How To Win The College World Series
Originally printed in the June 18, 2004 issue of Collegiate Baseball
By LOU PAVLOVICH Jr.
Omaha, Neb. — What does it take to win the College World Series? Numerous elements must come together for a team to weave through the maze of high quality teams in the field every year.
Collegiate Baseball takes an in-depth look at all the key areas that are needed to walk away with a national championship.
The most obvious area that a team must possess is quality starting pitching, which is hardly news to anybody.
Teams have won the national championship 33 times with a team ERA of under 3.00, including Rice in 2003 with a 2.83 team ERA. The first six years of the tournament (1947-1952), no ERA records were kept for national champions. Therefore, 33 times out of 51College World Series which reported this stat had glistening team ERAs.
Possibly an even more important area is clutch pitching with men on base, although no such statistic exists that the NCAA compiles for its record book.
The 2003 College World Series was a prime example of this.
In a game against Texas, Rice pitchers walked nine batters with four Longhorn batters being hit and Rice’s defense committing an uncharacteristic three errors all in one game. Amazingly, the Owls won, 5-4 because of clutch pitching in situations that looked impossible to wiggle out of.
The Houdini act Rice’s pitching showcased in the first three innings was remarkable.
Three Texas batters were hit in the first inning with no Longhorn runs scoring. In the second inning, Rice walked two Texas batters but still no runs scored.
In the third inning, Rice walked the bases loaded with still no runs scoring for the Longhorns.
As improbable as it was, Rice stranded eight Longhorn runners in the first three innings and 15 during the game.
Complete games by pitchers are becoming rarer. Only one complete game has been thrown by a national championship team since 1995, and that was in 2003 as Rice pitcher Philip Humber who went all nine innings in the national title game with four strikeouts, two walks and allowed five hits in a 14-2 win by the Owls over Stanford.
The importance of relief pitchers can’t be minimized for title teams. Three relief pitchers came in for Rice in the 2003 CWS. In 10 2/3 innings, David Aardsma, Steven Herce and Josh Baker only allowed one run.
During the 2002 College World Series, freshman closer Huston Street of Texas led the Longhorns to the national title with a CWS record four saves in four games as he was named the tournament’s MVP.
Six of the top seven save leaders in College World Series history led their teams to national championships in:
On rare occasions, national title teams don’t necessarily have topnotch pitching or quality pitchers don’t perform to their highest levels.
In 2001, Miami Fla. won the title despite having a CWS team ERA of 5.75, the second highest team ERA in College World Series history for a national title team. The Hurricanes offset the high ERA by scoring more runs than any unbeaten team (4-0) in CWS history with 49 in four contests.
Southern California’s team ERA in 1998 was the worst in College World Series history at 6.27 for a national champion. But the Trojans belted a CWS-record 17 home runs in scoring an all-time high 62 runs for a national champion in six games as USC posted a 5-1 record.
Importance of Catchers
This area is one of the crucial components of a national title team. If you have a great catcher who stifles teams from stealing, you have a leg up on winning the national title.
At the 2003 CWS, Rice catcher Justin Ruchti limited opponent base runners to only two stolen bases in seven attempts over six games.
One year prior, Texas catcher Ryan Hubele only allowed two stolen bases in four games.
In 2000, LSU catcher Brad Cresse only allowed three stolen bases in four games.
In 1999, Miami catcher Greg Lovelady did not allow a single stolen base in four games.
As you look through the history of the College World Series, great catching is a big factor for national championship teams since they are adept at handling their pitchers and nearly stop opposing teams from stealing.
Hitting In CWS
When wood bats were used in the College World Series over 27 years (1947-1973), the team batting average for national champions was .267 with an average of 2.2 home runs being hit at each CWS.
But in the last 30 years (1974-2003), the use of the non-wood along with bigger athletes who hit the weight room, offensive numbers have risen 37 points with national champions having a cumulative .304 batting average.
The home runs are up during the non-wood bat era as well with an average of 5.9 homers being hit by CWS champions during each year – more than double the amount of homers hit in the wooden bat era.
During the 1998 College World Series, an all-time CWS record 62 home runs were hit. Amazingly, 42 different players hit those 62 homers which is an all-time high.
Taking a closer look, LSU hit 17 homers by 10 different players, Southern California hit 17 homers by seven different players and Arizona St. belted nine homers by seven different players.
Since changing to the new -3 bats in the 1999 season, there has not been a home run total over 43 with the average the last five years being 36.6.
Offensive firepower has shifted from home runs to outfield gap hitting with two of the three highest doubles figures in the last few years. In 2002, a CWS record 59 doubles were hit while 57 were hit in 2003, the third highest total in history.
Beyond the home run numbers, batting averages and extra base hits, clutch hitting is a key component of national title teams.
During the 1996 College World Series, Miami (Fla.) was one out away from winning the national championship with a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the ninth against LSU.
The Tigers’ Warren Morris stepped to the plate with one runner on.
A pre-season All-American second baseman, Morris did not play 39 games for LSU due to a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist. He only returned to the starting lineup in the South II Regional.
All Morris did was hit one of the most dramatic two-run home runs in College World Series history to win it, 8-7.
It was the first home run of the season for Morris and marked the first time a national championship game had been decide by a home run on the last pitch of the game.
During the 1968 College World Series, Southern California and Southern Illinois battled it out in the championship game.
Trojan Pat Kuehner was not himself during the tournament since his brother was killed in an automobile accident only a week earlier.
He went 0-for-14 heading into the national title game.
With two outs and two runners on in the ninth inning with Southern Illinois holding a 3-2 lead, Kuehner was put in as a pinch hitter.
Kuehner then delivered a triple off the right centerfield fence to give the Trojans an unlikely 4-3 win over the Salukis.
Another player who overcame a batting slump to help the team win the national championship was LSU catcher Brad Cresse during the 2000 College World Series.
Cresse, who was 1-for-12 in the tournament, came to the plate in the national title game against Stanford with the scores tied 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth with runners on first and second.
With an 0-1 count, Cresse cracked a sharp single through the left side of the infield which scored Theriot with the winning run to set off an explosion of excitement by the Tigers and their faithful.
Cresse screamed for joy and was pushed to the ground by an avalanche of LSU players.
Quality Bunting Games
LSU used the long ball to win five national championships from 1991-2000. But the game has changed dramatically with the use of the -3 bats during the 1999 season as the short game on offense has been brought back into prominence, especially in championship settings.
The national champions since 1998, with the exception of hard-hitting LSU in 2000, were exceptional bunting teams in Miami (1999, 2001), Texas (2002) and Rice (2003).
During the 1970 College World Series, Southern California’s power-hitting Dave Kingman was 0-for7 in the national title game against Florida St.
With game tied, 1-1 in the 15th inning, two runners got on base for the Trojans. Kingman came to the plate as everyone expected him to hit for the fences.
Instead, he placed a perfect bunt for a single to load the bases which set up Frank Alfano’s infield single which allowed the Trojans to win the national title, 2-1.
Daring Base Running
In the entire 57-year history of the College World Series, only 12 champions have stolen 10 or more bases.
The importance of stealing bases was vital in the mid-1980s as five straight national champions swiped 10 or more bases each year which included:
1984 – Cal. St. Fullerton (10 SB).
1985 – Miami, Fla. (13 SB).
1986 – Arizona (13 SB).
1987 – Stanford (11 SB).
1988 – Stanford (11 SB).
But in the next 15 College World Series, only twice have national champions put up stolen base figures over 10 with Southern California in 1998 (12) and Miami, Fla. in 2001 (13). In 10 of those 15 years, champions only swiped five or fewer bases for the entire Series since the long ball became more prevalent.
Southern California won its 12th national championship at the 1998 College World Series behind one of the boldest coaching moves in CWS history.
Trojan skipper Mike Gillespie called a triple steal in the title game against Arizona St. with USC clinging to an 11-8 lead in the top of the seventh.
With bases loaded and two outs, Wes Rachels stepped up to the plate. He was 4-for-4 heading into this at-bat with 5 RBI.
On the first pitch from Arizona St. righthander Chad Pennington, who was in the full windup position, Morgan Ensberg of the Trojans sprinted from the third base bag halfway down the line in an attempt to get the pitcher to balk.
But Pennington wouldn’t bite as the pitch was delivered to Rachels.
Two more pitches were recorded with Ensberg sprinting halfway down the third base line each time.
With a 1-2 count and Pennington not paying much attention to Ensberg because of the prior three bluffs and the unlikely chance of him actually stealing home, the USC runner began an all-out sprint to the plate. The runners on first and second broke for second and third base.
The ball was thrown with Ensberg nearly 3/4s down the line. Sun Devil catcher Greg Halvorson caught the ball and dived forward in an attempt to tag out the runner who slid feet first across home.
The speedy USC runner barely beat the tag by inches.
On the next pitch, Rachels lined a base hit to left field, scoring two more runs.
If Ensberg would have been tagged out at home, three runs would not have scored, and Arizona St. would have taken the lead, 13-11 with five runs in the bottom of the seventh.
But the momentum of that dramatic steal of home propelled USC to score two in the eight and five more in the ninth as the Trojans went on to win, 21-14.
Outstanding outfield play has always been crucial during the College World Series. You would be hard pressed to name any national championship team that did not make crucial plays in the outfield that turned potential losses into wins.
A great example took place in 2003 by Rice leftfielder Chris Kolkhorst against Stanford in the first championship game.
With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the eighth inning and Ryan Garko on first base, Stanford’s Danny Putnam hit a high drive to the left field wall which appeared to be out of the park.
But Kolkhorst got a great jump, leaped high in the air and caught it before crashing into the wall for the third out of the inning.
It was undoubtedly the defensive play of the 2003 College World Series.
If Kolkhorst missed the ball, and it caromed off the wall, Garko would have scored the winning run since Rice did not score in the bottom of the eighth or ninth innings.
The game would eventually come down to the Owls scoring one run in the bottom of the 10th as Rice won a nail biter, 4-3.
The significance of that play would be even more telling the next day as Stanford beat Rice, 8-3 to even the championship series at one game each. If Kolkhorst did not make that play, the Cardinal would be your 2003 national champions instead of Rice. The third game, which the Owls easily won, would never have been played.
Double plays have been an important factor as well. Stanford won the 1987 championship with a CWS all-time record 12 double plays