The Washington Times - June 13, 2008, 04:57PM

By TOM STAD

Rosenblatt Stadium is about as close as it gets in real life to a “Field of Dreams.” For more than 50 years, the Omaha landmark has played host to the best that college baseball has to offer. From Bill “Spaceman” Lee to Barry Bonds, hundreds of major leaguers have graced the field in the heartland of America to compete for the title of College World Series champion. As we approach the first pitch of the 2008 College World Series with eight teams trying to make some history of their own, we learn that, as John Sterling once put it so famously, “In life, all good things must come to an end.” An agreement has been reached between the NCAA and a city business group that owns the event to keep the CWS in Omaha through 2035. The longtime venue of Rosenblatt Stadium, however, will go the way of so many major league parks before it as the agreement calls for the construction of a new 24,000-seat stadium that will host its first CWS in 2011. That means that only three more champions will hoist the trophy on Rosenblatt’s hallowed ground.

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When the first pitch is thrown today, none of that will matter. The players and coaches will be focused on one thing - winning a championship. This year’s field of eight brings six of the eight national seeds who survived the Regionals and Super Regionals to get here, while one familiar face remembered the way to get here and one crashed the party as his team did what no other team had ever done before. Ten days from now a champion will be crowned. Who will play for that honor? Let’s find out:

 

BRACKET ONE

Miami (Fla.), 52-9 record, No. 1 National Seed

The ACC regular-season and tournament champion cruised through their regional and after dropping the first game of the Super Regional, recovered to take a pair of games from Arizona to get here. The Hurricanes are led by a pair of First-Team All-Americans and MLB first-round picks in first baseman Yonder Alonso, the No. 7 overall pick by Cincinnati who spearheads the offense with 23 HR and 72 RBI on the year, and speedster Jemile Weeks, who stole 21 bases this season and was taken 12th overall by Oakland. Both players enter the weekend hitting .367 in a lineup that boasts six players hitting over .300 for the year. The No. 1 team in the nation didn’t get to the top of the polls without balance, however, and Miami certainly has it. The Hurricanes’ three primary starters are a combined 26-3, but if Miami doesn’t bring home its first title since 2001, inexperience on the mound could be the reason why. Former closer Enrique Garcia (7-2) is the trio’s only senior. Sophomore left-hander Eric Erickson (8-1) and undefeated freshman Chris Hernandez (11-0) have never pitched in a CWS game. If they respond to the pressure of the big stage and get to the bullpen, the Minnesota Twins first-round pick, closer Carlos Gutierrez (5-3, 13 saves), awaits, which is good news for a Miami team that is 45-0 when leading after eight innings. There’s no doubt this team has the talent to win it all - now they just have to prove it on the field.
 
Florida State, 54-12 record, No. 4 National Seed

Head Coach Mike Martin brings Florida State to Omaha for the school’s 19th CWS appearance - the most by any school that has not left with the trophy. If ever there were a Seminoles team that could change all that, this might be it. National Player of the Year Buster Posey, the No. 5 overall pick by the San Francisco Giants, leads the nation’s best offense into Omaha on a roll. The Seminoles lead the nation in team batting average at .354 and have scored an NCAA-best 653 runs while playing in one of the top conferences in the nation. FSU has also scored a mind-blowing 109 runs in postseason play. There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe Posey (.460, 26 home runs, 92 RBI), both in his abilities at the plate and behind the dish. His supporting cast isn’t anything to sneeze at either, as six starters are hitting over .400 in the postseason. The question for the Seminoles is whether they have enough pitching. Sophomore lefty Matt Fairel (12-2, 3.74 ERA) will get the start in the opener against Stanford. Fairel will try to do what two of his teammates haven’t been able to do so far - win the opener of a postseason series. Senior Ryan Strauss (10-1, 4.25) and junior Elih Vilanueva (7-3, 3.79) are also keys to FSU’s chances in the CWS. The magic number for the Noles may be six, as FSU is 45-4 when scoring six or more runs. If they are going to win their first title in school history, they better remember to pack the bats. FSU and Miami seem to be on a collision course and are a good bet to be playing for the right to play in the championship series.

Georgia, 41-23-1 record, No. 8 National Seed

The Bulldogs are lucky in the fact that they have an extra day to get some rest after dispatching NC State in the Super Regionals. The Bulldogs had more trouble getting to Nebraska for the third time in five years on Thursday than they did in their clinching victory over the Wolfpack, when they scored nine first-inning runs on their way to a 17-8 rout. A mechanical problem during the trip caused a four-hour delay, and the team had to switch planes before departing Athens. Head Coach David Perno pushed back practice a couple hours to let everyone get some extra sleep, but will that travel nightmare affect Georgia in their opener tonight against top-ranked Miami at 7 p.m. on ESPN? We will see, but Miami certainly won’t mind if it does. The Bulldogs resemble the Hurricanes in at least one respect - they have a pair of First-Team All-Americans on their roster in shortstop Gordon Beckham (.401, 26 home, 72 RBI), drafted eighth overall by the Chicago White Sox, and reliever Joshua Fields (2-2, 2.76 ERA) who has been missing bats all season on his way to an SEC-best 16 saves. Fields, selected 20th overall by the Seattle Mariners, has struck out an outstanding 79 batters in 52 2/3 innings this season.  Beckham continued to tear the cover off the ball in regional play, hitting a pair of home runs in his final two at bats to give him a school-record 51 in his career. The problem for Georgia is the fact that they are in a bracket with two of the better offensive teams in this tournament and their pitching has been less than stellar, with a team ERA of 4.82, and Beckham can’t carry this team all by himself. He’s going to need some help from sophomore first baseman Rich Poythress, junior catcher Bryce Massanari and senior Ryan Peisel. Unfortunately for Bulldog fans, that probably won’t be enough to get them their first national title since 1990, when they beat Mike Mussina’s Stanford Cardinal in two straight. Speaking of…

Stanford, 39-22-2 record
When Stanford takes the field against Florida State today, the top two backstops in all of college baseball will be on the diamond at the same time. Second-Team All-American catcher Jason Castro, drafted 10th overall by the Houston Astros, leads the Cardinal into Omaha with a .379 batting average to go along with 13 home runs and 69 RBI. The junior was instrumental in getting his squad here, going 5-for-8 with six RBI in a two-game sweep of No. 5 National Seed Cal State-Fullerton. On the hill, however, Stanford has some question marks. After junior lefty Jeremy Bleich, the Cardinal will be hard pressed to find anyone who can shut down the vaunted Seminoles offense in their opener. If they can piece something together and get to the ninth, that’s where another underclassman will have to step up like he did in the Super Regionals. Freshman Drew Storen saved both games against the Titans with a 90-plus mile per hour fastball and a tremendous curve. Whether or not he can step it up against the best the NCAA has to offer in Omaha remains to be seen. Saddled with the two Florida teams in their bracket, it looks like it might be a short stay in Omaha for the Cardinal this year.

BRACKET TWO

North Carolina, 51-12, No. 2 National Seed

It’s been said that good pitching beats good hitting most of the time. If that’s the case in the 2008 CWS, UNC, which opens play against LSU Sunday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN2, is a good bet to get back into the championship series for the third year in a row. Tar Heels head coach and UNC alum Mike Fox, who is one of only ten men to both play and coach in a College World Series, is hoping that if his team does make the championship, the cliché fits and the third time is the charm. The aforementioned best pitching staff in all of college baseball leads the nation in ERA (2.83), strikeouts (640) and opponents’ batting average (.227) and is second in shutouts (8). Leading the way is junior Adam Warren (9-1, 4.07 ERA), who is 22-1 in his career and holds the ACC and school records for winning percentage; sophomore Alex White (10-3, 2.75), the ACC Pitcher of the Year; and Freshman All-American Matt Harvey (7-2, 2.52). Warren is 3-0 with a 2.22 ERA in seven career postseason appearances, so experience is not a problem on the mound. At the plate, the Heels are led by First-Team All-American Tim Fedroff, a sophomore outfielder. “FedEx,” as he’s affectionately known by his teammates because he always delivers, is hitting .398 with 12 home runs and 69 RBI. With help from sophomore first baseman Dustin Ackley and junior catcher Tim Federowicz, Fedroff has spearheaded the UNC attack all year. The trio went 12-for-27 with 10 RBI and 8 runs scored in the Super Regional sweep over in-state rival Coastal Carolina. If any of the other three teams in this bracket are going to knock off the Tar Heels, they will have to play mistake-free baseball - something that probably won’t happen. Look for UNC to be playing for the title for the third year in a row.

Rice, 47-13 record, No. 6 National Seed
The Owls join North Carolina as the only other team to advance to Omaha in each of the past three seasons. Rice has made seven appearances at the CWS and won the title in 2003. If head coach Wayne Graham and his squad are going to advance to the championship series, they will have to ride the arms of junior first round pick Bryan Price - a supplemental first-round pick of the Red Sox - and senior Cole St. Clair, as well as the bats of junior catcher Adam Zornes and outfielder Aaron Luna. Trailing Texas A&M 5-4 in Game 2 of the Super Regionals, Zornes propelled the Owls to Omaha with a two-out, two-run home run in the eighth inning. Rice opens play at 2 p.m. on Sunday against the biggest surprise in the tournament, Fresno State. The Owls certainly are battle tested and could give No. 2 seed UNC a run for their money as they sport a 15-4 record on the year against nationally ranked opponents. But if they are to advance, they will need the same type of effort they’ve gotten out of the bullpen from Price and St. Clair thus far in the postseason. The pair have combined to throw 11 innings, yielding only two runs. Starters Chris Kelley (5-1, 3.28), a senior, and sophomore Ryan Berry (8-4, 3.31) will have to find a way to slow down opponents’ bats and get to the bullpen, which is the Owls strength. There’s not much power in this lineup, as only one hitter - Zornes - reached double digits in home runs on the year, so if they fall behind, it could be an early departure for the only team from Texas to make the CWS this year.
 
LSU, 48-17 record, No. 7 National Seed
The Tigers owned the nation’s longest winning streak heading into their Regional. That 23-game streak got stopped but the LSU offense kept going, even when the going got tough. Down three runs and three outs from elimination in Game 2 of the Super Regionals against UC-Irvine, the Tigers found a little magic and scored five runs in the ninth to win 9-7 in a game that will be talked about for years to come. The momentum carried over to Monday night as LSU pounded Anteaters pitching for 21 runs and seven homers in the rubber match to advance to the CWS. Leading the way was junior first baseman Matt Clark, who has launched an NCAA-best 26 home runs on the year. Sophomore outfielder-designated hitter Blake Dean (26 home runs, 61 RBI) and freshman catcher Micah Gibbs also went deep in that clincher. The three figure to be the key if LSU is going to take a shot at the title. The Tigers, who won the SEC West and the SEC Tournament, are representing the conference in Omaha along with Georgia. It’s strength versus strength in the Tigers’ opener Sunday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 as LSU’s bats take on UNC’s vaunted pitching staff. Should they find a way to outmuscle the Tar Heels, the Tigers might just find themselves playing for their first national title since 2000.

Fresno State, 42-29 record
Talk about a team that no one thought would be in Omaha right now! The Bulldogs were the No. 4 seed in the Long Beach Regional courtesy of winning the WAC with a 21-11 league record during the regular season. They battled their way through that weekend only to run into No. 3 national seed Arizona State the next weekend in the Super Regionals. No sweat. The Bulldogs became the first ever No. 4 seed in a regional to make it all the way to Omaha by winning 11 of their last 13 games. How did they do it? Good pitching and timely hitting. This is the school’s third CWS appearance and its first since 1991, and if they are to advance, senior outfielder Steve Susdorf - the WAC Player of the Year - is going to need to lead the way. He will obviously need the help of his teammates, like junior second baseman Erik Wetzel, but the all-time RBI leader in school history and the first to eclipse the 200 career hit mark will have to produce for third-year head coach Mike Batesole as the Bulldogs are a mere 6-21 when scoring five runs or less, and winless when scoring two or less runs. Senior closer Brandon Burke (12 saves, 3.15 ERA) has pitched well as of late, allowing only four runs in his last eight appearances. If called upon to hold a lead, he’ll need his best stuff against the top competition in the nation, which is a far cry from the WAC, which is not known as a traditional powerhouse baseball conference. The biggest question for Fresno State is whether right-hander Tanner Scheppers (8-2, 2.93) can slow down Rice in the opener Sunday at 2 p.m. If not, expect the Bulldogs to be first team to pack their bags and head home.


CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Once pool play is over, a best-of-three series will be played next week, with the top team in each bracket facing off. From the looks of it, this is the year of the ACC. UNC has the easier draw with Fresno State and the Nos. 6 and 7 seeds in their bracket. The Tar Heels should make their way back to the championship series for the third season in a row. The only question that remains for the Tar Heels is whether they’re the Buffalo Bills of college baseball. It’s been a case of always a bridesmaid, never a bride for UNC, as they’ve lost to Oregon State in each the past two seasons. The other side of the bracket is definitely a much tougher road to travel. Miami and FSU are powerhouses and Georgia is no slouch. Stanford is a veteran on the big stage in Omaha, so you can’t really count them out either. When the dust settles in Bracket One, this should be an all-ACC Championship Series. The only question is who will face UNC? Do Florida State’s bats prevail, or will Miami’s pitching rise to the occasion and shut the Seminoles down? Either way, this weekend will kick off ten days of baseball featuring some of the best teams in the country, and you’ll even be able to catch a glimpse of some future major league stars. The CWS has long been an underrated event. ESPN’s coverage gets better and better each year and we’re lucky enough to see Erin Andrews on the sidelines reporting now, so if you have a minute this weekend, flip on the tube and catch a few innings - you won’t regret it. Check back early next week for an update as we continue our coverage right through the final pitch.