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College baseball not for the squeamish

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In many ways, the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship can be considered the fairest postseason event in all of college athletics.

As a friend was once observant enough to tell me, it combines all the drama of the one-and-done nature of basketball in March with the fairness of getting a mulligan in each round for a bad day. If said bad days are timed properly in the regionals, super regionals and College World Series, a team can lose four times in the postseason and still walk away with a national championship.

No team has yet to exhaust its full complement of four defeats since the format shifted from a winner-take-all championship to a best-of-3 series in 2004, but 2008 Fresno State, 2014 Vanderbilt and 2016 Coastal Carolina all absorbed three losses before dogpiling on an infield in Omaha, Nebraska.

But here’s the caveat to getting another chance in a double-elimination format. It’s still baseball, with all the bounces, seeing-eye singles, wind gusts and Texas leaguers that the game has to offer.

Not to mention, the weather. Did you just run your ace pitcher out there for three strong innings before the bottom dropped out for a four-hour rain delay? Well, you’re out of luck. Time to tax that bullpen in bracket play unless you’re in the business of endangering arms.

Consider the zaniness of postseason college baseball, both in North Carolina and elsewhere. UCLA, the No. 1 national seed, entered the regionals with a 47-8 record and had to fight back in the losers bracket to win its regional against Loyola-Marymount, a 34-25 team.

But in the super regionals, the Bruins saw their fortunes extinguished. Michigan, one of the last four teams into the 64-team tournament field, splits a pair of one-run outcomes with UCLA and emerges with a 4-2 win in the third and final game, sending the Wolverines to their first CWS in 35 years.

At Florida State, Mike Martin, the winningest head coach in the history of college baseball, will get one more chance in Omaha to capture the national title that has eluded him over 2,021 wins and 40 years in Tallahassee. 

Yet there’s healthy debate over Florida State’s presence in the field at all. FSU, also one of the last four in alongside Michigan, Duke and TCU, went 36-21 prior to regionals and entered the selection process with the No. 50 RPI in the country as rated by the NCAA.

However, none of that has mattered since regional play began. Florida State hasn’t lost since Martin was handed his proverbial new lease on life, as the Seminoles have swept into Omaha by winning five in a row, knocking off Georgia and LSU on the road along the way.

Duke hasn’t been to a College World Series since 1961. But for the second year in a row, Duke was on the precipice of changing all of that under the direction of head coach Chris Pollard. 

After falling at Texas Tech in three games last year, Duke, No. 44 in the RPI and just 31-25 before Memorial Day, swept through West Virginia’s regional and claimed the opener of its super regional at No. 2 national seed Vanderbilt.

Unfortunately for Duke, that didn’t last as it was the victim of the first no-hitter in super regional history in game 2, and a lopsided 13-2 loss in the third game followed.

East Carolina, after winning four straight games in the losers bracket to win its home Greenville Regional, was sent on the road to face Louisville in the super regional round. After requiring a walk-off single to beat Illinois State in the winner-take-all regional final in Louisville, the Cardinals could do no wrong against the Pirates. A combined 26-1 demolition where ECU could only muster a solo homer from Spencer Brickhouse in the opener followed — and left head coach Cliff Godwin to lambast the selection committee for leaving the No. 10 Pirates out of the top eight national seeds.

Once it won the Greenville Regional at 10:30 p.m. Monday, the NCAA sent ECU on the road for a Friday noon start in Louisville — the earliest possible start window for ESPN. That’s not the best look for student-athlete welfare on either side, considering the Cardinals had to finish Monday as well. With those logistics out of a team’s control, you play when “The Man” says you play.

North Carolina played its way into a regional at Boshamer Stadium late in the season and even caught a break when Auburn knocked No. 3 Georgia Tech out of its regional, giving UNC, as the No. 14 overall seed, a chance to host the super regional.

One ominous 13-run inning ended UNC’s hopes of an Omaha trip, in the worst possible “that’s baseball” lesson.

As the College World Series gets underway Saturday, a healthy sprinkling of luck, a dash of execution and being on the good side of the “it’s just baseball” gods will produce a champion. But anyone in this eight-team field, from Michigan to Florida State to Vanderbilt, is legitimately in play until the final out.

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