Virginia looks to end the ACC’s College World Series drought

The College World Series gets underway at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park this weekend, and Virginia is poised to make a run to end the ACC's CWS drought.

The ACC featured some of the best teams in the country this year, but after the first weekend of play in the NCAA Tournament, just two remained — and they played each other in Super Regionals.

Ultimately, Virginia sent Maryland packing — both from the NCAA Tournament and from competing athletically as a member of the ACC — in three games in Charlottesville last weekend to advance to its third College World Series in the past six seasons.

Now, Virginia will try to do something no ACC team has done since 1955 — win the whole darned thing.

There’s a reason no ACC team has done it, though. It’s not easy. The College World Series in Omaha pits eight teams, four in each bracket, against each other until one team emerges from each side. And it’s double elimination. It’s grueling just to get to the championship series, much less win your bracket.

So it has to be approached one step at a time.

For Virginia, the only three teams that matter right now are Mississippi, Texas Tech and TCU. First comes Ole Miss on Sunday night. If Virginia wins, it will play the winner of Texas Tech and TCU on Tuesday. And if the Cavaliers win there and then win again on Thursday, they’ll only have to win one more time to get to the final series — and they’ll get two tries to do it.

Advance to the loser’s bracket, though, and there’s no margin for error left. It’s still doable, but they’ll likely have to beat a team twice to do it.

Pitching, of course, becomes dicey. Virginia’s games, should it reach the championship series, run from June 15 to June 25 (if necessary), and the Cavaliers could play as many as eight games in that stretch.

With some of the changes made in college baseball over the last few years, offense is down. That problem will only be compounded by the size of the ballpark in Omaha. TD Ameritrade showed last season that it will hold almost any ball, no matter how hard it’s hit, and there weren’t a lot of home runs — which is why a team like UCLA, offensively-challenged at times, won the whole thing.

That’s a good sign for Virginia, because its pitching has been as good as any team’s in the country this season. But the Cavaliers have been spotty offensively as well, and so they’re going to have to find a way to use their small-ball attack as best they can to get runs across. It’s certainly not a bad thing that Virginia is not necessarily a power-hitting team anyway.

Back in 2011, Virginia reached the College World Series after dominating its regional, outscoring opponents 29-3. This year, Virginia won its first three by a combined score of 22-3 in regional play.

And this year, just like in 2011, it took Virginia three games to knock off its Super Regional opponent. Then, it was UC-Irvine, and the combined score of those games was just 13-8 in Virginia’s favor. This time, it was Maryland, and the combined score was 22-10, largely due to an 11-2 win in Game 3.

That postseason, Virginia won its CWS opener before falling to eventual champion South Carolina in Round 2, then beating California again to stay alive. Virginia and South Carolina were the only teams remaining, but Virginia couldn’t beat South Carolina even one of the necessary two times before its season was ended, falling 3-2 in extras. That sent South Carolina to the Championship series.

Winning that first game certainly helps, but it’s not quite like regional round in that way, where it gives you a big-time advantage. Since all of these teams are, in theory, pretty evenly matched, you can still advance out of the loser’s bracket. It’s just a tougher task. In fact, in the last five years, just one eventual national champion took a loss prior to the championship series (South Carolina in 2010), and of the 10 teams to reach the championship series just three lost a game in their bracket prior to it.

One of the biggest issues that arises with an early loss is that you’ve lost all margin for error. Virginia has a ton of pitching depth, as it showed by using a de facto fourth starter (Josh Sborz) in its rubber-match win against Maryland last weekend. But all it takes is one bad outing from a normally reliable pitcher for a team to get in deep trouble. Virginia has fantastic starters and a dominant closer, and the fact that it only had to use seven pitchers in three games against Maryland last weekend certainly bodes well. But one shaky outing from a starter or a reliever that leads to a pitch-by-committee game and Virginia’s in trouble, as it doesn’t have the time to rest its arms with just a day in between games (sometimes not even that).

But Virginia can’t worry about advancing to a potential championship series until it gets past the teams on its side of the bracket.

This is Ole Miss’ first CWS appearance since 1972, and the Rebels are hitting well even as offense is down nationwide (.303 average as a team, a mark that leads all teams in the CWS field). They also have some good arms, and Virginia will likely see ace Chris Ellis (10-2, 2.45 ERA) in Game 1.

Texas Tech was the No. 2. seed in Miami’s regional, and the Red Raiders beat Columbia before beating Miami twice to advance. They faced the College of Charleston, a 4-seed from the Gainesville Regional, in Super Regionals and won two games by a combined score of 2-0.

This is the Red Raiders’ first CWS appearance in program history. With this run, they’re now No. 7 in the most recent baseball polls, putting them in the top 10 for the first time since 1997. Texas Tech’s arms are getting hot at the right time, if such a thing is possible — Texas Tech is coming off three straight shutouts.

TCU hosted a Regional and beat Siena in 11 innings , then Sam Houston State in 22 before finishing off Sam Houston State in a third game in the Regional Final. Then the Horned Frogs beat Pepperdine two out of three times (the combined score in the three games was 11-11). So TCU has certainly seen its share of close games.

There would be no rest for Virginia, should the Cavaliers face TCU in Game 2, win or lose — the Horned Frogs will likely start lefty Preston Morrison, who actually has a better ERA (1.97) than the staff ace Brandon Finnegan (who was a first-round pick in the MLB Draft).

But that’s what this event is about, after all — beating really good teams with plenty of depth. And Virginia should be feeling very good about the way it has been playing. The best regular-season team doesn’t always win this event — in fact, it’s a rarity — but the Cavaliers finished the year as the No. 1 team in the RPI. They belong here, and if they play the way they’ve shown they’re capable of playing, they could make some ACC history.