Virginia Cavaliers open at College World Series Sunday
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The College World Series opens at the new TD Ameritrade Park on Saturday after 61 years at Rosenblatt Stadium, and coaches are doing all they can to keep their players focused on what happens between the lines.
There's a lot of CWS experience in the eight-team field, with defending champion South Carolina and 34-time qualifier Texas among the entries. Still, the glitz of the $131 million stadium is bringing out the nerves — and not just in first-timer Vanderbilt and a California team that hasn't been to Omaha in two decades.
Longhorns coach Augie Garrido met with his wide-eyed players in the outfield at practice Friday and said he gave a speech like the one in the movie "Hoosiers" in which the coach measures the basketball hoop to make sure his team knows the venue shouldn't overshadow the game.
"Hey, there's a diamond inside all this other stuff. That's where we know how to play," Garrido said. "The rest of it surrounds it and embraces it. But it was a little bit overwhelming, and in a very positive way. It's a great endorsement for the future of college baseball."
The CWS opens with Vanderbilt (52-10) playing North Carolina (50-14) and Texas (49-17) meeting Florida (50-17) on Saturday night. Sunday's games match California (37-21) against No. 1 national seed Virginia (54-10) followed by Texas A&M (47-20) against South Carolina (50-14).
North Carolina catcher Jacob Stallings, who played in the CWS at Rosenblatt as a freshman in 2009, will be behind the plate for the first official pitch at the new stadium. That'll come from Patrick Johnson (13-1, 2.27 ERA) after former President George W. Bush delivers the ceremonial first pitch.
"This place, geez, it's a big-league park," Stallings said. "That's what I said when I walked in. The old Rosenblatt has a ton of history but this place is just unbelievable. State of the art. It's overwhelming."
Sonny Gray (12-3, 1.97) will start for Vanderbilt (52-10), which broke through with its first CWS berth after losing a three-game super regional last year. The Commodores and Tar Heels, both 5-0 in the NCAA tournament, will meet for the first time.
"I thought this group could take a step forward," Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. "We're fortunate to play here, and it's a relief for some people. Now that we're here, we just want to play ball."
Texas ace Taylor Jungmann (13-2, 1.38), the Milwaukee Brewers' first-round draft pick, will try to bounce back from a couple of rocky postseason outings against a Florida team that has hit a nation-leading 67 home runs.
Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said his team should be able to adjust to the spaciousness of TD Ameritrade Park, which has the same dimensions as Rosenblatt and is similar to the site of the Southeastern Conference tournament in Hoover, Ala.
"We did some things differently there than we had been all year long," he said. "We bunted a bit more, we hit-and-run a bit more. We needed to manufacture some runs. We've got that capability. The bottom line is that we have to somehow figure out a way to get leadoff men on and get to one of the best pitchers in college baseball."
The Longhorns are built on pitching and defense. Garrido joked that his offense is so impotent that the NCAA won't need to inspect his team's bats before games to make sure they conform to new specifications. The Longhorns are batting .272 and have hit just 17 home runs in 66 games.
"We'll just have to find a way to score a run every now and then," Garrido said. "Kevin's got more guys with home runs than our team."
Cal's appearance caps a season that started with its baseball program on the chopping block, only to be saved by a $9 million fundraising effort. The Bears, who won the first CWS in 1947 in Kalamazoo, Mich., haven't made it this far since 1992.
"Any morning you can wake up in Omaha it's a great day," Cal coach David Esquer said.
Virginia survived a three-game super regional against UC Irvine in which it rallied with two out in the ninth inning to advance to Omaha. The Cavaliers are trying to become the first No. 1 national seed since Miami in 1999 to win it all.
"Any club can win it," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "It's a matter of who gets hot at the right time. Hopefully, that's us."
Texas A&M was the only road team to win a super regional, beating Florida State in three games. The Aggies have survived despite losing ace John Stilson, who tore his labrum before the NCAA tournament.
Ross Stripling (14-2, 2.29) will start against South Carolina's Michael Roth (13-3, 1.02), one of the heroes of last year's CWS. A reliever, he was called on to make two starts that helped South Carolina become the first team to win six straight games in a single CWS.
Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner hopes for a smoother ride this time.
"We're a kind of club that a lot of times when people play us, they don't think we're very good," Tanner said. "We win our share."