The Auburn Tigers haven’t been to the College World Series since 1997, but they were close enough to Omaha last year to smell the cooking at the tailgate parties — losing in the 11th inning of the super regional championship to Florida.
Such grief can give the next year’s team a mission. It apparently did. All they ask is that it not end in Omaha as painfully as it did for the Auburn basketball team in Minneapolis at the Final Four.
The Tigers (38-26) will play SEC West rival Mississippi State (51-13) in their first game. ESPN2 will televise Sunday night’s matchup at 6:30.
Stat of note: Auburn doesn’t have one man in the regular lineup hitting .300. Problems with the offense? Not hardly. Did you notice the first game of the super regional, when the Tigers scored nine runs in the eighth and ninth inning to blow past North Carolina 11-7? Or Monday’s winner-take-all third game, when they put up 13 runs in the first inning — the second-highest scoring inning in NCAA Tournament history — and breezed to Omaha 14-7? The football team doesn’t usually score that much in the first quarter.
A big league Tiger to remember: Frank Thomas. He arrived in Auburn to play tight end, but his bat was too healthy in baseball and his body too battered in football for that to last. He was SEC most valuable player and went on to a Hall of Fame career, mostly with the Chicago White Sox. He became the first man ever to have seven consecutive seasons of a .300 average, 100 RBIs, 100 runs, 100 walks and 20 home runs. Not Ruth, nor Gehrig, nor Williams, nor Aaron, nor Mays. Frank Thomas.
In this academic year of redemption — Clemson getting even with Alabama in football, Virginia atoning for its first-round disaster in basketball — why not the Razorbacks?
Last June must still be hard to forget, when they were one out away from finishing off Oregon State for their first national championship. Then came the botched foul pop-up, an RBI single for the Beavers, a two-run homer, a 5-3 loss for Arkansas, and the next night, a 5-0 shutout by Oregon State. Anguish. Pure anguish.
Could a first-year coach really win this thing? Chris Lemonis will be trying, having already savored the most successful season for a new coach in SEC history. The Citadel will be in his corner. That’s Lemonis’ alma mater.
Stat of note: The season started with Mississippi State striking out the first five Youngstown State batters. Talk about your tone-setter.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season third in the nation in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-walk ratio, so the sweep of Stanford in the super regional was pretty much on form. The pitchers mowed down 24 batters in two games, with only 13 hits, three runs and five walks.
The Commodores hope to party like it’s 2014. That’s when they won the national championship with an impressive display of brinksmanship, their five wins coming by a total of seven runs. So they will be the only team in Omaha with a national championship in the past 56 years. And Tim Corbin, who has led all four of Vandy’s CWS teams, will be the only man in town who has won a title.
Stat of note: Behold, balance. Vanderbilt finished the regular season fourth in the nation in batting average, fourth in fielding percentage (38 errors all year), fifth in scoring and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings. That gave the Commodores an answer for nearly every situation, such as the Super Regional, when they coughed up 18 runs to Duke one day . . . and had Kumar Rocker, son of Auburn football legend Tracy Rocker, throw a no-hitter and strike out 19 the next.
It doesn’t get much more of a sentimental journey than this. Mike Martin in his 40th and last season, landing in his 17th College World Series at the age of 75, and still trying to win one. What a retirement gift that would be. He has finished second or third five times.
For that matter, Florida State has never won a national title, and this is the school’s 23rd trip to Omaha. Only Texas and Miami have more.
Dan McDonnell has created a national power at Louisville, with the school’s fifth tip to Omaha since 2007. Now the Cardinals would like to stay a little longer. They’re 2-8 in their first four appearances. But they’re dangerous, or maybe you didn’t see the scores from the Super Regional?
Stat to remember: Louisville just plastered East Carolina pitching by a combined score of 26-1, continuing a hot streak that started when the Cardinals lost in the regional to Illinois State.
Since that defeat, they have scored 50 runs in five games and shown considerable depth in their lineup, much to the discomfort of opposing pitchers. The bottom four spots have hit .346 with 23 RBIs in those five games.
Hail to the Victors. Snow and sleet, too. Trying to stay relevant in college baseball in Michigan winters ain’t easy, which is one reason it’s been 35 years since the Wolverines last showed up in Omaha.
But back before the southern and western teams took over this sport, the Big Ten used to be the home of champions. The Wolverines will arrive this week as the only team in town with past multiple national championships, even if those did come in 1953 and 1962. They win again, and conventional wisdom does a back flip. The Big Ten’s last champion was 53 years ago.
Clearly, these Red Raiders don’t mind drama. They just survived a scintillating Super Regional with Oklahoma State, winning 8-6, losing 6-5, then winning 8-6 in a game that had five lead changes.
This is their fourth CWS appearance, all of them in the past six years, so Tim Tadlock’s program-building skills at Texas Tech are on vivid display. Just like it was for that Chris Beard guy at the Final Four.