OMAHA, Neb. — Michigan and Vanderbilt both roll into the 2019 College World Series finals without a blemish on their records here in Omaha.
Michigan steamrolled Texas Tech 15-3 on Friday to punch a ticket to its first finals appearance since 1962. Vanderbilt, who last won in 2014, is back in the championship series after rallying from a run down in the ninth to defeat Louisville 3-2.
Both teams put their 3-0 records on the line in a best-of-three finals series starting Monday. Here are three X-factors that could decide who will be in the dogpile to close out the 2019 season.
1.) Does Michigan have enough pitching depth?
Michigan is the first team in nearly three decades to reach the CWS finals while using three or fewer pitchers. Karl Kauffmann went seven and six innings in a pair of victories over Texas Tech that No. 3 starter Jeff Criswell closed out of the bullpen. In between, lefty Tommy Henry hurled a complete game three-hitter.
At some point, the Wolverines are going to have to turn to someone else outside of this trio… right? Henry is in line to start Game 1. Kauffmann may not be available to start until Game 3, if necessary, after last pitching Friday.
In the bullpen, Willie Weiss (2-2, 3.08 ERA) leads the Wolverines with nine saves but hasn’t appeared in a game since super regionals. The true freshman has pitched just one-third of an inning in his last two outings, giving up a run while walking three. He’s walked 32 batters in 38 innings.
Benjamin Keizer (4.01 ERA, two saves) received opportunities as closer late in the season and has pitched 5.1 consecutive scoreless innings dating back to regional finals. Jack Weisenburger (4.25) and Walker Cleveland 4.34) are other arms who received late-inning looks this year.
But does coach Erik Bakich trust this group on the biggest stage against a never-say-die Vanderbilt lineup that just knocked out Louisville on ninth inning heroics? Criswell could remain Bakich’s go-to option out of the bullpen if he’s not considered for a Game 2 or 3 start.
2.) Will JJ Bleday find his power stroke?
JJ Bleday is having a fine College World Series, batting 4-for-9 with four walks in three games. But his current 10-game homerless drought is the longest of his standout junior season (he’s still batting .389 over this span).
Bleday leads all DI players with 26 home runs this season to go along with 70 RBIs. With teams pitching him extra carefully in Omaha, he has just one extra-base hit (a double) and a lone RBI.
Now, Vanderbilt’s offense hasn’t been quiet in absence of Bleday’s usual power. Austin Martin and Stephen Scott both have two-home run games in the CWS to add to the Commodores’ program-record 97 on the season.
But then again, Vanderbilt’s offense hasn’t truly been clicking on all cylinders. The Commodores are averaging just four runs per game (less than half of their season average) and fewer than seven hits per game in a three-game CWS sample size. Vandy’s No. 7-9 hitters — Harrison Ray, Ty Duvall and Julian Infante — are 1-for-25 combined during this stretch.
Vanderbilt still has the depth to attack teams from anywhere in the lineup. And Bleday’s still getting on base to help jumpstart rallies. But if he can break out of from his mini power “slump,” the Commodores could be at their scariest.
3.) Can Michigan strike early against Vandy’s starters?
Michigan has scored in the first inning of all three games it’s won in the CWS. In fact, the Wolverines account for four of six total first inning runs in this CWS.
Jumping out to an early lead could be especially crucial against a Vanderbilt team with two aces in Drake Fellows and Kumar Rocker as well as shutdown closer Tyler Brown (program-record 17 saves, including three in the CWS) lurking behind.
Fellows went seven innings and allowed one run last time out in the CWS opener against Louisville. Rocker pitched six one-run innings in a win to follow up his 19-strikeout no-hitter in super regionals. Once the Dores’ top two pitchers find a groove, it’s tough to scratch anything across.
Situational hitting is just as important. In Michigan’s 15-3 rout of Texas Tech, the Wolverines tacked on 10 of those runs with two outs.