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Tonight, the College World Series finals kick off with the Wahoos facing the Commodores of Vanderbilt in a rematch of last year's final series. In order to find out more about this year's matchup, I chatted with Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) from Anchor of Gold. His answers are below, and run over to their site to see my answers to his questions!
STL: Virginia fans will be the first to tell you that they're pleasantly surprised to be in the finals again. Did Vanderbilt want Virginia again, or were you hoping for the familiarity that SEC foe Florida would have brought?
AoG: Tough question. I think the majority of Vanderbilt fans are excited for this rematch, especially since Vanderbilt lost three of their four games to Florida this season. However, there was a lot of bad blood between the Commodores and Gators this year, and many of us were also interested in seeing Florida get some comeuppance on college baseball's biggest stage.
But based on the way we fared against A.J. Puk earlier this season, I'm totally fine with rolling the dice against some UVA pitchers Vanderbilt hasn't faced this year and seeing what happens.
STL: Dansby Swanson has been absent for the Commodores at the plate in Omaha. Is there any reason for that, other than "it happens"?
AoG: There's been a lot said about his slump, and Swanson went on record on media day to suggest that it's not related to being drafted before packing his bags for Omaha. He's had a few hard hit balls that were just poorly placed in the middle of this run, so it's not as though he's looked lost at the plate. I'm confident that he'll turn it around - but I'm much more worried that Ro Coleman will continue to sputter. He's been awful out of the leadoff spot in the College World Series and, unlike Swanson, appears overmatched against pitchers with solid breaking pitches. Like a 5'5" Pedro Cerrano.
STL: We are paying close attention to Swanson, Wiseman, and Weil. Anyone else who we should look for at the plate?
AoG: Freshman Jeren Kendall lifted Vanderbilt over Cal State Fullerton a week ago with a clutch walk-off home run that gave this squad a real "team of destiny" feel. He's flashed some power at the plate, but he's also extremely fast. He was able to turn what should have been a ground-out double play against TCU into a run by beating the throw to first, stealing second, advancing to third when that throw to second skipped into the outfield, and then tagging up on a shallow fly to center. In the words of Phil Rizzuto, "that kid really makes things happen out there."
STL: Fulmer and Buehler are the studs, but what do we need to know about Philip Pfeifer? Also, in the bullpen Kyle Wright is a shutdown closer, but who else should the Hoos keep their eye on?
AoG: Pfeifer is peaking at the exact right time, and if you knew his full story you'd be rooting for him, even as UVA fans. To summarize, he was thrown off the team last season for issues with substance abuse, got clean, and then came back to be the team's #2 starter this postseason. He's got the kind of frisbee slider that ducks out of the strike zone and induces tons of strikeouts - but he can also struggle with his command. If Virginia's bats are patient, they can draw walks and limit his effectiveness...but it's hard to lay off Pfeifer's stuff.
Wright has been the cure for what had been a volatile bullpen earlier in the season. He's emerged as an ice cold assassin in late games this postseason. Behind him is an array of weekday starters who have combined to leave opponents scoreless in the NCAA Tournament so far. John Kilichowski and Jordan Sheffield are the two names you'll hear called most often this series. Both are effective pitchers who can throw long relief if needed.
STL: Where, if anywhere, do you see a weakness in your lineup?
AoG: Coleman has been extremely shaky out of the leadoff spot, but hopefully the two-day break will help him get his swing right. Karl Ellison, who will be Vanderbilt's primary catcher, doesn't offer much at the plate but he's one hell of a defensive backstop. Pfeifer has been dynamite in Omaha, but of Vanderbilt's three probable starters he's also the most likely to run into trouble thanks to his walk rate.
STL: Who concerns you most on Virginia's squad?
AoG: From this angle, Kenny Towns certainly looks like the guy who's going to be drawing the most expletives this series. Josh Sborz looks like the latest link in a chain of untouchable pitchers who have handcuffed Vanderbilt's bats at the CWS (joining Thomas Eshelman and Alex Young). What's worse is that he doesn't seem to get tired. He may be a Terminator, which concerns me both for Vanderbilt baseball and the livelihood of Sarah Connor.
STL: Vandy is a clear favorite in this series. How do you see it playing out? Does last year's result play in?
AoG: I think last year's result has already made a tremendous impact, bringing two teams that weren't National Seeds and were kinda/sorta afterthoughts to the CWS finale on the backs of that experience. I think Vanderbilt certainly has the edge in game one (unless Carson Fulmer reverts back to SEC Tournament form and implodes), but after that all bets are off. History favors the team with a chance to repeat - 9 or 12 teams that have made the championship series with the opportunity to make it two in a row have done so, and both times the CWS has come down to a rematch from the previous season the title went to the reigning champs. Factor in the Commodores' hot streak and it seems like Vanderbilt's inertia is stronger than Virginia's as the two teams careen towards a national championship.
But...confidence is a trait that has been bred out of Commodore fans thanks to six decades of athletic heartbreak. And the Hoos have series' biggest X-factor in Nathan Kirby, who gets a chance at redemption after being baseball Chernobyl last year against Vandy. Everyone loves a good comeback story, so I'd put the odds of this one right at 50/50.
STL: Will the score be greater than if our football teams met? If we bring the wine, can you all bring the cheese?
AoG: We're really more of an old fashioned fanbase than a wine fanbase. And by that, I mean the drink. So we'll bring the whiskey, bitters, and muddled fruits if you can bring a nice spread; maybe a hot dish?
And please, no talk about football. I thought this was a safe place.