Yes, you could say Matt Purke is a wizard.
The left-hander stands out not just because of his glasses or the way he wears his straight-billed cap at a jaunty angle. For all his quirks, Purke has become college baseball’s dominant freshman one year after turning down millions as the Texas Rangers’ top draft pick in 2009.
He’ll introduce Florida State and a national television audience to his 97-mph fastball today when the Horned Frogs make their first appearance in the College World Series. Purke brings in a nation-leading 14-0 record and 3.23 ERA, and coach Jim Schlossnagle said he has no worries about the 19-year-old handling the pressure.
The 6-foot-4, 180-pounder is coming off an 11-strikeout, three-hit performance over 7 2/3 innings in the super regional opener at Texas. Schlossnagle said the environment in Omaha will be much friendlier than it was in Austin.
“What we just went through at the University of Texas against a great team, great program, great coach and a crowd that was very anti-TCU, he handled it very well,” Schlossnagle said.
TCU (51-12) and Florida State (47-18) will open the final series at Rosenblatt Stadium before the event moves to a new downtown stadium in 2011. Tonight’s Bracket 1 game pits a pair of national seeds in No. 3 Florida (47-15) and No. 6 UCLA (48-14).
Bracket 2 play opens Sunday with Oklahoma (49-16) meeting South Carolina (48-15) followed by No. 1 national seed Arizona State (52-8) taking on Clemson (43-23).
Purke, the 14th overall pick in last year’s draft, said he’s had no regrets about turning down $4 million from the Rangers and heading to TCU.
“It’s been a great year,” he said. “We had a really good team, and to make it to the College World Series for the first time in our school’s history is awesome. We’re excited to be here, but we also know it’s business. We don’t want to come here just to be in it. We want to win it.”
Just as TCU surely will be adopted as the favorite among Omaha fans – the locals always have loved first-time qualifiers and underdogs – Purke will add to his fan following if for no other reason than his unique style.
“I feel every ballplayer has his own look, and this is my look, and it’s working for me,” Purke said, “so I’m not going to get rid of it.”
What about that cap, tilted to his right?
“When I put a hat on, that’s how it goes no matter what kind of hat it is,” Purke said. “If I put it on straight, it feels really weird.”
Schlossnagle can vouch for Purke on that.
“I’ve seen pictures of him as an 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old little boy, and that’s what he does,” he said. “I think it has something to do with the gravitational pull of the earth and him being left-handed somehow.”
Purke is supported by the most offensive team in TCU history. The Mountain West Conference champion Frogs are batting a CWS-best .340 and have hit a school-record 92 home runs. Each of the everyday players is batting .303 or better, and six have at least 45 RBIs.
Florida State is in the CWS for the 20th time and still looking for its first national title. The Seminoles will match sophomore left-hander Sean Gilmartin (9-7, 4.89) against Purke.
The Seminoles have seven players back from their 2008 CWS team, which went 0-2 in Omaha. One of them, Mike McGee, has done it all this season. He’s batting .328 with 15 home runs and 68 RBIs, and he’s one of the nation’s top closers with a 4-0 record, 12 saves and 1.37 ERA.
McGee emerged as a closer March 14, the day after the Seminoles blew a five-run lead in the ninth inning against Virginia.
“I think that was a turning point in our season,” FSU coach Mike Martin said.
Florida, the Southeastern Conference regular-season champion, won three straight in the regionals and swept Miami in the super regional to lock up its sixth CWS bid. The Gators are batting .312 in the NCAA Tournament and have outscored their opponents 43-10.
Sophomore lefty Alex Panteliodis (11-2) will start against the Bruins’ sophomore righty Trevor Bauer (10-3, 3.02).
The Gators have a young team, with freshman taking two spots in the starting rotation and four others among the top seven hitters.
“We had to treat this team with kid gloves and know that we would grow up,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “A lot of them had good resumes before they came to school, but you don’t know what you’ve got until they’re throw in the fire.”
UCLA, in the CWS for the first time since 1997, is 0-4 in two previous Omaha appearances. Bauer, Gerrit Cole and Rob Rasmussen each have won 10 or more games and struck out 115 or more batters. The Bruins’ 2.97 staff ERA is best in the CWS and second nationally to Texas’ 2.45.
“We don’t have the home runs a lot of teams have, the big RBI guys. They’re not there,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “It’s West Coast baseball. We chip away. Our strength is our pitching. We like our pitching from top to bottom.”
Oklahoma returns to Omaha for the first time since 1995 after winning 14 of its past 16 games, including two of three at top-ranked Virginia in the super regional.
The Sooners will send out Michael Rocha (7-2, 3.57) against the Gamecocks’ Blake Cooper (12-1, 2.81), whose right (pitching) hand was dinged in the super regional by a foul ball. OU’s 100 home runs are most in the field, led by Garrett Buechele’s 16 and Cameron Seitzer and Max White’s 15 each.
South Carolina overcame a May lull that saw it lose series to Kentucky and Florida and go 0-2 in the SEC tournament. The Gamecocks, however, are 5-0 in the NCAA Tournament. Center fielder Jackie Bradley is batting .371 and comes to Omaha on a 16-game hitting streak.
Arizona State will try to become the first No. 1 national seed since Miami in 1999 to win the national title. The Sun Devils will start junior right-hander Seth Blair (12-0, 3.35) against Clemson junior left-hander Casey Harman (7-3, 3.73).
The Sun Devils, in Omaha for the fourth time in six years and 22nd time overall, are the only team back from 2009 and 15 players have CWS experience. Among them are Raoul Torrez, who’s hitting a CWS-best .399, Zack MacPhee, who’s batting .394 with a nation-leading 14 triples, and Kole Calhoun, who hit three home runs and batted .563 in four games here last year to make the all-tournament team.