OMAHA, Neb. -- The 2014 College World Series champion will boast arguably the best pitching staff in college baseball and one of the deepest lineups. It will be a program that has been nationally relevant for barely more than a decade.
Though the best-of-three CWS championship series won't begin until Monday at 8 p.m. ET, all that can already be said because finalists Vanderbilt (49-20) and Virginia (52-14) are mirror images of one another.
"When I look at Vanderbilt, I kind of see a little bit of us in them," Cavaliers junior first baseman Mike Papi said. "Their pitching staff and their bullpen, they have a lot of great arms. Their offense has been very consistent this year. And they're very good at executing on offense and I think that's what we try to do."
"We're pretty similar," Commodores junior shortstop Vince Conde said. "From one to nine, I think we're pretty deep in our lineup. And then our starting pitching and our bullpen, both are very good."
Pitching dominates college baseball today. Bat regulations and high seams on the baseballs make life difficult for hitters. So does Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park, where balls don't carry and the wind blows in more often than not. Add it all up and teams are scoring just 2.7 runs per game in the 2014 College World Series, the lowest average in the 67-year history of the event.
That plays right into the hands of Vanderbilt and Virginia, which built their teams around pitching. The Cavaliers lead NCAA Division I with a 2.21 ERA, while the Commodores rank 20th at 2.79. The Game 1 starters will be Vanderbilt junior right-hander Tyler Beede, a two-time first-round pick who went 14th overall to the Giants in the 2014 Draft, and Virginia sophomore left-hander Nathan Kirby, who could be the first college arm selected in 2015.
Sophomore righties Walker Buehler (who could be used in tandem with Beede in Game 1 or start Game 2) and Carson Fulmer (who won't be available until Game 3 after starting on Saturday against Texas) are potential 2015 first-rounders for the Commodores. Freshman Hayden Stone, who won the semifinal against the Longhorns, and sophomore Tyler Ferguson are two more righties who project as early round picks in future Drafts. Vandy also has three junior relievers who were drafted in the top 15 rounds in June in righties Adam Ravenelle (fourth round, Tigers) and Brian Miller (15th, Rays) and lefty Jared Miller (11th, D-backs).
Because Beede battled his control in his first Omaha start and Fulmer did in his second, the Commodores actually have the highest ERA among the eight CWS teams at 3.50. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have allowed just four runs (two earned) in 33 innings for a 0.55 ERA that would set a CWS record if it stands. They haven't permitted an earned run in their last 22 innings.
Virginia has an all-sophomore rotation, with left-hander Brandon Waddell (the likely Game 2 starter) and right-hander Josh Sborz (the winner in the semifinals against Mississippi on Saturday) likely top-five-rounds selections in 2015. Junior closer Nick Howard, whose Atlantic Coast Conference-record 20th save came in the semis, went 19th overall to the Reds in June, and fellow righty reliever Connor Jones (a freshman) could join him as a first-rounder in 2016. Two other Cavaliers bullpen arms were drafted this year by the Tigers: Artie Lewicki (eighth round), who earned the team's first two CWS victories and pitched three scoreless innings in the third, and fellow senior righty Whit Mayberry.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin marveled at the quality of arms in the CWS and suggested that they deserve more credit than they get.
"Pitching at the college level is at a premium with such great arms," Corbin said. "We talk about the wind currents, we talk about the fences, we talk about the bats. How about these arms people are throwing, that Virginia has, that Vanderbilt has, that Texas has? I think that has a lot to do with it, and then the defense played behind those arms is so good."
While offense has been scarce in Omaha, both clubs have talented lineups that have found ways to score. The Commodores lead the CWS in runs per game (3.7) as well as hitting (.259), walks (20) and steals (12). The Cavaliers rank second in scoring (3.0 runs per game) and first in extra-base hits (eight, all doubles).
Much like the pitching staffs, the lineups are loaded with present and future Draft picks. Virginia has a pair of supplemental first-rounders in left fielder Derek Fisher (Astros) and Papi (Indians), and two seventh-rounders in center fielder Brandon Downes (Royals) and second baseman Branden Cogswell (Athletics), all juniors. Sophomore right fielder Joe McCarthy and freshman shortstop Daniel Pinero rank among the better prospects in their Draft classes.
Conde (Yankees, ninth round) is the lone 2014 draftee in his lineup, but that's mainly a reflection of Vanderbilt's youth. Second baseman Dansby Swanson (who tops the CWS with three runs, seven hits, three doubles and three steals) and right fielder Rhett Wiseman (the leading hitter at .429) should go in the first five rounds next year. So could another sophomore, third baseman Xavier Turner -- though he was ruled ineligible for the CWS on Thursday after an unspecified NCAA rules violation -- and freshman left fielder Bryan Reynolds is a top prospect for 2016.
Besides sharing overwhelming pitching and deep lineups, the Cavaliers and Commodores also share meteoric rises in common. Neither committed much in the way of resources before building new stadiums that opened in 2002, and each had made just three NCAA tournament appearances in 50-plus years before hiring their current coaches.
Corbin has led Vanderbilt to 10 tournament appearance in 12 years, including the last nine straight, while O'Connor is 11-for-11 at Virginia. They both made their NCAA postseason debuts in 2004 at the Charlottesville regional, with the Commodores beating the Cavaliers 7-3 in the final. O'Connor got to Omaha first, in 2009, and both coaches presided over third-place CWS finishes in 2011.
"The timeline is very, very similar," O'Connor said. "I love coaching at a great academic institution. The young men that we're responsible for, they're at both of our universities for more than just baseball and more than just winning championships. They're there to get an unbelievable education at both schools. They're there to learn and grow up and to become the best baseball players that they can be.
"There's a lot of similarities and wouldn't you know it? Both of us are here in the finals for the first time ever."
Championship series schedule
Monday, 8 p.m. ET
Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET
Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET (if necessary)