After heartbreaking losses to TCU in Super Regional play the previous two seasons, 2017 was supposed to be a rebuilding season for Texas A&M baseball.
Apparently construction is ahead of schedule.
The surprising Aggies (41-21) begin their College World Series experience at 1 p.m. Sunday against Louisville (52-10), a team making its third Omaha showing in five seasons.
The Aggies are perhaps the least likely of the eight teams on college baseball’s final stage. A&M was one of the last four at-large teams selected to the 64-team tournament, was barely better than .500 (16-14) in Southeastern Conference play and was bumped off 12-7 by Missouri in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
But then history happened.
Under coach Rob Childress, A&M became the first team seeded third or fourth in a regional to sweep through a regional and a Super Regional unbeaten. That’s 5-and-0 against playoff teams.
Not that there weren’t some dicey moments to go through first.
Texas A&M rallied for comeback wins over Baylor and Iowa in its first two regional games.
In the Super Regional opener against Davidson, the Aggies squandered a 6-0 lead in the sixth and were stretched to 15 innings before taking a 7-6 victory in College Station. The following day, A&M trailed 6-2 after seven innings but posted seven runs in the eighth and three in the ninth to punch its ticket to Nebraska.
Louisville presents an even greater challenge.
The Cardinals of coach Dan McDonnell will put junior left-hander Brendan McKay on the mound Sunday. McKay was 10-3 with a 2.34 ERA in 16 starts. He finished second in the nation with 140 strikeouts over 104 innings. He also hit .343 with 17 home runs and 56 RBIs in 210 at-bats.
McKay was chosen by the Tampa Bay Rays with the fourth overall pick in last week’s draft, the first college player selected.
On Saturday he was named the Dick Howser Trophy winner as the year’s top college baseball player. Teammate Lincoln Henzman, a junior right-hander, was awarded the Stopper of the Year award. McKay was earlier named Baseball America’s national player of the year.
Louisville’s leading hitter is third baseman Drew Ellis. The junior batted .367 with 55 runs, 81 hits, 18 doubles, 20 home runs and 61 RBIs — all team highs. But Ellis’ biggest contribution was three home runs and six RBIs in the Cardinals’ two-game Super Regional sweep of rival Kentucky.
Texas A&M will counter by sending to the mound Corbin Martin, a junior lefty who was 7-3 with a 3.35 ERA in 23 appearances this season, including 12 starts.
On the offensive end, the Aggies are led by freshman second baseman Braden Shewmake. The 6-foot-4, 19-year-old from Wylie dominated the team’s statistical charts. Shewmake led A&M this season in average (.335), hits (89), doubles (17), home runs (11) and RBIs (68) and tied for the lead in stolen bases (11). His plate awareness is even more impressive as he struck out only 28 times in 266 at-bats.
Joining Texas A&M and Louisville on their side of the CWS bracket are TCU and Florida.
Between them, the four schools have reached Omaha 26 times. What they all have in common, and hope soon to change, is not a title among them.