It's not often that there are clear favorites at the College World Series, but this year's event has one in Virginia. That's not to say that the Cavaliers are sure-fire picks to win the national title. There is even some debate as to whether or not they are the best team in Omaha, but the other teams in the conversation for best team are in the other bracket. Among the teams most consider to be the best, only Virginia in in bracket two and as a result, they come out as the favorites to win it all.
A favorable bracket isn't the sole reason that the Cavs are favorites though. They were 49-9 heading into the Regionals and earned the number one national seed. They ran through the Regionals without breaking a sweat and showed some grit in coming from behind to defeat UC Irvine in the bottom of the ninth in game three of the Super Regionals. On resume alone it wouldn't be tough to make a case for the Cavaliers as the nation's best team and when you add in their relatively weak bracket and there is your favorite.
A little experience doesn't hurt your chances either and Virginia has that. Two years ago they were at the College World Series and 17 players on this year's team were on that team that went to Omaha in 2009. Add in a Super Regional appearance last year as well as what they've gone through this season and it's hard to see them being awed by the stage in Omaha.
The reason the Cavaliers are so strong is because of what they can do on the mound, where they led the nation with a 2.26 team ERA. The starting staff is led by Danny Hultzen, the number two overall pick in last week's MLB Draft and a Golden Spikes Award finalist. He gives Virginia a leg up just about every time he toes the rubber and he's backed up by two more tremendous pitchers in Tyler Wilson and Will Roberts. Even if they need to go to a fourth starter, Cody Winiarski has been strong with a 3.04 ERA.
Outstanding starting pitching isn't the end of the Cavs top notch work on the hill. The bullpen is led by Branden Kline, who has 17 saves and is one of the nation's premier closers. Winiarski is also available out of the 'pen and Kyle Crockett is an elite set up man. Whitt Mayberry and Justin Thompson give the Cavs two more quality bullpen arms and it's easy to see how that bullpen combined with their starting staff gives Virginia the best team ERA in the country.
The one place where the Cavs can be had a little is at the plate. Steven Proscia and David Coleman are forces in that lineup and John Hicks provides strong support while Hultzen also brings a little pop when he's not pitching. The strength of the lineup is in their maturity and depth though, where they can hurt opposing pitchers with tough, long at-bats. Even so, Virginia has been limited before offensively by teams with good command and offspeed stuff. The offense isn't a weakness by any means, but it's not flush with explosiveness either.
That Virginia is even in the College World Series, yet alone favorites is pretty incredible. Heading into 2004 they had only made the postseason four times in program history, but Brian O'Connor has really turned that program around. In one of the strongest College World Series fields in years, the Cavaliers are atop the heap. Who would have guessed that just a decade ago?
Probable Starters For First Two Games
Danny Hultzen, Tyler Wilson - In Hultzen, Virginia has a truly dominant pitcher. The left-hander doesn't have an overpowering fastball, but he has great secondary stuff and can locate every pitch in any count. The result? A 12-3 record, 1.49 ERA, .188 batting average against and 151 strikeouts to just 20 walks. After Hultzen, the Cavs will go to the undefeated Wilson, who has a 2.29 ERA and also has an opponents batting average under .200 so while there is a definite drop off from Hultzen to Wilson, it's because Hultzen is that good.
John Hicks - There aren't many hitters more complete than Hicks and getting that kind of offense from a catcher is very rare, but Hicks is a rare player. He hit .340 this season with seven home runs and 57 RBI in the three hole for the Cavs. He also has a strong arm behind the plate, doing his part to cut down on the opponents' running game.
Pitching reigns supreme at the College World Series and nobody has the arms that Virginia does. Add in a couple marquee hitters and the favorable bracket and it looks like the Cavaliers have a clear road to the first national title in school history.