The College World Series: predicting the unpredictable

The baseball slowly rolled across the dusty ground as it perfectly toed the chalky white line separating the fair and foul territory on the emerald diamond.

When it finally reached the leather-bound hand of the third baseman, the batter that executed the bunt was already standing safely on first base. Roughly 1,500 fans leapt to their feet to unleash a supportive roar that reverberated around the metal rafters of the historic Keeter Stadium in Shelby, North Carolina.

There was, of course, nothing the third baseman could have done better to record an out on the well-placed bunt just like there was nothing the third baseman could have done in the top of the 8th inning to field the high chopper that bounced above his head.

Similarly, there was nothing the second baseman could have done in that same inning to field the hit that skirted just beyond his outstretched glove.

During that warm summer night in North Carolina, all my high school American Legion team and I could do was helplessly watch as the South Carolina team we defeated a few days prior handed us our first loss in 13 games to claim the single-elimination national championship.

The cold realities of helplessness and unpredictability are nothing new to the sport of baseball though. No one predicted our Legion team would make it out of the state or regional tournaments a few weeks prior just like no one predicted a summer’s worth of bad breaks would manifest themselves in the last game of the year.

Before this LSU baseball season began, many pundits and fans were predicting a trip to the College World Series, and it’s obvious why so many believed in the team’s potential success. After all, the 2023 Tigers began the year fielding arguably one of the most talented rosters in the history of modern college baseball.

Despite a host of injuries to key members of the pitching staff, LSU was on cruise control through the first half of a difficult Southeastern Conference schedule. The Tigers hit their well-documented skid in the month of May but have since reversed course, reached the CWS, and are now a mere three games away from a berth in college baseball’s national championship game.

So, what are their chances of making it to the title series where they will, hopefully, bring home the program’s seventh championship?

The honest answer is that it’s almost impossible to predict.

In baseball, sometimes the best team wins. Then again, sometimes the team that wins is the group that catches the best fortune at the right time.

Sometimes, the team that hoists the trophy at season’s end is the one that struggled all season but found a way to save their best play for when it mattered most.

Talent in a roster is necessary to win a national title, but it is often rare for a talented roster to be the sole decider of who will be the champion.

Ask the 2017 Oregon State Beavers who produced the best record in their school’s history before losing two games in a row to a surging LSU team. What about the Arkansas Razorbacks? They were a dropped pop fly away from winning it all in 2018 before being stunned by Oregon State in the top of the 9th in game two and then again in the winner-take-all game three.

Then there are those Cinderella teams like 2008 Fresno State or 2016 Coastal Carolina. The teams that few, if any, fans expected to win all the marbles.

Clearly, there aren’t many certainties in baseball.

Perhaps, the only certainty is that this year’s CWS is the one of the most talented fields in recent memory. The eight teams that arrive in Omaha, Nebraska, this year sport a combined record of 380-125. This represents the most combined wins and best winning percentage among teams in the world series since the 2013 season.

Interestingly enough, the two teams with the worst records played for the national championship that year. Again, that’s baseball.

The key to winning in such a stacked field, if there is any, lies in the first two games of the tournament. Only four teams in the last 41 CWS tournaments have lost the first game and gone on to win the title. The winner of game two’s winner’s bracket game has gone on to win the CWS an impressive 90% of the time across the last 21 years.

With overwhelming statistics like that, there should be no doubt that Paul Skenes will take the mound for the Tigers in game one against Tennessee. I understand that many fans are worried about Ty Floyd potentially facing the home-run happy Wake Forest team, but LSU has to make it to the second game before worrying about the second game.

A loss in game one places an LSU team that is already strapped pitching staff behind the eight ball far too early to have a shot at winning the tournament.

While pitching Skenes does not guarantee a victory, it would be silly to start the CWS without LSU’s best pitcher on the bump.

Should LSU make it past Tennessee with a win on Saturday night, the Tigers would play the winner of the Wake Forest-Stanford game earlier that day.

The Cardinal’s appearance in this year’s CWS marks their third-straight appearance while the Demon Deacons are making their first appearance since winning the CWS in 1955.

Meanwhile, Florida, Virginia, TCU, and Oral Roberts are menacing in the other side of the bracket. While I believe Florida will be the team to represent that bracket in the championship series, I would not be surprised to see any of the other teams (yes, even Oral Roberts) make an impressive run.

However, as Tiger coach Jay Johnson so aptly put it, “the other side of the bracket only becomes relevant when it becomes relevant.” For now, LSU will be focused on the opponent in front of them.

No one will know which way the baseball will bounce during these next two weeks of play. I’d like to tell you that I have little doubt that the Tigers will be the team dogpiling when it’s all said and done. Only a fool would guarantee something so uncontrollable though. This eight-team field is evenly matched, but even if LSU was head-and-shoulders above the rest, there would still be a cloud of uncertainty due to the nature of the sport being played.

Sometimes, fans will watch their team defy the odds all the way to a championship victory. Sometimes, an entire summer of joy disappears as quickly as fireworks in a North Carolina sky.

Baseball, like life, is funny that way.

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