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Sports

Thomas: Predicting college baseball’s Omaha eight

| Monday, April 26, 2021

While I was certainly among the many who mourned the lack of a March Madness tournament in the spring of 2020, I was also among the minority who was more upset about the lack of a College World Series. College baseball’s iconic event, held in Omaha, remains a bucket-list sporting event for me to attend, and I’ve always loved taking in as much of the postseason as I could. Baseball was always my favorite sport, the postseason takes place largely after finals — so I don’t have the all-consuming dread that I’m skipping out on work to watch the tournament. It has a similar March-magic type of feel, as small schools around the country take on the big dogs on the road to Omaha. So as the collegiate season hits its stride, with the country’s top teams making their statements, I figured now is as good a time as any to take a stab at my first prediction for the 8-team field in Omaha, plus maybe a too-early national championship prediction.

No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks

Ranked No. 1 right now, Arkansas is a trendy national champion pick, and they crack my Omaha Eight to start these predictions, but I question if they’re built for a run in the CWS against the best of the best. They can score runs like nobody else, but their offense has gone cold at times, and they’ll face great pitching in Omaha. They’ve also given up 11, 13 and 14 runs on separate occasions, all in the past 16 days. The bats will get them there, but I’m not positive they go further.

No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

I want the Irish to be here, and maybe this is a tad optimistic, but Notre Dame is a gritty team, who won’t beat themselves, are capable of stunning comebacks and have yet to lose a series this season in a competitive ACC. Notre Dame leads the nation in fielding percentage, and the other reason I like the Irish is they already play a postseason style of baseball — with only one true starter, Notre Dame often patchworks together their Friday night games, cobbling together a string of bullpen arms against an opposing ace, and it’s worked quite frequently. They’re going to be used to the desperate scramble that is postseason baseball. However, you obviously can’t count on 8-run comebacks, so Notre Dame will need to clean up their act and build some consistency if they’re to become one of the season’s biggest surprises.

No. 6 Texas Longhorns

The Longhorns lost on Sunday — their first defeat since March 30th — and snapped a 16-game winning streak, but they are simply red-hot with great pitching and hitting balance. They have a 2.82 team ERA, and they rank second in the country in doubles, consistently driving the balls to the gaps. The pitching is really good, but my biggest doubt is definitely offensive consistency — Texas seems vulnerable to getting completely shut down if they run into a couple of hot pitchers in the postseason.

No. 5 TCU Horned Frogs

More Texas teams in the too-early Omaha field, as TCU is another red-hot Big 12 team, having just lost their seven-game winning streak, having already ripped off a 10-game stretch earlier in the season. TCU is dominant right now and the team has shown the ability to get hot enough to carry a torrid pace through the postseason. TCU has a grind-out-offense, as they keep the train moving, indicated by a top-10 on-base percentage, and a statement sweep of Oklahoma State proved their mettle against quality competition.

No. 4 Arizona Wildcats

We’re headed to the Pac-12 as we break in our final four. Arizona is one of my more surprising picks on this list, as they’re ranked 18th in the country at the time of this article. However, the Wildcats lead all Power-5 schools with a blazing .324 batting average, and they’ve flexed their offensive muscle in recent stretches, as they’re currently on a six-game heater, averaging over ten runs per game in that span. With a .432 on-base percentage, Arizona leads all Power-5 teams in that category as well, and they are simply a tough out who will be battle-tested as they work to emerge atop the Pac-12.

No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers

I hope everyone is ready for the SEC-love storm that’s coming. It’s simply the best conference in baseball, and there’s no doubt. I’ve got four SEC teams in my initial Omaha Eight, with three making it into the final four. I’ve got faith in the Vols’ bats finding more consistency, and their pitching staff is pretty good, particularly at punching out opponents  — averaging over a strikeout per inning. They’re pesky at the plate, and they’ve won some impressive series this year — taking two of three from Florida and Georgia, along with a sweep of LSU. They battled Vanderbilt, dropping two of three, but still remaining a top-10 team and one of my favorite picks.

No. 2 Mississippi State Bulldogs

The Bulldogs dropped a hotly-contested series to Vanderbilt this past weekend, losing two of three after ripping off eight wins in their past nine conference games, including sweeps of Auburn and Kentucky, to go with an impressive series victory against rival Ole Miss. This team just gives me a good feeling, and they’ve got a solid pitching staff, as they’re a top-10 squad in WHIP (Walks and Hits against per inning pitched), which is possibly my favorite baseball stat, at least for measuring pitchers. The record is an impressive 29-10, which is fantastic given the strength of competition.

No. 1 Vanderbilt Commodores

It couldn’t be anyone else but the ‘Dores here. The 1-2  pitching combo of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter is as dominant and talented a duo as I can ever remember watching at the collegiate level, as they may be the two best arms in the upcoming MLB draft. They have ERAs of 1.55 and 1.49, respectively, combining for a 16-2 record on the bump and averaging over six innings a start. And the Vandy boys can also hit, leading all Power-5 schools in slugging percentage. After a series loss to Georgia, they toppled top-10 opponents Tennessee and Mississippi State, reminding the college baseball world exactly who the team to beat is.

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