Fitt: Get Ready For Goliath vs. GoliathColumns
SEE ALSO: CWS Finals Preview: Who Has The Edge?
OMAHA — The college baseball world will get a rare treat this week, when Arkansas faces off against Oregon State in the CWS Finals. Very seldom are the final two teams standing also the “best” two teams in college baseball; as coaches always say, it’s typically the hottest team that wins it all, not the best. After all, the No. 1 national seed still hasn’t won the national title since 1999, the first year of the 64-team era.
The No. 1 national seed won’t win it all this year either, because fifth-seeded Arkansas knocked off the Gators in the national semifinals. And seeds notwithstanding, we have regarded Arkansas, Oregon State and Florida as college baseball’s three most talented, most complete clubs almost all season long. They were three of the top four teams in our Preseason Top 25, and all three spent nearly the entire season in the top five of the rankings.
Heading into the NCAA tournament and Omaha, we regarded them as “tri-favorites” to win the national title. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that Florida and Oregon State were two of the nation’s very best clubs. The Gators were the defending national champions, a team with a trio of first-round picks, including two in the rotation. Oregon State went 56-6 last year, then 44-10-1 in the regular-season this year, and features three first-rounders in its starting lineup, along with a slam-dunk 2019 first-rounder in sophomore catcher Adley Rutschman. I wrote glowingly about the “Beaver buzzsaw” after watching OSU blitz eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford in May; it couldn’t have been more obvious that Oregon State was a mighty juggernaut, just as formidable as the Gators.
Arkansas didn’t have quite as much regular-season success as those teams, heading into the NCAA tournament with a 39-18 mark, but the Hogs proved themselves repeatedly against elite competition, and they passed the proverbial “eye test” with flying colors all season long. I saw the Hogs go 1-2 at the Tony Gwynn Classic back in Week Two; they played poorly that weekend, especially on defense, and still my overall impression of the Hogs was, “Wow, are these guys going to be good.” As I wrote on Feb. 26:
“Nonetheless, I walked away from the weekend with the impression that Arkansas has all the ingredients of a national championship-caliber team — there’s no reason to overreact to one bad weekend on the road in February.”
Kendall Rogers was similarly bullish on Arkansas after watching them demolish a very talented Kentucky team in a three-game sweep a few weekends later. He picked the Hogs to win it all heading into the NCAA tournament and the CWS.
I bring these things up not to boast — anybody who watched these teams for a weekend this year probably came to the same conclusions about their incredible talent. I bring them up because it reinforces the point that these two Finalists are exceptionally talented teams, with two of the most dynamic, balanced and versatile offenses in recent CWS history. This matchup is really special, and we don’t get Finals like this very often.
“What I’ve seen of Arkansas is what everybody else has seen: pretty darned good. I don’t know if I’ve seen a more complete team pitching defense, speed, power,” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. “People think we’ve got power. I think we’ve hit 60 home runs. I think they hit 98. Just a terrific team, well-coached, discipline, you name it. There’s not any weakness they have on their team.”
Indeed, the Hogs have no obvious weakness, and they are playing their best baseball of the season at the perfect time. They dominated their CWS bracket, beating Texas, Texas Tech and Florida by a combined score of 23-11 in a 3-0 run to the Finals.
“They’re really playing for each other. They don’t want the season to end,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said of his players, after the win against Florida. “They feel like we had our best baseball in front of us. We hadn’t played our best baseball — a little here, little there, but never really got on a little bit of a roll.”
Until they got to Omaha. What a time for a super-talented team to peak.
The Beavers are the No. 2 national seed, but their path to the Finals was more circuitous. After playing uncharacteristically sloppy baseball in an 8-6 loss to North Carolina, OSU had to win four straight games with its back to the wall. The Beavers came from behind in the late innings to blast both Washington and UNC (which led OSU by three runs in the eighth inning before the Beaver offense went into buzzsaw mode in the eighth and ninth). Then Oregon State had to beat Mississippi State twice in a row, and it did so easily, winning those two games by a combined score of 17-4.
So now we’ll be treated to a championship matchup between two teams with explosive (and hot) offenses, along with plenty of very good arms — though Arkansas’ arms are better rested because it has played two fewer games. That fact alone probably makes Arkansas a slight favorite, although perhaps it’s a silver lining that OSU’s top two starters, Luke Heimlich and Bryce Fehmel, have both struggled in their two starts apiece in Omaha, so neither has worked deep enough into games to get overly taxed.
In that respect, this OSU run through the losers’ bracket has been significantly different from its 2006 run to the Finals after losing its CWS opener. That team rode stellar starting pitching from Daniel Turpen and Jonah Nickerson to a pair of shutout wins against Rice in the bracket championship game. This team has mostly ridden its high-powered offense, along with a great start Saturday night from power-armed freshman Kevin Abel.
“The last time we did this thing was so much different because our starters gave us great starts and then it was the decision as to, ‘Hey, can you throw, you threw seven and two-thirds against Rice?’” Casey said. “Now we haven’t got one quality start out of our two best guys in four starts for them. And so therefore — I’m being up front — that’s puzzling to me. I’m not positive how we got to that point to where we can continue to play when the freshman gives us the big start that we’ve had.”
Casey has also been in the position that Van Horn is in now, sitting pretty after cruising 3-0 through its CWS bracket. That’s what Oregon State did in 2007, and it kept on rolling in the Finals against North Carolina, rolling to a pair of wins by a combined score of 20-7.
Casey said he hopes his experience on this stage can serve as an asset for his team heading into the Finals.
“The one thing about these players, like Adley was saying, he was in first or second grade when we played for the title a while back. So you hope that you have experience in the game and you hope that being there helps them have some comfort that may be what you’re trying to guide them can get them to where they want to go,” Casey said. “Ultimately, I think Dave and I would say the same thing at this time of the year: You know, our regimen of preparing them to play is complete and they’ve got to play the game as how they play the game. Probably not going to get a whole lot better today.”
Indeed, the process of growing and preparing and improving is complete — these teams are finished products now, and it should be a blast to watch them go at each other. This isn’t Van Horn’s first rodeo either — in fact, this is his seventh trip to Omaha as a head coach (five at Arkansas, two at Nebraska), but his first trip to the Finals. Van Horn has taken talented teams here before, and he’s led over-achieving teams here (like in 2015). But he’s never had a juggernaut like this in Omaha.
“I mean, our program, when we got here in ’04, it just took off. We started getting the guys, we started getting guys out of Oklahoma and Missouri and Texas,” Van Horn said. “And obviously the kids out of the state of Arkansas. And we were pretty good when we were here in ’09. We had Dallas Keuchel and Drew Smyly, who was just starting to pitch, and a couple of other big leaguers on that team, and at that time we didn’t know what type of careers they would have. Looking back, it’s like Pat said, it’s so rewarding to see what your players are doing. And then ’12 we were good, we just couldn’t hit. We could really pitch. We were one game away from getting to the championship series. We lost two tight games, one-run game and two-run game to South Carolina. Then in ’15, we just managed to get here.
“And then this year we felt like it was different.”
It is different. This time, Arkansas is a Goliath. Oregon State has been a Goliath for two years, but this time it broke through to the Finals, after getting its heart broken last year with back-to-back losses to LSU in the bracket finals.
So it’s Goliath vs. Goliath for the national title. It doesn’t get better than that.