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A case for the College World Series

June 26, 2011

Danny Hultzen was dominant against the University of South Carolina despite battling an illness.

If you care about baseball in the slightest, carve out four-and-a-half hours to watch Friday night’s 13-inning marathon between the University of South Carolina and the University of Virginia. While the game ended on an unfortunate error by Virginia pitcher Chris Winiarski, it marked a coming out party of sorts for the College World Series.

1. Glimmer of the future: The landscape of the Internet has resulted in more emphasis being placed on prospects, for better or worse, than ever before.* In last night’s game, Mariners fans had the chance to see Danny Hultzen — who the hometown team nabbed with the second overall pick in this month’s MLB draft — strike out eight batters in three innings of work despite battling a nasty flu. Now, they have some idea what their likely $10 million investment is buying.

On another level, the amount of people who have begun taking the college game very seriously because they are interested in prospects around the game has absolutely exploded, something that leads to much more curiosity in the level of the game where many of those prospects face off.

*I am beginning to flirt with the idea that management around baseball, on a whole, has begun to overvalue prospects. Teams are so unwilling to make mistakes when trading prospects that they aren’t taking the fact that prospects don’t pan out into account. If I were a general manager — and let’s hope that never happens for so many reasons, the first one being that I’d run my club like it was one of my fantasy teams — I would try to take advantage of the fact that the pendulum has swung from so many years of prospects being undervalued that they have, in fact, become overvalued.

2. It’s the middle of the summer: As the dog days of summer begin, there is only one major American sport taking place — professional baseball. The inherent problem with professional baseball, though (and likely one of the causes of its much-publicized attendance problems), is that there are 162 games a year. If anything, fans are overexposed to MLB highlights and stars, and instead of standing out the sport simply blurs in with the rest of the media’s noise.

Instead of giving fans the same set of names and same old rivalries, the College World Series presents an interesting alternative — a slightly altered take on a familiar story. While MLB has the same Red Sox-Yankees rivalry and Mets collapse every year, the college game presents storylines like a University of California team that almost didn’t exist and a rotating cast of characters that may become household names in the relatively near future.

3. Every game matters: As with any college playoff, every single contest is vital in deciding a champion. The drama present in an elimination game adds a heightened level of drama, something that the NCAA understands better than any other American sports organization . Hultzen doesn’t pitch Friday if it’s not an elimination game for UVA, and one of the stories of college sports this year would have been missed out on. In order to work, playoffs need a significant level of drama and the CWS’ games have more of that than any of the MLB games happening in the middle of June.

A hanging curveball or a dropped flyball acquire substantially more significance during a short series or set of games than they do over the course of a long season, where mistakes even out. At the end of a series, there aren’t any more games or opportunities for luck to be be accounted for. Every player on  the field and fan in the stands is aware of this, and it only adds to the pressure cooker of being one of the final teams in the country  still playing meaningful games.

Watch South Carolina and the University of Florida enter that pressure cooker tomorrow night. It’ll certainly be more interesting than the 81st game of some random team’s MLB season.

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