I went to college at a Division 3 school that cared more about academics than athletics, during my time there our best athlete was a quarterback who went undrafted. I tell you this to make you understand just how foreign the concept of college sports is to me. But this past week I found myself in Omaha, Nebraska and so as a baseball fan there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to go to a College World Series game. There on the schedule was a Tuesday night matchup between University of Virginia and TCU, with the Horned Frogs sending the #17 pick in the MLB Draft, LHP Brandon Finnegan to the mound.
I will start by saying that TD Ameritrade Park is beautiful, it is large (holding more than 20,000) without feeling like a giant cement sarcophagus (sorry Miller Park), and it has seating that feels intimate and spacious. If you are worried about avoiding the hardcore fans or the masses of college/high school students I advise you to get tickets in the area deep down the lines or behind home plate, and avoid behind the dugouts or in the general admission area. Otherwise go for the General Admission, it looked like a ton of fun out there. However, the park is a horrible place for the game of baseball. I don’t know the wind patterns of downtown Omaha too well, but the design of the stadium and its location lead to summer winds blowing directly in from center field, this means that for 90% of the time any ball in the air is just going to die. That leads to an offensive environment where small ball isn’t just encouraged, but it becomes necessary to generate runs.
Outside of whatever inane chant had the TCU fans “Whooing”, it was incredibly interesting being in an environment of big college sports. I feel like I channeled much of that passion into professional sports, but there is that sense of pride that I feel like I miss because I don’t have that common bond with the athletes because we went to the same school and attended the same classes (which is conversely why I still don’t understand college sports fans that are passionate about schools they have never attended). The atmosphere was great, and the closeness of the game helped to build the crowd’s energy throughout the game.
Now to the game. For those that don’t follow baseball the game went 15 innings and ended in a walk off sac fly after the UVA catcher was able to be the first person to drive a ball deep and ended up with a double before being bunted to third where he was brought home on the fly ball after two failed attempts at a squeeze play. The rest of the runs where generated in a short window of bad defense and timely hitting.
The pitching was magnificent. Finnegan does not look like a power pitcher at 5′ 11″, but his stuff is just nasty as he sat 92-94 for most of the night and reaching back for 97 and 98 as late as the 8th to get timely outs. He added in a slider that the UVA hitters could not hit and a changeup that was solid. He went 108 pitches before being relieved by Riley Ferrell. Ferrell put on a clinic on spotting a straight fastball, he was 94-96 touching 98, but he busted hitters inside on the black for four straight innings, when they got used to that he broke out a nasty slider. Ferrell is a sophomore and if he does this next year some team is going to pop him in the late first-early second and have themselves a quick to the majors back of the bullpen arm.
On the Virginia side sophomore Brandon Waddell was a control lefty, fastball peaked at 92, but he didn’t walk anyone and he went to a very solid slider late that got him through after the fastball wasn’t fooling TCU hitters. Then the Cavaliers brought on Nick Howard. I don’t know how the Reds using him as a starter will go, but he was really impressive in relief. There was some fastball control issues, but it was hard, 95-96 touching 98. Then there was the slider, it is the best amatuer pitch I have ever seen in person, it was filthy and unhittable, and he knew how to put hitters away with it. When he came into the game everyone knew he wasn’t getting hit. After Howard came Whit Mayberry and Artie Lewicki who both look like middle relief prospects, though Lewicki was up to 95.
All I will say about the offense is the Kevin Cron was robbed of three hits that would have been doubles or home runs in almost every park.
The defense was up and down. It was a really good overall reminder of how good professional (even low-minors) baseball players are. In the minors you expect every shortstop and third baseman to have the arm strength to make the throw, and the shortstops to be able to handle routine groundballs. It just doesn’t happen in college, and it makes you appreciate the minors that much more. That being said, you can see the raw tools and both SSs had the ability to be good defenders. The centerfield play was great in the game with a Sports Center Top 10 catch by Cody Jones.
In the end I am not in love with college baseball like I am with the minor leagues. But baseball is wonderful and if you are near Omaha in late June you should go see as many games as you can.