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June 5, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

Super Regional Preview

by Bryan Smith

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(1) Texas (Augie Garrido)
2009 Record: 44-13, 17-9 (Big XII)
Offense: .287/.377/.411
Pitching: 2.83 ERA, 443 H, 480 K, 161 BB in 531 IP.
Defense: .69524 DER (1st of 16 Super Regional teams)

Texas Christian (Jim Schlossnagle)
2009 Record: 39-16, 15-5 (MWC)
Offense: .312/.393/.499
Pitching: 4.17 ERA, 488 H, 389 K, 179 BB in 492 2/3 IP.
Defense: .64420 DER (12th of 16)

Austin Regional: Texas, 3-0, 20 RS, 13 RA. For only playing three games, the Longhorns were quite challenged in their regional, as they spent 29 of the 43 innings they played either tied or losing. Note that forty percent of their runs scored on the weekend were in the final half-inning, an 8-run, walk-off rally that kept the momentum rolling from winning one of the NCAA's greatest games ever the day before.
Fort Worth Regional: TCU, 3-0, 24 RS, 8 RA. Things went relatively flawlessly for the Horned Frogs, who can thank Oregon State for never having to bother with the second seed. TCU got five scoreless innings from their bullpen, three quality starts, and lineup-wide production.
Subplot: Austin Wood's role going forward. As touched on in >Unfiltered, Wood began his postseason by tossing 199 pitches in two days. I would give him the Sunday starter spot if necessary (with a strict pitch count), which allows for a seven-day rest, puts Brandon Workman's fantastic stuff into the closer spot, and leaves Texas' most dependable arm available for what could be the season's biggest game.
Prediction: It's interesting that with a similar caliber of opponents, TCU looked like the more unbeatable team. They have a better lineup and a deeper staff, and it kills me to pick against them, but the combination of home-field advantage, the best one-through-five pitchers, and the best defense in the nation is impossible to overlook. Texas is the UNC of year's past, and that's proven to be enough for an Omaha run before.

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(8) Florida (Kevin O'Sullivan)
2009 Record: 42-20, 19-11 (SEC)
Offense: .310/.394/.459
Pitching: 4.16 ERA, 601 H, 412 K, 182 BB in 547 1/3 IP.
Defense: .64372 (13th of 16)

Southern Miss (Corky Palmer)
2009 Record: 38-24, 12-12 (C-USA)
Offense: .308/.403/.467
Pitching: 5.01 ERA, 586 H, 420 K, 228 BB in 535 1/3 IP.
Defense: .64434 (11th of 16)

Gainesville Regional: Florida, 3-0, 32 RS, 14 RA. Although Miami swept Florida at home earlier in the season, Bethune-Cookman proved to be more of a challenge for the Gators than the Hurricanes in late May. Florida has scored 29 runs in their last 19 innings, and Preston Tucker has become a bona fide offensive force.
Atlanta Regional: Southern Miss, 3-1, 42 RS, 40 RA. The Golden Eagles didn't play a game with less than 13 cumulative runs, and their regional opener against Elon ended with the score 17-15. Give Southern miss credit, after earning a questionable berth into the tournament, they beat Elon once and Georgia Tech twice playing in the slugfests that their opponents wanted.
Subplot: The new-look Gators bullpen. Take a team with a mix-and-match of five average starters, and it's a perfect way to add two set-up men in the postseason. The Gators did this perfectly last weekend, moving Patrick Keating and Nick Maronde to the bullpen to help out closer Billy Bullock. I don't know if they'll stay with this in Omaha, but in a Super Regional, they're quite capable of shortening games to six innings.
Prediction: Southern Miss has already accomplished a lot in this tournament by proving that they belong, but no one has ever confused this team with an Omaha threat. While I'm not convinced the Gators are a title contender, they have evolved this season into a worthy participant. I'm looking for Florida to win a two-game sweep.

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(5) Arizona State (Pat Murphy)
2009 Record: 47-12, 21-6 (Pac-10)
Offense: .303/.420/.497
Pitching: 2.79 ERA, 460 H, 542 K, 143 BB in 526 2/3 IP.
Defense: .64951 (7th of 16)

Clemson (Jack Leggett)
2009 Record: 44-20, 19-11 (ACC)
Offense: .303/.392/.457
Pitching: 3.57 ERA, 544 H, 534 K, 195 BB in 577 1/3 IP.
Defense: .65340 (6th of 16)

Tempe Regional: Arizona State, 3-0, 29 RS, 10 RA. Few teams made easier work of their regional than the Sun Devils, who can depend on Mike Leake (9 IP, 15 K) when they face the opposing ace, or on their offense the rest of the time. How much they've gotten out of first-year Sun Devils like Josh Spence, Jordan Swagerty, Kole Calhoun, and Mitchell Lambson is a real testament to Murphy.
Clemson Regional: Clemson, 4-1, 38 RS, 13 RA. The Tigers couldn't have asked much more from a regional than to play only Tennessee Tech and Oklahoma State, so I'm not sure it's a positive that the Tigers had three one-run games. Still, Clemson showed plenty of resilience, a ton of pitching depth, and a criminally underrated leadoff man (Chris Epps, 10-for-19).
Subplot: Clemson on the road? The Tigers have played 64 games this season, and get this: 54 have been in the Carolinas. This team has only played 10 games with any amount of travel involved, and the farthest that they traveled (to Boston College) was 822 miles. Tempe is twice as far. Clemson was 4-6 in non-Carolina games this season.
Prediction: It's almost impossible to project the Sun Devils to lose on Friday night at home, with Leake, the nation's second-best pitcher, on the mound. It's also increasingly difficult to imagine the Sun Devils going Spence and Blair back-to-back with neither pitching very well right now. It should be the Sun Devils in two.

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(4) North Carolina (Mike Fox)
2009 Record: 45-16, 19-10 (ACC).
Offense: .307/.400/.477
Pitching: 3.66 ERA, 503 H, 613 K, 241 BB in 550 2/3 IP.
Defense: .63705 (15th of 16)

East Carolina (Billy Godwin)
2009 Record: 45-18, 17-7 (C-USA)
Offense: .341/.417/.552
Pitching: 4.29 ERA, 569 H, 496 K, 202 BB in 554 IP.
Defense: .65375 (5th of 16)

Chapel Hill Regional: North Carolina, 3-0, 31 RS, 8 RA. I don't know how he does it, but every year at this time, Mike Fox finds a way to rebound after the ACC Tournament and get his team to play their best baseball at the right time. Any team that can throw Matt Harvey in the first game of a regional, and then not have any fall-off in pitching talent is going to make it to the Super Regionals.
Greenville Regional: East Carolina, 4-1, 47 RS, 43 RA. Things looked very bleak for the Pirates after a 12-2 drubbing in the second round, but they would not be denied in front of the home crowd. After beating up South Carolina in their second game, ECU rebounded from a 6-0 deficit in the fifth and a 9-6 deficit entering the bottom of the ninth for the win.
Subplot: Pirates got your number? ECU is the obvious underdog in Chapel Hill-the least likely regional host against the fourth national seed-and while they split a pair of mid-week games during the year, you have to wonder if the Pirates know something that nobody else does. Sample size caveats aside, ECU starters pitched 14 1/3 innings without an earned run in the two games. Freshman Kevin Brandt had his best start against the Tar Heels, striking out 10 in 8 1/3 scoreless innings, and you have to think Godwin will try to let his pitcher recreate the magic this weekend.
Prediction: As good as the Tar Heels pitching staff is, it's hard to imagine them shutting down the dangerous Pirates offense. Historically speaking, this is the time of year that Dustin Ackley is at his best, and this weekend Ackley has his final chance to impress the Seattle Mariners brass. Even if East Carolina gets one game, Mike Fox will have Alex White ready to close on Sunday. I like North Carolina.

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(2) Cal State Fullerton (Dave Serrano)
2009 Record: 45-14, 17-7 (Big West)
Offense: .327/.413/.483
Pitching: 3.44 ERA, 487 H, 421 K, 149 BB in 534 IP.
Defense: .68086 (2nd of 16)

Louisville (Dan McConnell)
2009 Record: 47-16, 19-7 (Big East)
Offense: .308/.399/.490
Pitching: 4.14 ERA, 562 H, 525 K, 175 BB in 576 2/3 IP.
Defense: .64311 (14th of 16)

Fullerton Regional: CSF, 3-0, 41 RS, 9 RA. I thought Gonzaga was the only team that had a chance in this one, and when the 'Zags tied their game with the Titans at 4-4, I was feeling smart. In reality, however, it's going to take a really good team to compete with this Titans squad, which right now is the most well-rounded in the nation.
Louisville Regional: Louisville, 3-1, 20 RS, 15 RA. This was an incredibly difficult regional, so it's a testament to this underrated program that they beat each team once. This included wins against likely first-rounders Eric Arnett and Mike Minor, and an admirable job of keeping a dangerous Middle Tennesee State offense at bay.
Subplot: New kids on the block. Of the pitchers that threw for Fullerton in their regional sweep last weekend, only Daniel Renken and Ryan Ackland had pitched in Division I baseball prior to this year. The two combined for 115 career innings entering 2009, and that's as experienced as these Titans get. Just as a veteran backcourt is usually touted in college basketball, it always seems to help to have veteran pitchers this late in the season. Fullerton has the talent to win the national, but can Serrano combat his pitcher's nerves to get them there?
Prediction: I think it's possible that Justin Marks could get the win on Friday, and if so, McConnell will have his lefty ready to close on Sunday. Fullerton still has the pitching depth to bounce back, and if nothing else, they are the team less likely to give away runs with their gloves. I like Fullerton to keep running toward Omaha this weekend.

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Florida State (Mike Martin)
2009 Record: 45-16, 19-9 (ACC)
Offense: .323/.434/.542
Pitching: 4.55 ERA, 517 H, 455 K, 289 BB in 534 1/3 IP.
Defense: .64917 (8th of 16)

Arkansas (Dave Van Horn)
2009 Record: 37-22, 14-15 (SEC)
Offense: .274/.370/.447
Pitching: 4.56 ERA, 521 H, 462 K, 219 BB in 523 IP.
Defense: .64613 (10th of 16)

Tallahassee Regional: Florida State, 3-0, 61 RS, 12 RA. Anytime you can score 37 runs in a game, you're going to make the national news, even if it's just to remind people why baseball shouldn't be played with aluminum bats. The fact of the matter is that this team really relied on veterans like Jason Stidham (8-for-13, 11 RBI) to carry them over a similarly experienced Georgia program.
Norman Regional: Arkansas, 3-0, 38 RS, 9 RA. The Razorbacks left their season-ending slump in Fayetteville, and a trip to Oklahoma was just what the doctor ordered. After a nine-run eighth beat Washington State on Friday, Arkansas took it to the Sooners in consecutive games, outscoring the national seed 28-6. Perhaps most encouraging was Sunday's finale, in which freshman Drew Smyly struck out 12 and allowed just one hit over 8 1/3 innings.
Subplot: The Curious Case of Brett Eibner. When the Razorbacks' most talented player began his career last year by hitting .298/.405/.497 while also striking out 24 batters in 24 innings, Arkansas seemed destined to have one of the nation's top two-way players. And yet, there has been little progression from the sophomore this season-his 56 strikeouts have led to a slip in batting average (.226), and his command problems (31 walks in 65 2/3 IP) continue to stunt his growth on the mound. If Arkansas wins, it will be on the back of their best athlete. If they lose, I'd venture a guess he'll be nowhere to be found.
Prediction: This should be a fantastic regional, and a nice way to gauge where these two conferences stand relative to one another at the moment. I think it's going to go the full three games for sure, and either Brett Eibner or Drew Smyly will have a good start against the Seminoles. It's unlikely that both of them will be able to against this great offense, especially in their hitter's park, and as far as offenses are concerned, Florida State has the edge.

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Ole Miss (Mike Bianco)
2009 Record: 43-18, 20-10 (SEC)
Offense: .315/.403/.461
Pitching: 4.14 ERA, 574 H, 594 K, 179 BB in 539 2/3 IP.
Defense: .60884 (16th of 16)

Virginia (Brian O'Connor)
2009 Record: 46-12, 16-11 (ACC)
Offense: .331/.406/.492
Pitching: 3.19 ERA, 454 H, 541 K, 173 BB in 525 IP.
Defense: .65743 (4th of 16)

Oxford Regional: Ole Miss, 3-1, 28 RS, 16 RA. In what played out as essentially a three-game series against Western Kentucky, the Rebels won behind Drew Pomeranz' fantastic Monday start. The sophomore pitched a complete-game two-hitter, striking out 16. While his defense let him down for an unearned run, the Rebels scored three in the eighth to secure the victory.
Irvine Regional: Virginia, 3-0, 14 RS, 2 RA. There was no more impressive performance last weekend than the Cavaliers, who turned a hellish regional assignment into quick work. This team has won eight consecutive games, holding their opponents to three runs or less in five of those. A win over Strasburg on Friday was just icing on the cake for the nation's hottest team.
Subplot: Not defensive enough. I haven't run the numbers nation-wide for Defensive Efficiency in 2009, but I'm already positive that the Rebels will rank near the bottom of all power conference teams. While 65 errors in 61 games (.971 fielding pct.) isn't particularly damning in the college game, the club is turning balls in play into outs three percent less often than any other Super Regional squad. This is obviously a team-wide issue, but with numbers like this, one may begin to question the defensive reputations of Jordan Henry and Evan Button.
Prediction: This is one of the best Super Regionals, but every time I look at the numbers, that Ole Miss defense stands out. The pitching staff is too good-a 3/1 K/BB ratio with nearly 600 strikeouts-to have a 4.14 ERA, which is something that you can bet Scouting Directors across the country have noticed. This series will come down to whether or not Ole Miss will catch the baseball, and I have to go with the trend here: Virginia, the better coached team, wins again on the road.

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(3) Louisiana State (Paul Mainieri)
2009 Record: 49-16, 20-10 (SEC)
Offense: .315/.405/.511
Pitching: 4.01 ERA, 551 H, 613 K, 164 BB in 570 1/3 IP.
Defense: .64759 (9th of 16)

Rice (Wayne Graham)
2009 Record: 43-16, 16-8 (C-USA)
Offense: .322/.395/.490
Pitching: 4.07 ERA, 491 H, 407 K, 238 BB in 525 2/3 IP.
Defense: .66214 (3rd of 16)

Baton Rouge Regional: LSU, 3-0, 23 RS, 7 RA. The Tigers weren't challenged much in their regional, though the second game against Baylor did go ten innings. Baylor threw the hard-throwing combination of Shawn Tolleson, Aaron Miller, and Kendal Volz at LSU, who countered with talented sophomore Anthony Ranaudo. The latter won out, striking out 14 over nine innings while allowing just one earned run. Otherwise, neither Southern nor Minnesota stood in the way of the Tigers' eight-game win streak.
Houston Regional: Rice, 4-1, 44 RS, 18 RA. The bummer of drawing Kansas State meant that A.J. Morris was waiting for Rice in the second round, and you knew that he was throwing a complete game. The Owls got to him for four earned runs and two unearned, but Matt Evers blew the game in the ninth inning. They needed to take the long way around to defending their regional, and they did, beating KSU in two games by a combined score of 21-4.
Subplot: The health of Ryan Berry and Mike Ojala. Both looked good this weekend, though Ojala was given a gift by Graham-Sam Houston State in the regional opener. It didn't prove to be much of a challenge, as he pitched seven innings and allowed only one run. The next day, Berry lost a battle with Morris, but looked good over his eight innings. If these two are healthy, Louisiana State will have their hands full.
Prediction: I'm not picking against the Tigers now, but this is going to be a fun one at Alex Box Stadium. Anthony Ranaudo against Ryan Berry could be Friday's best match-up, and there's a good chance that game two is Louis Coleman against Mike Ojala. The Tigers' pitchers are at the top of their game, and LSU has the better offense, so I'm picking Louisiana State to go back to Omaha.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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