Youth is Served
June 20, 2009

This year's college baseball championship tournament, culminating in the College World Series, has been one of the most amazing I can remember.  I'd first like to thank Baseball America for consistently dismissing LSU all season.  In their weekly polling and in their predictions, there was always someone better and it seems like every time a national publication dismisses an LSU team, they come up big.  Even when the field was down to eight and LSU was ranked #1 in the country by the other polling services, the guys at BA picked North Carolina and Cal State Fullerton as better bets to bring home the hardware.  Baseball America, please keep picking the way you have been.  Anyway, I'll get to today's final in a minute.

To get to the final, we have seen some incredible baseball.  If you didn't see it, Texas played Boston College in their regional match-up for 25 innings.  The starters for both teams pitched respectably allowing just two runs into the 7th inning.  But with the game still tied the decision was turned over to the bullpen.  It was there that Austin Wood for Texas and Mike Belfiore of BC took the mound for what amounted two complete games in relief.  Wood pitched an amazing 13 innings of scoreless two-hit, 14-strikeout relief (throwing 169 pitches, yikes) and Belfiore nearly matched him tossing 9.2 innings of three-hit, 11-strikeout relief.  Neither guy figured in the decision as the teams played an additional 6 innings after that to finally resolve the the longest game in collge postseason history. 

The University of Virginia should get some huge kudos for their run as well.  They first won the ACC tournament and their reward for beating North Carolina, Florida State and Clemson in their tourney (all of whom were slated for the NCAA postseason), was to be put in the same bracket where they had to beat last year's national champion, this year's top ranked team entering the tournament (twice in their home stadium, no less) and probably the best college pitcher ever.  Then they beat a very good Ole Miss team twice at their home park and then beat BA's pick to win it all, Cal State Fullerton in the CWS.  That was an amazing run for a very young team that will return most of their roster next year.

As for the finals which begin tonight that pit LSU versus Texas, I honestly don't think it's going to be as exciting as many people are predicting. 

With the exception of their second game in the CWS, Texas has not really faced a tough match-up to get to this point.  The Big 12 had as many teams as any conference in the tourney thanks to their commissioner being the one who heads the selection committee, but of all those teams only the Longhorns made it to the final 8.  That's a performance reminiscent of the Big Ten in basketball or football.  In their regional, they needed dramatic finishes to get by Army and Boston College, neither of whom are what anyone would consider baseball powerhouses, and then needed 3 games to get by TCU in the super-regional.  In the CWS, they needed Series-first timer Southern Mississippi to walk in runs in both the 8th and 9th innings to win their first round game and to get to the finals had to beat Arizona State ace Mike Leake who was pitching on two days rest.  In between they had an impressive showing against Leake and the ASU bullpen but other than that, they've looked like a good college team that was on a lucky run, kinda like the Rockies did in 2007 when they had their magical run to the World Series.  We know how that one turned out

On the field, Texas claims to have the nation's best pitching staff but I'm not sure I agree with that assessment.  Yes, they are deep and have some good arms, but I don't think any of them will ever be fronting a major league rotation.  And it's not like they were facing the best offenses in the country in the Big 12.  Oklahoma had the 17th most prolific offense in the country but no other Big-12 team was in the top 40.  These are good college arms that played in a very pitcher-friendly stadium backed by an very good infield defense that is used to playing on turf, not grass.  Their outfield defense, on the other hand, doesn't have a lot of range and the offense is not very imposing with only two guys hitting over .300 for the season, the same two guys who are the only ones with an on base over .400.  Their park has had some effect on the team's power numbers but even with a decent power showing in the Series, the Longhorns still have only four guys who have hit more than 5 homers and no one who has hit more than 11.  If you want to say that the hitters have more power than their numbers indicate because of the park they played in, then you have to concede that the pitchers aren't as effective as their numbers indicate for the same reason. 

LSU, on the other hand, beat some very good teams to get here, sweeping #6 Rice (a team that had taken 2 out of 3 from Texas earlier in the season), a robust Arkansas team that swept Arizona State earlier in the season and beat Fullerton in the CWS, plus lefty-laden Virginia (chronicled previously).  In six of their eight NCAA tourney games, LSU has scored at least 9 runs and have outscored their opposition overall 32-11.  Comparing to Texas, every LSU starter except one has hit better than .300 this season, five posted OBPs better than .400 and eight players hit at least five homers, four with 10 or more.  They boast one of the best defensive teams in the country with outstanding glovemen at short, second and all three outfield positions, and despite playing in a conference with five of the top 40 offensive teams in the country, they finished with the nation's 9th best ERA.  Fronting the staff is Louis Coleman, who has been one of the best big game pitchers this season and has posted numbers as good or better than any of the Texas starters, and Anthony Ranaudo, who has the talent to go in the top 5 in next year's amateur draft, possibly as high as #1 or #2 depending on whether Bryce Harper is available.  The LSU offense has struggled at times versus left-handers - although they didn't have too much trouble with either Rice's, Arkansas' or Virginia's southpaws - but Texas only has one of those who pitched significant innings this year, closer Austin Wood.  So unless they plan to let Wood pitch at least 18 innings over the next two days, the Longhorns are going to have to use at least one right-handed starter, probably two. 

LSU drew the 4th most walks in the country, runs and steals well and can play small ball as well as anyone when the situation calls for it, meaning Texas has no advantage offensively over LSU.  Defensively, Texas has a slightly better infield defense but LSU's outfield defense is far superior.  Balls that get through the infield only become singles; balls that find a gap in the outfield go for extra bases.  Advantage: LSU.  Texas fans are clinging to the fact that their team has managed to win in dramatic fashion and are hoping they can do it again.  The problem is that the Longhorns have been doing so largely against flawed competition, teams with obvious weaknesses.  LSU is a complete team without any glaring weaknesses in a short series and have been crushing good college teams for 13 straight games.  Some have pointed out that the LSU bullpen is not reliable, but tell that to the SEC teams who faced them in the conference tourney.  When the stakes were win or go home, those so-called "unreliable" relievers allowed just 4 runs over the final 24 innings of that tournament (1.50 ERA).  They've allowed some runs in the NCAA tourney since then but almost all of them have come when the games were well in-hand.  Coleman will be fully rested for Game 1 and Ranaudo will be available for Game 2 but will likely be held back for Game 3 if necessary.  The likely Game 2 pitcher for LSU, Austin Ross, has been inconsistent this season but has flashed brilliance at times, including a 10-strikeout gem the last time he started a game in the tourney.  I just don't see Texas being able to win a game given that the only real advantage they have is a deeper bullpen, which probably won't be a factor given how productive LSU's offense is against right-handers.  I will be a bit surprised if either of the games are close.

A couple of other collge baseball notes... Alex White has gotten a lot of attention this season.  The North Carolina pitcher was regarded by many at the beginning of the season as the second best college pitcher in the country - although the season proved otherwise - and he had a big showing in the College World Series, with a dominating nine-inning, 12-strikeout outing against Arizona State.  But I have to admit every time I watch him pitch, I think "David Weathers".  He reminds me a lot of Weathers with his pitching motion, his stuff and his body shape.  I think White will be a fine major league pitcher but anyone counting on more than a David Weathers-type career is probably tilting at windmills. 

The other North Carolina player who's gotten a lot of attention is Dustin Ackley.  He finished this season with his third consective .400 batting season and the record for most career hits in CWS history.  It's pretty clear the guy can lay the bat on the ball.  But what I have not seen all year, even though his stats indicate otherwise, is power.  I just don't see his swing generating game-changing power in the majors, or even in the minors.  I think a number of his homers this season were doubles hit down the line with just enough carry to clear the fence.  He won't have that benefit with a wooden bat.  I'm guessing his career will be much closer to that of Mark Grace than Todd Helton.

I doubt I will update this regularly, but here's a Drew Storen update.  As you may know, I was not high on the Nats taking him at #10 overall, pointing out there were much better talents available and even guys who could fill roles better and faster.  I mean, the Nats could use a real centerfielder, so why not take Jared Mitchell with the pick?  Anyway, the Nats reasoning was that he would be an easy sign, that he threw strikes and that one day soon he would be the team's closer.  The downside they either didn't talk about, disregarded or didn't know was that he has a tendency to give up a lot of homers, even against college competition.  So sure enough, the Nats signed him the day after the draft and sent him to low-A ball Hagerstown to start his professional career.  And what does he do in his first professional outing?  Gives up a homer, of course.  Two games in, he's got an ERA of 13.50 and a WHIP of 2.500... no walks, though so at least he's still throwing strikes. 


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