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UNC Baseball: College World Series Preview

A look ahead at what’s waiting for the Tar Heels in Omaha.

2017 Division I Men's College World Series - LSU v Florida - Game 1 Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Omaha, Nebraska. Home of the steak company, Warren Buffett, George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air,” Zesto milkshakes, and the College World Series. For the first time since 2013, the North Carolina baseball team will head to Stock Trading Company Park to try and win the NCAA Baseball Championship.

The College World Series takes the last eight teams standing from the tournament, and turns it into a format that is a repeat of the previous two rounds. The brackets were set prior to the tournament to create two divisions, each with four teams. Similar to the first weekend, the winner of that section is the lone team standing after the other three teams have lost twice. The two winners then face of in a best of three series to determine the champion.

Thus, while there will be eight teams in Omaha, we only need to concern ourselves with the four that include Carolina. So to Texas, Florida, Arkansas and Texas Tech congrats, and good luck while you’re out there. For this preview, however, we will only be looking at the teams in Carolina’s Bracket. Should the Heels make the Championship Series, we will preview their opponent, and the schedule for the Heels’ bracket is below the previews. On to the previews!

North Carolina Tar Heels (#6 National Seed)

Record: 43-18 overall, 22-8 ACC, 5-0 NCAA Tournament

Last CWS Appearance: 2013

How They Got here: After the Chapel Hill Regional, Carolina hosted the Hatters of Stetson this past weekend. It was an imposing challenge, as Stetson had the 1-2 punch of 14th overall pick Logan Gilbert and Jack Perkins, he of the 2.32 ERA and 105 strikeouts over 102 23 innings. While Carolina led the ACC in offense, their bats had the ability to go quiet at inopportune times, such as the first game of the ACC Tournament against Pitt.

Those fears were heightened after the top of the first inning when Carolina’s Cooper Criswell couldn’t get out of his frame without surrendering a run, and then Kyle Datres managed to waste getting hit with a Gilbert pitch by being picked off first base. The Tar Heels would rally, however, and get that run back. That immediate answer set the tone for the rest of the Super Regionals, as Carolina would knock out the Mariners’ draft pick after only 5 13 innings, hanging four runs on him, and earning a 7-4 win. They made even quicker work of Perkins, knocking him out after 2 13 and advanced to Omaha with a 7-5 win on Saturday. Carolina finished the 2018 season winning 19 games in a row at home, and they are currently 36-0 when they score 6 or more runs.

Player(s) to watch: Jake told you to keep an eye on Cody Roberts for last weekend, and he delivered going 3 for 8, and driving in 5 of Carolina’s 14 runs over the weekend. He and Micheal Busch teamed up to provide a devastating punch in the 2-3 spot, and that will need to continue for Carolina to make it to the Championship Series.

An unheralded but no less key contributor this past weekend is someone worth keeping an eye on as well. Sophomore Ike Freeman hit out of the five-hole both days, and feasted on the Hatters’ pitching. He went 5 of 8 over the weekend with one walk. He didn’t have any RBI, but his ability to continue innings and get on base after the upper part of the lineup did their job forced Stetson to have to go to their pen much earlier than they would have wanted.

Also, keep an eye on Josh Hiatt. The redshirt sophomore was used to get a three-inning save two weekends in a row, and was unable to complete it on Friday. Coach Mike Fox has show he’ll go to the closer quicker than anyone, and unlike either regional, the schedule sets up to where Hiatt won’t have to pitch in back-to-back days until the very end. Don’t expect that to stop.

Oregon State Beavers (#3 National Seed)

Record: 49-10-1 overall, 20-9-1 Pac 12, 5-0 NCAA Tournament

Last CWS Appearance: 2017

How they Got Here: Carolina’s first opponent will be a name familiar to those who have followed this team, and not in a good way. But we’re not here to talk about the past.

Put simply, Oregon State really hasn’t been tested much in this tournament so far. They won their regional by a combined 35-4. You read that right, and 26 of those runs were scored in two games against LSU. They followed that up with a 2-0 sweep of Minnesota. That series saw their only real sweat, as they needed three runs in the top of 9th on Saturday to win 6-3. There’s a reason why they are the third seed overall.

The Beavers can get you with pitching, and can also hit the daylights out of the ball. It took them nine games to score less than four runs, hitting double-digits four times before then. It should be noted they won that game, and it took them until game thirteen to lose. They won seven more in a row after that, and on the season they only lost two series, to Arizona and Utah.

The Beavers are going to be the favorite to advance to the Championship Series, and Carolina will have their hands full right out of the gate.

Player(s) to Watch: Oh yeah, OSU has been in the news for something else: their ace pitcher, Luke Heimlich. He’s likely going to be the guy Carolina faces in their opening game, and his stats are ridiculous: 16-1, 2.32 ERA, 151 strikeouts over 120 13 innings pitched, and opponents hitting a paltry .211 against him. So why didn’t you hear the senior’s name last week at the MLB Draft?

Well, it could be because of this conviction.

The discussion about that past is for other venues, because the fact is that the Tar Heels will have to face this dominant pitcher. Rest assured the coaches are already breaking him down as we speak.

Of the hitters, it’s tough to pick out just one as their stat sheet is full of .300 hitters. The best place to look may just be at the leadoff spot. Steven Kwan, picked in the 5th round by the Indians last week, went 5 of 9 over the Super Regional, and is batting .357 after starting all 60 games for the Beavers. He’s a threat to run, going 14-20 in steals on the season, and is a key to setting the table for the rest of the powerful lineup. Keep Kwan off-base and the pitchers may be able to limit the damage Oregon State can do.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Record: 37-27 overall, 15-15 SEC, 6-2 NCAA Tournament

Last CWS Appearance: 2013

How they Got Here: You may notice a lack of a national seed by the Bulldogs. Needless to say, a .500 record in the SEC made it to where most didn’t expect the Dogs to make it this far. They, in fact, lost the first game of the tournament to Oklahoma in the Tallahassee regional. By ten runs. When they had scored ten runs. Facing elimination, Elijah MacNamee stepped up in the 9th inning against ACC Champion Florida State, and knocked the Seminoles out with one swing. The game-winning homer propelled MSU to three more wins, and a date with SEC foe Vanderbilt.

It took three games, but Mississippi State continued their storybook run to Omaha, scoring 10 runs in each of their wins. State has been swinging a hot bat, scoring in double-digits four times, but the pitching hasn't exactly been as strong. Besides the 20 runs surrendered to FSU, they’ve only held the opposition to two runs or under twice in the tournament. Clearly, they are going to try to keep slugging their way to the Championship Series.

Player(s) to Watch: Jake Mangum is the spark for the Bulldogs. The freshman has started all 64 games, and is hitting a torrid .353 with 275 at bats, the most on the team. He doesn’t hit for power, but he sets the table for the rest of the team by getting out of the box and on the base paths. He’s second on the team in walks (27), and has been hit by a pitch 12 times. The aforementioned MacNamee is the team leader in homers with checking notes 8.

MSU’s pitchers basically try to get the wins by committee. No one on the team has more than five wins, and no one has more than three saves. Hitters will have a chance against this staff, it’s just stopping their hitters that’s the problem.

Washington Huskies

Record: 35-24 overall, 20-10 Pac 12, 5-1 NCAA Tournament

Last CWS Appearance: First trip to Omaha

How they Got Here: The other surprise representative, the Huskies shocked everyone’s favorite upstart Coastal Carolina on their home diamond, and made it to the Super Regionals in a cakewalk. They won their three games by a combined 27-13, and earned a trip to Cal State Fullerton for the right to be allowed to fly to Omaha. They needed all three, and then some.

Washington had built a methodical 3-0 lead on Fullerton, and had a 3-1 lead going into the top of the 9th. Fullerton then went on a hitting spree, scoring three to take the lead 4-3. Washington returned the favor in the bottom of the inning to tie it again, 4-4, Cal State then got a home run to retake the lead, 5-4. Washington just wouldn’t be denied, and pulled out two runs in the bottom of the 10th to take the Super Regional 6-5.

Washington has no problem playing on the road, has the experience of coming back twice to get to Omaha, and are looking to represent the Pacific Coast as their lone representative this year.

Player(s) to Watch: We have a slugger! Joe Wainhouse is the leading home run hitter for Washington, belting 19 bombs and hitting .312 overall. As to be expected, he also leads the team in RBI at 59, and is the guy who will clear the bases if he has the chance. The guy with the best eye may be Nick Kahle, as he leads the team in walks and is second in OBP at .392.

Joe DeMers is the Ace of the staff. Only a Freshman, DeMers sports a 2.93 ERA in 123 IP, 92 K’s, only 20 walks, and has three complete games. Did I mention he pitches in relief, too? He got the save in Washington’s first game against Cal State, then pitched 8 23 on Sunday. Maybe since he gave up the lead in the ninth that wasn’t the smartest plan, but it shows the level of trust Washington has in him. As the Huskies hitters bailed him out, it’ll be interesting to see if Sunday’s game sticks with him.

As noted, above, the structure changes this weekend which will be a benefit to everyone’s pitching staff. Here’s how it works:

Saturday 6/18:

Game 1: North Carolina vs. Oregon State, 3 PM, ESPN

Game 2: Mississippi State vs. Washington, 7 PM ESPN

Monday 6/20

Game 3: Game 1 L vs. Game 2 L, 1 PM, ESPN-Loser eliminated

Game 4: Game 1 W vs Game 2 W, 6 PM, ESPN

Wednesday 6/22

Game 5: Game 3 W vs. Game 4 L, 6 PM, ESPN-Loser eliminated

Friday 6/23

Game 6: Game 5 W vs Game 4 Winner, 2 PM, ESPN. Game 5 W eliminated with loss

Saturday 6/24

Game 7: If Necessary should Game 5 W wins

That’s right, the team that wins Saturday and Monday gets to sit until Friday, so it probably would be a good idea to win both games. That said, even being put in the loser’s bracket gives your players a day off between games. The Championship Series starts on Monday June 26th.