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Omaha on my mind

UC Irvine is the underdog many will root for next week at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
UC Irvine is the underdog many will root for next week at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

We’ve arrived at one of my favorite times of the sports season, and one that I alone look forward to amongst my SVM sports brethren.

For years, the College World Series has been appointment television for yours truly. As a college-centric sports fan, the yearly baseball tournament in Omaha will always remain so.

But it just doesn’t have the same feel to it these days.

I can’t really put my finger on exactly why. It may be the deadened bats taking all the exciting offense out of the game. It may be the enormous new TD Ameritrade ballpark, which makes it nearly impossible for anyone to dig the longball.

It may just be the fact that I’m now nearly two decades removed from back-to-back treks to good old Rosenblatt Stadium, where I saw what will more than likely go down as the greatest moment I’ll ever witness live and in person at a sporting event when LSU’s Warren Morris hit a two-run, walk-off homer to win the 1996 title game.

Whatever the reason, Omaha will still be the center of my sports world for the next 11 or 12 days. My TiVo will be tuned to ESPN or ESPN2 in my every waking moment through the beginning of next week, when a new national champion will be crowned.

And not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on who will hoist that trophy this season.

Like the folks in Omaha who love the underdog, I’ll be pulling for upstart UC Irvine. The Anteaters are scrappy, they’re fundamentally sound, and they have by far the best nickname among the octet of squads in the final eight.

What you need these days in Omaha is a strong defense, a solid pitching staff, and the ability to manufacture runs, and the Anteaters might have enough to pull off the biggest CWS surprise since Fresno State won it all in 2008. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between those Bulldogs and these Anteaters.

But breaking down that short list of necessities to win the title eliminates a few teams right off the bat. Texas Tech, Irvine’s fellow underdog, has one of the best pitching staffs in the CWS, but the Red Raiders’ offensive struggles are probably too much to overcome.

Mississippi is a sexy pick out of the SEC, but the Rebels have relied on the longball all season, and those are in short supply at TD Ameritrade. Vanderbilt also survived the rigorous SEC, but youth and inexperience may derail the Commodores’ chances.

TCU and Louisville are interesting cases. Both have quite a bit of CWS experience on their rosters, with the Horned Frogs boasting a deep bullpen, and the Cardinals having one of the best closers in college baseball in Nick Burdi. But experience doesn’t score runs, and both teams have been inconsistent at times.

The two teams that pop out on the page are Texas and Virginia. The Longhorns’ pedigree is the best among the eight teams in Omaha, and coach Augie Garrido has been around a long time and knows what it takes to win a championship, having won five of them.

The Cavaliers have been one of the most consistent programs in college baseball the past few years, and they easily meet all three criteria. Virginia is the highest remaining national seed (No. 3), and have played with the expectations of a trip to Omaha all year. Coach Brian O’Connor is actually from Council Bluffs, Iowa, right across the Missouri River, and played college ball at Creighton, so the Cavs will be eager to give him a homecoming to remember.

I think the winner of the Irvine-Texas game – the CWS opener – will eventually move on to face Virginia in the best-of-three championship series, which begins a week from Monday. But I don’t think either of those teams have the horses to knock off the Cavaliers, who might sweep the first two games and make a winner-take-all third game unnecessary.

No matter what happens, rest assured I’ll be watching. I’m ready for another visit – via TV – to Omaha.

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