OMAHA, Neb. — One block south of TD Ameritrade Park stand nines flagpoles, where during the College World Series flies the United States flag, bracketed by flags representing the two four-team brackets competing in battle on the nearby ballfield. Whenever a team is eliminated from the tournament, its flag is lowered to half-mast. This goes on for a week and a half, until one flag remains up in the wind.
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) June 22, 2021
On Tuesday night, the 2021 CWS closed out its first four days. As it did, two flags had already been lowered. Pour one out for Arizona and Tennessee, y’all. From here on out, nearly every game played means another flag lowered. Day games will become scarce, giving way to a lot of long, hot Omaha nights that will ultimately lead us to a new college baseball champion.
So, let’s hit the CWS reset button, shall we? Forget those national seeds that were such a big deal a few days ago. The only number that matters now is six — as in six teams remaining.
Who are these teams? What have we learned about these teams over the first four days? And what must these teams do to ensure they are among the final two teams playing for the title next week?
The Root, Root, Root for the Home Team: NC State Wolfpack
2021 CWS Record: 2-0. Won Game 1 vs. Stanford, 10-4, and Game 6 vs. Vanderbilt, 1-0
Next game: Game 11 vs. winner of Vanderbilt/Stanford, Friday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App
Keep an eye on their … Swagger
Every summer, the good people of Omaha adopt one of that year’s eight teams as their own. That chosen squad is almost always the field’s feel-good underdog story, from The Citadel in 1990 to Fresno State in 2008. After eyeballing the amount of red and white being worn in the streets of O-Town and talking to the Baseball Village vendors about the amount of Wolfpack merch they’ve been moving, it’s been easy to see that this year’s anointed semi-home team is NC State. The Wolfpack are making only their third-ever CWS appearance and got to Omaha by winning on the road in the both the regional and super regional. Here in Nebraska, they blasted Stanford ace Brendan Beck out of the box and then outdueled Vandy’s Jack Leiter. So, it’s easy to see why Nebraskans have taken a liking to them. Plus, all these Huskers fans in Omaha have to do to show their support is to wear their Big Red shirts inside out.
The Old School Homecoming Team: Texas Longhorns
2021 CWS Record: 1-1. Lost Game 4 to Mississippi State, 2-1, and won elimination Game 7 vs. Tennessee, 8-4
Next game: Elimination Game 10 vs. Virginia, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App
Keep an eye on their … Pitching depth
The Horns are busy extending their list of CWS records, from most appearances (37) to most wins (87). More importantly, they have extended this latest stay in Omaha, recovering from a heartbreaking opening defeat at the hands of Mississippi State. Texas struck out 12 and had the tying run at third in the ninth but still lost. Then it outlasted Tennessee in a super-tense, often-weird Tuesday battle of the UT’s elimination game. The Longhorns’ much-ballyhooed strength entering the CWS was their pitching depth, with a whopping five hurlers making various tiers of the All-Big 12 list. While they have already sent six different hurlers to the mound in two games, five of them pitched three innings or fewer and ace Ty Madden, who was so good in the Mississippi State opener, will be rested if needed ASAP.
The Breakfast Club ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ Team: Stanford
2021 CWS Record: 1-1. Lost Game 1 to NC State, 10-4, and won elimination Game 5 vs. Arizona, 14-5
Next game: Elimination Game 9 vs. Vanderbilt, Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
Keep an eye on their … Chill
The Cardinal derive their team personality from head coach Dave Esquer, one of college baseball’s coolest customers, and it shows. After suffering a thumping at the hands of NC State, Stanford was almost creepily calm against old Pac-12 foe Arizona as it rapped 20 hits, the most since the CWS moved to TD Ameritrade in 2011, scoring two touchdowns to win 14-5. Keep an eye on outfielder Brock Jones, who had a homer and five RBIs against the Wildcats. How hot is Jones? You might remember him as the dude who had three homers in the Lubbock Super Regional to boost his team past Texas Tech into the CWS. On the season, he has 59 RBIs … and 15 of those have come during the NCAA tournament.
The Ivan Drago ‘You see? He’s not a machine!’ Team: Vanderbilt Commodores
2021 CWS Record: 1-1. Won Game 2 vs. Arizona, 7-6, in 12 innings and lost Game 6 vs. NC State, 1-0
Next game: Elimination Game 9 vs. Stanford, Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
Keep an eye on their … Soon-to-be MLB millionaires
The headliners heading into Omaha were the 1-2 Vandy Boy pitchers and with good reason. Kumar Rocker was the Most Outstanding Player of the most recent CWS played, in which the Commodores defeated Michigan to win the 2019 title, while Jack Leiter has rocketed up MLB draft boards via his All-American season. Both will be high picks on July 11, but Rocker struggled against Arizona, and while Leiter struck out 15 NC State batters, he had to take the loss. Neither will be available for the Wednesday night elimination game against Stanford. If Vandy can get past the Cardinal to set up a Friday rematch against NC State, Vandy’s chances to repeat as champ will rest right where we all expected them to when the season started, squarely on the shoulders of Rocker and Leiter.
SEC Now analyst Todd Walker discusses the No. 4 Commodores’ experience in the CWS and explains why nerves won’t be an issue vs. No. 9 Stanford.
The StriKeout Team with a Capital K: Mississippi State Bulldogs
2021 CWS Record: 2-0. Won Game 4 vs. Texas, 2-1, and Game 8 vs. Virginia, 6-5
Next game: Game 12 vs. winner of Virginia/Texas, Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App
Keep an eye on their … Spin rate.
Hey, remember when Mississippi State was known for known for big bats and, you know, Thunder and Lightning and all that? Not this team. Yes, the Bulldogs can hit, but the OmaDawgs are led by a pitching staff that is the most prolific group of whiff-masters in college baseball history. They came to Omaha with the highest strikeout-per-nine-innings numbers ever (12.5), and on Tuesday night against Virginia, they set the all-time record for strikeouts by one pitching staff recorded in a single season (771). Now in the catbird seat of their side of the bracket, we will certainly see the likes of Will Bednar again, who K’d 15 Longhorns and teamed with closer Landon Sims to set a CWS-record 21 strikeouts. Why so many? A team obsession with studying spin rates. Bednar, who was roughed up earlier in the postseason, says he became the hero of Omaha by “moving my fingers maybe an eighth of inch when I grip the seams.” Oh, by the way, those bats are waking up, too. After being no-hit by UVA for nearly eight innings, MSU exploded with six runs and a pair of homers in the eighth alone. Might Mississippi State finally win its first CWS title?
The Pym Particle Small Ball Team: Virginia Cavaliers
2021 CWS Record: 1-1. Won Game 3 vs. Tennessee, 6-0, and lost Game 8 to Mississippi State, 6-5
Next game: Elimination Game 10 vs. Texas, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN App
Keep an eye on their …Fundamentals.
How has this unheralded, unranked team battled its way deep into this year’s CWS bracket, including Tuesday night’s heavyweight bout with the strikeout kings of Mississippi State? Old-school Punch and Judy small ball, that’s how. During an era when very few baseball teams on any level seem willing to not swing for the fence and choke up, UVA has excelled at the lost art. The Cavs jumped out to a 4-0 lead on Mississippi State via three singles, two doubles, two sacrifices and a 3-2 walk. Their pitching certainly isn’t as deep as their five CWS opponents’, and ending Tuesday night’s gutsy near no-hitter from Griff McGarry with a loss hurts the Hoos on a lot of levels. They’ve already used seven pitchers in two games and had to burn would-be third-game starter Nate Savino for an inning as they tried to slow the Bulldogs’ comeback. Can you play small ball with a pitching staff, too?