With a field of 64 whittled to the final eight, it’s time for the College World Series. The NCAA baseball tournament spotlight shines on Omaha, Nebraska, a fine city and hot tourist destination this week.
For handicappers, this is a chance to see future major leaguers and look for good wagering opportunities.
It’s important to understand the bracket setup for the College World Series, which begins Saturday. One team in each bracket will win its first two contests. That platoon is able to fully rest its pitching staff and spend time on the practice field while the other three teams in the bracket invest arms and energy to survive and try to earn their way through the 2-0 team into the championship series.
While winning the first two games is not critical — both teams starting 2-0 last year did not make it into the final series — it’s by far the preferred path.
TD Ameritrade Park is cavernous and sits low next to the Missouri River. Winds in the plains of Nebraska can go from a light breeze to a turbulent tornado in seconds. No matter how hard the wind may be blowing, it comes in from the outfield straight into the hitter’s teeth. A spacious outfield with wind blowing in is the norm.
Teams arriving in Omaha since 2011 have been forced to become more reliant on deep pitching staffs, tight fielding, fleet outfielders, hitting for average, hitting for extra bases and sacrificing to score and win. It’s mandatory to be able to play small-ball in TD Ameritrade, for the days of gorilla ball and scores in the teens died with old Rosenblatt Stadium on the hill.
The Omaha fans
An underrated nuance to the CWS is which team(s) the fans in Omaha will gravitate to and support. Remember that this is Big Red football country, so teams like Florida State and Florida (opponents of the Cornhuskers in bowl games etc.) will be despised.
Omaha fans have a propensity to support any new underdog squad — a perfect example last year was Coastal Carolina — provided Louisiana State is not in the field. If the Tigers are in Omaha, make no mistake that the fans will back the Bayou Bengals as their own. This tradition is based on Baton Rouge and Omaha being very similar tertiary cities with people who over time have become family for 13 days each CWS. LSU will see overwhelming support in Omaha.
Odds: Oregon State (plus-275), LSU (plus-410), Florida State (plus-750), Cal State Fullerton (plus-1,250).
Cal State Fullerton arrives unnoticed. The Titans took out red-hot teams Stanford and Long Beach State to earn their way to Omaha. Fullerton is 0-7 in its past seven appearances in the CWS. In their last trip in 2015, the Titans went two and BBQ (that’s Omaha talk for two and out). They pitch and field well, with the highest fielding percentage of all eight teams, but they can sometimes struggle to score. The Fullerton pitching WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.23 ranks behind only Oregon State and Louisville. Fullerton is a sleeper.
Oregon State (54-4) is the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. The Beavers play it the CWS way, which means they feature a 1.80 team ERA, flash a fielding percentage of .978, allow the fewest hits per game and they steal bases. This is a most complete team that has been steady, consistent and overpowering all season. The Beavers have lost only four games, but the Pac-12 Conference was off a bit as far as deep, talented baseball squads in 2017. There’s also an unwanted plume of distraction that has followed the Beavers, who lost ace pitcher Luke Heimlich in a controversial development. These are college kids and the distraction this team is facing will be difficult to overcome. Oregon State is carrying a heavy load from this perspective.
Florida State comes in healthy for the first time in months and is playing its best baseball. Mike Martin, who’s had 38 years at the helm, is the ambassador of college baseball coaching. The Seminoles have been to Omaha 22 times in their history and never have won, so to say they are due is an understatement. They were a strike away from losing to Auburn in the Super Regionals but found a way to grind it out. Florida State is well-balanced offensively, but its team ERA (3.72) and fielding (worst of the teams in Omaha) is a concern. The Seminoles won’t have local fan support, other than some loyalists hoping Martin can steal a championship.
LSU will be the darling of the dance in Omaha. The Tigers have had to learn their way into this new ballpark, for they were the template of ‘gorilla ball’ until they played in TD Ameritrade on two occasions with putrid results. LSU went 1-4 in its past two CWS appearances, so coach Paul Mainieri remade the team. LSU features pitching ace Alex Lange and a staff that has an ERA of 3.54, backed by the best fielding percentage in the tourney. Offensively, the Tigers can do it all, as the team hits .294. They average 1.74 doubles per game (doubles mean much more than home runs in TD Ameritrade), hit for power and steal 1.10 bases per nine innings. Last year’s team lost eight players from 2015 and fell in the Super Regionals to eventual CWS champion Coastal Carolina. Four junior leaders capable of playing professionally decided to return to campus and lead LSU to the 2017 CWS. The Tigers went from a youthful team in need of some seasoning to a veteran group which decided to return with purpose. Experienced, focused, a complete team and a feverous fan following. LSU is a contender.
Odds: Louisville (plus-220), Florida (plus-610), Texas Christian (plus-800), Texas A&M (plus-1,750).
Louisville is no secret to the gaming markets, much to our dismay, and is set up quite well by opening against the only unranked team in the tournament, Texas A&M. The Cardinals are complete, yet they lack recent CWS experience, which is key. Last year, Louisville was a highly-ranked super power that was rolling along until overlooking a live underdog in UC Santa Barbara, which took the Cardinals down in two straight in Louisville. The embarrassment and pain of that loss drives the Cardinals this year, but they will need to learn how to win in Omaha. Louisville pitching is a strength with a team ERA of 2.85, a 1.16 WHIP and the second-fewest hits allowed in the tourney. This is a fundamentally sound club. Louisville’s talent and placement in the bracket make it a worthy favorite, but at plus-220 there is no value. Pass.
Texas A&M, the lone unranked team in Omaha, earned its place in the final eight yet faced only one ranked opponent (a 4-3 victory over Houston) on the way. The Aggies’ pitching is their strength, with three solid starters. On offense, A&M is better than the stats indicate. Unfortunately for the Aggies, they have not had success in Omaha, going 2-10 in CWS appearances and 0-6 in their past six games. Texas A&M opened as a plus-155 ‘dog to Louisville on Sunday. Interested.
Florida was in Omaha last year, arriving with pomp and circumstance as chalk being bet to a tourney favorite of plus-180. The Gators had it all — pitching fielding, hitting, coaching and heaps of hype. Their result was two and BBQ! It’s that type of result that we look to uncover, for experience (especially poor) can provide a singularity of purpose, a laser focus for college hardball teams earning the chance to return to Omaha. Florida pitches well, is tied in fielding percentage with Fullerton and LSU, and while they can sometimes struggle to score, they sacrifice and steal to manufacture runs which is necessary at this park. If they can win their first game, look out for the Gators.
TCU is a marvel. It’s a private school with only 10,000 students and strict acceptance standards. What former UNLV coach Jim Schlossnagle is doing in Fort Worth is simply amazing. The Horned Frogs, making their fourth consecutive CWS appearance, return basically the same team they fielded in 2016. They are complete and focused on finishing what they started last year. TCU has done it with team, and not with statistics, for they don’t top any of the statistical categories we track yet they are here again. The winner of the TCU-Florida game on Sunday is a certain threat in this tournament.
Bracket I: LSU (plus-410); Bracket II: Florida (plus-610)
Saturday best bet: Cal State Fullerton (plus-195).
Lou Finocchiaro is a Phoenix-based handicapper. Follow on Twitter: @GambLou.