will be a star-studded championship series to cap a College World Series that was crammed with marquee teams. When the dust settled, the last two teams standing were the SEC’s regular-season co-champions, who faced off in Gainesville back in March (the Gators won two of three that weekend).

So which team has the edge in the Finals? Let’s break it down.

Hitting

This one’s pretty clear: LSU is the much more potent offensive club. The Tigers rank 36th nationally in scoring (Florida is 178th) and 55th in batting (Florida is 225th). Neither team has scored a truckload of runs in Omaha, but LSU’s offense has looked good over its last three games, while Florida’s lineup has scuffled, hitting just .203 with 13 runs in four games. LSU is hitting .241 with 22 runs in five games. Getting leadoff man Kramer Robertson going on Saturday changes the complexion of the Tiger attack; he had been 1-for-18 in his first four CWS games before going 3-for-3 on Saturday. Robertson, Cole Freeman and Antoine Duplantis give the Tigers a disruptive trio of fire starters in the top third of the lineup, and the Tigers have gotten production from top to bottom in Omaha.

The Gators have scratched out enough runs to win behind their dominant pitching and excellent defense, but coach Kevin O’Sullivan shook up his lineup on Saturday to search for an offensive spark. Senior outfielder Ryan Larson, the team’s leading hitter for most of the season, is 0-for-14 in Omaha and found himself moved from the leadoff spot to the No. 9 hole on Saturday. Mike Rivera, JJ Schwarz and Jonathan India are all hitting below .200 in four CWS games — it’s a small sample size, and all of them are capable of performing better. But overall, this is probably Florida’s least offensive team in the O’Sullivan era.

EDGE: LSU

Power

Both of these teams have gotten big home runs in crucial times in Omaha, where Florida has three long balls and LSU has seven. The Tigers rank much higher on the national leaderboard in slugging percentage and home runs than the Gators do. Greg Deichmann (19 HR, .583 SLG) is one of college baseball’s premier sluggers, and switch-hitting catcher Michael Papierski (11 HR, .494) has really come into his own as a power threat in the second half of the season. He homered from both sides of the plate on Saturday, leading the LSU offense in the win over Oregon State. Zach Watson, the team’s leading hitter, has also delivered a number of big homers during LSU’s late-season surge. Freshmen Josh Smith and Jake Slaughter are still learning to harness their intriguing raw power potential, but both of them went deep in Omaha.

Florida’s Schwarz is one of the few players who can rival Deichmann when it comes to raw power, but he’s hit just 12 homers this year and is slugging .452. After hitting 18 homers as a freshman, Schwarz has hit 19 over the last two seasons combined, somewhat perplexingly.  He’s still a threat to change a game with one big swing of the bat, however. Nelson Maldonado and Jonathan India have solid raw power as well, though they’ve hit just a half-dozen homers apiece on the season. The Gators have gotten timely long balls from unexpected sources in Omaha: Mike Rivera and Deacon Liput each went deep for just the third time this year, and Austin Langworthy hit his fourth.

A few years ago, the CWS home run seemed almost extinct — there were just three long balls in the entire World Series in both 2013 and 2014. Papierski alone has matched that total this year; there have been 18 long balls so far in this CWS. Whether it’s because of a shift in the prevailing wind patterns (the biggest factor, if you ask me), or juiced balls (an increasingly popular theory) or better bat technology or some combination of all those things, the home run is back in Omaha, and power will be a factor in the Finals.

“The best part of baseball is hitting home runs,” Schwarz said. “…It has a lot to do with the wind. The wind has been howling out this whole week. It’s good for baseball. It’s good for fans. It’s good for momentum swings, things like that.”

“I think yesterday you saw what a momentum swing he gave us when Michael (Papierski) hit his first home run — gave us some breathing room,” Robertson said. “And it can change a game quickly. So we have to be aware of that and know that the ball’s flying more this year and more here than it ever has before. So no lead is safe. And if you’re behind on offense, you know that you can change the game with one swing of the bat.”

EDGE: LSU.

Speed

That Robertson-Freeman-Duplantis trio atop the LSU lineup can wreak all kinds of havoc on the basepaths, combining for 47 stolen bases. Like Freeman and Duplantis, Watson has premium speed and knows how to use it — he has 11 stolen bases and covers plenty of ground in center.

“When we built our new park, our new Alex Box Stadium, it’s not as much as a home run-
hitting park as the old park was,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “When the roster limits went into effect and the bat changes, I made a concerted effort to get more speed, more athletes between the lines at the positions and try and dominate on the mound.”

Florida has average speed — there aren’t any burners in that lineup. Liput, India, Larson and Dalton Guthrie are all instinctive players who pick their spots on the basepaths, and all are threats to swipe a base on occasion.

EDGE: LSU.

Defense

width=”90″ height=”90″ />This one is as close as it gets — both of these teams are fielding .980 on the season. The Tigers get the edge in the outfield, where their superior speed translates to better range. Both teams have rock-solid double play tandems in LSU’s Robertson-Freeman duo and Florida’s Guthrie-Liput pair, assuming Guthrie can play after exiting Saturday’s game with back spasms. LSU has very talented freshmen on the infield corners in Josh Smith and Jake Slaughter, both of whom have made standout defensive plays in Omaha. India is very good at third, but Schwarz doesn’t have great range at first. Rivera is one of the most polished catchers in the nation, and he has thrown out 40 percent of basestealers on the year, but Papierski is very good also and has thrown out a solid 33 percent. So call it a slight edge for Florida behind the plate, but slight edge for LSU at first base and in the outfield.

“You have to have position players that can play really good defense. I think we do,” Mainieri said. “We have for many years. Florida and LSU I think have been the top two defensive teams for many years most of the time that Kevin and I have coached our respective teams.”

EDGE: PUSH.

Starting Pitching

Here’s where Florida has the greatest edge. Game One starter Brady Singer is an elite talent, a slam-dunk 2018 first-round pick with vicious life on his 92-94 heater, a putaway slider and a serious mean streak. He’ll be pitching on almost full rest after going seven strong innings in a win on Tuesday. Ideally, O’Sullivan indicated he’d like to start flame-throwing reliever Tyler Dyson on Tuesday — Dyson did throw five innings against a good Wake Forest offense in the super regional, so he’s been extended before. Like LSU’s Zack Hess, Dyson has shown electrifying stuff in Omaha, with a mid-to-high-90s fastball. Florida will likely bring back Jackson Kowar on four days rest Wednesday, should this series go to three games. Kowar showed wipeout stuff in Friday’s loss to TCU, striking out 11 but allowing four runs — he’s a bit of a wild card, but his power fastball and nasty changeup give him some real weapons. Unfortunately, ace Alex Faedo (a the No. 18 overall pick) had to pitch in Saturday’s if-necessary game, so don’t expect him to start in the Finals. He might be available to throw out of the bullpen on Wednesday if necessary. Even without him, Florida’s starting pitching is a major strength.

“I thought our starting pitching was going to be as good as anybody’s in the country,” O’Sullivan said. He was right.

LSU is behind the 8-ball on the mound because No. 3 starter Eric Walker exited with an injury earlier in the CWS and will not be back. Mainieri said he won’t bring first-round pick Alex Lange back on fewer than four days’ rest — Lange pitched on Friday, so he won’t be available until Wednesday. With that in mind, Mainieri reasoned that his smartest strategy was to use lefty Jared Poché — the winningest pitcher in program history — on five days of rest Tuesday, rather than move him up to Monday. So the Tigers will try to piece it together with a variety of arms Monday, starting with fifth-year senior righty Russell Reynolds, who hasn’t started a game since 2015 and has posted an 8.59 ERA in 14.2 innings this year. He has had moments of excellence during his career, and he’ll have a chance to be the unlikely hero on Monday — but don’t expect him to go more than a few innings. Nick Bush, Hunter Newman, Matthew Beck, Todd Peterson, Austin Bain and Collin Strall are all ready to go behind him. Perhaps one silver lining of LSU’s 13-1 loss to Oregon State last week was that the Tigers used nine pitchers in the game, so all of those guys now have gotten a taste of pitching at TD Ameritrade Park. That could benefit them on Monday. Poché will certainly give the Tigers a chance on Tuesday, as he has for four years. He doesn’t have dominant stuff, with an 86-88 fastball, a solid curveball and decent changeup, but he’s a relentless bulldog who really knows how to pitch. And of course Lange has been a big-game warrior for three years, with the ability to miss bats with a 91-94 fastball and wipeout power curve. The key for him is commanding it — which he did well on Friday against Oregon State.

SLIGHT EDGE: FLORIDA

Bullpen

Florida has a first-team All-America closer in Michael Byrne, who has worked 3.2 scoreless innings in Omaha, with seven strikeouts and no walks. He and Dyson form a dynamic duo at the back of the bullpen, but ideally the Gators can save Dyson to start on Tuesday, which weakens the bullpen in the Finals. With that in mind, lefty Nick Horvath and sidewinder Frank Rubio could wind up being key pieces in this series. Hess has been a dynamo for LSU in the postseason, recording three saves in Omaha with a 10-3 strikeout-walk mark in 4.2 scoreless innings. He’s a game-changer with a 94-97 fastball and a hammer breaking ball at 82-83, and he’s clearly the go-to option in the pen right now, but Newman is another valuable piece — he did save 10 games this year with a 2.73 ERA.

EDGE: PUSH

Experience/Intangibles

These teams both have the heart of champions — like every team that reaches the CWS Finals. Teams must overcome a lot adversity to get this far, and both of these teams have. Florida’s core group of juniors has been to three straight College World Series, but LSU’s juniors were here as freshmen. Neither team has a significant advantage in this category.

EDGE: PUSH

The Bottom Line

Kendall Rogers and I will make our picks for the Finals in Monday’s Facebook Live video. And we’ll need that extra day to mull it over, because this is a very tough matchup to handicap. It should be one heck of a series.

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