OMAHA, Neb. -- Before the College World Series began, Virginia coach Brian O'Connor was asked to name the three key elements in building the Cavaliers into one of the nation's premier baseball programs.
"Pitching, pitching, pitching," O'Connor replied.
That's a common theme for the four teams -- Mississippi, Texas, Vanderbilt and Virginia -- that remain alive in the quest for a national championship. TD Ameritrade Park has been extremely kind to pitchers since it opened in 2011, and teams are averaging just 2.7 runs per game in this year's CWS.
Texas (45-20) faces Vanderbilt (48-19) in a 3 p.m. ET game today, with the Longhorns needing to win to force a second bracket championship game on Saturday. Likewise, Mississippi (48-20) must defeat Virginia (51-14) to create a rematch on Saturday. The best-of-three championship series begins Monday at 8 p.m. ET.
All four clubs boast ERAs that rank among the top 20 in NCAA Division I. The Cavaliers are second with a 2.24 mark, followed by the Longhorns in fourth at 2.27, the Rebels in 16th at 2.70 and the Commodores in 20th at 2.77. None of them rank better than 41st in scoring (Mississippi leads with 6.0 runs per game), while Texas comes in at 209th with 4.5 runs per game.
Because they face elimination, both the Longhorns and Rebels are expected to turn to their No. 1 starters for the second time in the CWS. Texas senior Nathan Thornhill, a finesse right-hander drafted in the 13th round by the Phillies earlier this month, threw seven shutout innings against California-Irvine on Friday before taking the loss by giving up two runs in the eighth. Mississippi junior right-hander Chris Ellis, an Angels third-rounder with a lively fastball that can reach 95 mph, allowed one run in a six-inning no-decision against Virginia on Saturday.
By contrast, Vanderbilt and Virginia will save their aces -- sophomores and projected 2015 first-rounders Carson Fulmer and Nathan Kirby -- in hopes of winning today and having them ready for the opener of the championship series. The Commodores will turn to Tyler Ferguson and the Cavaliers to Josh Sborz, both sophomore right-handers who should be early-round selections in the 2015 Draft. Both work in the 90s with their fastballs and have solid breaking pitches.
Though pitching is the name of the game in Omaha, there's no shortage of quality position prospects. Virginia left fielder Derek Fisher (Astros) and first baseman Mike Papi (Indians), whose walk-off double beat Mississippi in the opener, were consecutive picks in the supplemental first round two weeks ago, while center fielder Brandon Downes (Royals) and second baseman Branden Cogswell (Athletics) were seventh-rounders. They're all juniors, and sophomore right fielder Joe McCarthy projects to go in top five rounds next year.
Mississippi led all of the College World Series teams with nine players taken in the 2014 Draft, including junior center fielder Auston Bousfield (fifth round, Padres) and senior third baseman Austin Anderson (ninth round, Orioles). Scouts say the two best prospects on the Rebels are a pair of freshmen -- right fielder J.B. Woodman and shortstop Errol Robinson.
Prospects stand out in the Texas and Vanderbilt lineups as well. Longhorns senior center fielder Mark Payton, whose 101-game on-base streak ended on Saturday, went in the seventh round to the Yankees. Sophomore shortstop C.J. Hinojosa, who hit the first homer of the CWS to provide Texas' lone run in a 1-0 defeat of UC-Irvine on Wednesday, and freshman catcher Tres Barrera figure to surpass Payton's Draft status in the future.
Commodores junior Vince Conde was a ninth-round pick of the Yankees, and three Vanderbilt sophomores -- second baseman Dansby Swanson, third baseman Xavier Turner and right fielder Rhett Wiseman -- likely will go in the first five rounds next year.
As talented as all of those hitters are, it won't change the fact that pitching wins championships at TD Ameritrade Park.
"In this ballpark, everything just seems amplified," Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said after his club escaped with a 2-1 walk-off win over Texas Tech on Tuesday. "Every single pitch, every error, every walk, every base hit, you can feel it in this stadium because runs are at such a premium here."
Texas vs. Vanderbilt, 3 p.m. ET (Texas eliminated if loses)
Mississippi vs. Virginia, 8 p.m. ET (Mississippi eliminated if loses)