Somehow, some way, I have morphed into the unofficial historian of the College World Series.
Maybe it’s a responsibility that befalls the only person in the press box who can remember when Rosenblatt Stadium played bigger than TD Ameritrade Park on a calm day. Or maybe it has something to do with covering 461 straight CWS games dating to 1982.
I’ve watched the event grow from Omaha’s little tournament into a national showcase for college baseball and the city’s premier sporting event.
The 2013 series is in the book, and never have so many seen so little at the CWS. The 14 games drew a record turnout of 341,483, including what seemed like half the state of Mississippi for the best-of-three championship series.
What the folks witnessed was one of the least compelling series in recent memory. There were plenty of close games — eight of the 14 were decided by two runs or fewer — but a shortage of drama.
This was a CWS where a 3-0 lead seemed insurmountable at times. Heck, when UCLA went up 1-0 on Mississippi State three batters into Tuesday’s final game, it seemed like you could almost start engraving the Bruins’ name on the championship trophy.
The pitching was good, but it wasn’t that good. The hitters simply went missing in action most of the series. The teams scored a total of 86 runs in 14 games, the lowest since the eight-team format was adopted in 1950. The previous low was 98 in 1973, when players were still swinging wooden bats.
UCLA proved a team doesn’t need to be an offensive powerhouse to win a national championship. Pitching, defense and making the most of every walk, error and hit batsman made these Bruins the new wizards of Westwood.
UCLA’s style worked perfectly in TD Ameritrade because it is a park that, unless the outfield walls are moved in, will always conspire against hitters because of its design. That’s what happens when views of buildings become more important than adhering to a simple Omaha meteorological fact.
The wind here in late spring and early summer more times than not blows out of the south. Been that way for the first 64 series played in Omaha. Stands to be that way for many more.
Orienting the park to the southeast, rather than the traditional northeast, puts hitters in a 0-2 hole before they even step into the box by forcing them to hit into those southerly winds. Too Deep Ameritrade, as one press box pundit labeled the stadium, impacts home run production but also changes how the rest of the game is played.
A lot of folks already are campaigning to shorten the dimensions. Talking with NCAA officials during the series, I see that as only a last-resort move. A switch to a professional model baseball could help solve some of the problems, but that wouldn’t come until 2015 at the earliest.
That means the odds favor a repeat in 2014 of what we saw this season. For now, let’s take a look at some of the highlights and lowlights of the 2013 CWS:
Best showing: Mississippi State fans, hands down. The 6,000 to 8,000 maroon-and-white Bulldog backers who showed up for the final series might have been the most impressive turnout by a visiting fan base in CWS history.
Best game: Mississippi State 5, Indiana 4. The Bulldogs showed themselves to be championship contenders by rallying for three runs in the eighth inning, then turning back a Hoosier comeback in the ninth. Adding to the intrigue of this one was that Indiana’s Sam Travis came a couple of feet short of being the first player to hit a ball out of the park in center field.
Worst game: Oregon State 11, Louisville 4. Many a coach laments that his team didn’t play up to its capabilities in making a quick exit from Omaha. Cardinals coach Dan McConnell’s words rang especially true after his team turned in a real clunker in the elimination game against the Beavers.
Best pitching performance: You could almost pick any of the outings by UCLA starters Adam Plutko or Nick Vander Tuig, but Matt Boyd of Oregon State gets the slight edge for the four-hit shutout he threw against Indiana. Boyd struck out 11 while working with the slimmest margin for error as his team scored one run in eliminating the Hoosiers.
Worst whine: Take your pick between some of the postgame comments made by LSU coach Paul Mainieri after his team’s 0-2 showing or by the Mississippi State contingent following its first loss to UCLA in the championship finals. One of the Bulldogs called UCLA “nothing special.” He might be rethinking his comments today.
Best defensive play: Oregon State’s Michael Conforto robbed Mississippi State’s Wes Rea of an extra-base hit when he snared the ball a split second before slamming into the left-field wall. Honorable mention goes to UCLA’s Christoph Bono, who ran down a potential game-deciding drive to left field by North Carolina State’s Trea Turner.
Worst defensive play: With the game on the line against the Bruins, LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, the national freshman of the year, let a hard-hit but rather routine two-hopper kick off his glove, allowing the Bruins to score the winning run in a 2-1 victory.
Best clutch hit: Mississippi State’s Trey Porter had seen limited action the last month of the season but delivered the winning, two-run single to cap the Bulldogs’ rally in a 5-4 win against Indiana.
Best quote: “I didn’t think it was going to get to the warning track. But then I saw on the replay that it hit about two feet below the yellow (line). That’s when I wanted to throw up.” — Indiana coach Tracy Smith, on the ball Travis hit that almost cleared the center-field wall.