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May 28, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

Regionals Preview

by Bryan Smith

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Tomorrow the second season begins in college baseball, kicking off a few weeks that will give scouts a final chance to grade prospects, give many players their final hurrahs, and give fans some of the most dramatic baseball available. Since the bracket was released in full on Monday, we've had time to lodge complaints about the mistreatment of Virginia, the snubs of Rhode Island and Eastern Illinois, and the bids handed to Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Southern Miss. All that can be put to rest tomorrow, as Virginia faces put-up or shut-up time against Steven Strasburg, and the lucky bubble teams have a chance to prove that they belong.

I think the best way to organize a regional weekend preview piece is to rank the 16 regionals in order of difficulty for the host and the top seed. These rankings are subjective, and if you've been paying attention to the dialogue surrounding bracket complaints this week, you already know what the toughest regional is. In the last five years, an average of 10.6 of the number one seeds have advanced to Super Regionals, from a low of seven in 2007, to highs of 13 in both 2005 and 2008. Here's how I think the top seeds will fare this year.

16. Austin Regional:

1. Texas
2. Texas State
3. Boston College
4. Army

One BP commentator wondered if this regional "might be the easiest of all-time," and while the committee would point to the solid RPIs of Texas State and BC, there's very little possibility of an upset. That's as it should be, with Texas deservedly locking up the number one national seed in the tournament. The Longhorns' four-deep pitching staff will allow them to maintain confidence even if they find themselves facing elimination.

Texas State would have probably preferred to be a third seed in a regional with a less-difficult host, but the Bobcats were too dominant in the Southland conference this spring. The team has an offense that can compete with any in the nation, but even the Longhorns' average offense is going to feast on the Texas State pitching staff. I think the Bobcats can win the regional opener against Boston College with ace Kane Holbrooks (10-1, 3.34 ERA) on the mound, but I don't see it happening twice. As for the Golden Eagles, they're built in much the same way, with Tony Sanchez (.355/.455/.640) leading a dynamic offense that looks to win slugfests. As their 13-15 record in the ACC attests, "big wins" are a rarity, and I don't expect any in Austin this weekend.

15. Atlanta Regional:

1. Georgia Tech
2. Elon
3. Southern Miss
4. Georgia State

It's a bit of an upset for a team without the support of a national seed garner such an easy regional, but I really see the Yellow Jackets getting through here. This is a team that played 21-6 at home on the season, and they'll torment the opposition with a .318/.412/.549 offense that has three 15-plus home-run hitters in Matt Skole, Tony Plagman, and Luke Murton. On the pitching side, Deck McGuire is one of the sophomore class' best arms, leaving Danny Hall with an interesting decision: throw McGuire against Georgia State on Friday, or save him for the Elon/SMU winner on Saturday?

Again, the committee would say it did GT no favors giving them Georgia State in the first game, as the in-state rivals split a pair of lopsided games (10-1, 18-2) during the regular season. Against a Yellow Jackets weekend arm, however, and as flawed as Brandon Cumpton and Zach Von Tersch may be, Georgia State has little chance. Elon does belong, with five players eclipsing the 15 home-run plateau during the season, but they were just 16-11 on the road, and just 17-12 outside the SoCon. That's an offensive battle that Georgia Tech will win, even if Southern Miss might not.

14. Fullerton Regional:

1. Cal State Fullerton
2. Georgia Southern
3. Gonzaga
4. Utah

I hesitate to call this an easy regional for a couple of reasons, but Georgia Southern is undeniably one of the bracket's weakest second-seeded teans, and Utah needed a Cinderella run in the Mountain West Conference tournament to make it this far. As I mentioned in my Monday chat though, few teams enter the tournament with the helium to match Gonzaga, winners of their last six games, albeit five against Loyola Marymount. Ace Matt Fields will be a handful for Georgia Southern, but it will take a yeoman's effort from Steven Ames to beat the Fullerton pitching staff.

I'm keeping my eye out for the Zags, but I've had the Titans pegged for Omaha all season long. They found the pitching they needed this season from some unexpected places, and they really only lack that dominant closer that many Omaha teams feature. This is a team that can steal bases, hit home runs, and take a walk-like most Dave Serrano teams, they will be the best-coached club in every game they play. I know Georgia Southern isn't traveling across the country and walking out as a regional champion, and while I've got my eye on the third seed, I can't pick against CSF.

13. Tempe Regional:

1. Arizona State
2. Oral Roberts
3. Cal Poly
4. Kent State

If you had told me in February that Arizona State would draw Kent State to open their regional, I would have winced at the Sun Devils' bad luck. If you had told me in April that Cal Poly would be the third seed, I'd have really balked. Now that it's late May, we know that Kent State's season never lived up to its potential, and Cal Poly didn't hit their stride during the Big West season. Oral Roberts is a gift seeded second, and if you ask Augie Garrido in Aurin, he may have opted to play Oral Roberts instead of Texas State.

Still, there is potential here for an upset. Such a situation is predicated upon the Golden Flashes stealing a game on Friday, likely sending enigmatic Brad Stillings (6-3, 6.62 ERA) to the hill. Stillings has a dynamite arm, but with 17 home runs allowed in 70 2/3 innings, I can see Jason Kipnis' eyes widening from here. If the Sun Devils make it past the first game, they won't stop-a 31-4 record at home does not bode well for the three opposing programs.

12. Baton Rouge Regional:

1. LSU
2. Minnesota
3. Baylor
4. Southern

There are few places in college baseball more difficult to play in than Alex Box Stadium, and come tournament time the new ballpark will be packed with rabid Tigers fans. While people will bring up the fact that LSU already lost a series to a Big Ten team (Illinois) at home this season, this LSU team has a more developed identity. The play of Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Hanover, not regulars until after the Illini meeting, ignited an offense that never needed much to get going.

Coach Paul Mainieri is taking a chance in his regional, sending his worst weekend starter, Austin Ross (5-7, 5.15 ERA) to the hill against Southern, and saving Anthony Ranaudo and Louis Coleman for the deeper rounds. Those two combined for 235 strikeouts during the season, and even if Baylor's dynamic pitching staff can find the strike zone, beating those goliaths is a tall order. I don't ignore the possibility of the Bears finally playing the ball they're capable of, but I don't think another Big Ten team can beat LSU in the Deep South.

11. Chapel Hill Regional:

1. North Carolina
2. Coastal Carolina
3. Kansas
4. Dartmouth

The Tar Heels seem to have been a national seed in this tournament for all of this decade, and while the team has struggled climbing over the championship hump, no coach has been better in the last five years at getting his team to Omaha than Mike Fox. I expect more of the same this season, though in the regional, he'll start with last season's super-regional foe in the CCU Chanticleers. This isn't as good of a Coastal team as we've seen in year's past, however: Scott Woodward and Bobby Gagg really regressed this season, and the team is just 12-10 on the road.

Also in the mix, lying in the weeds, are the bubble-y Kansas Jayhawks. While they needed a little help from the committee to make the postseason, the Jayhawks have been spoilers a few times this year, and they remain the sleeper that could upset the natural order of regional weekend. There's unfinished business on the table for the Tar Heels, and with Alex White and Dustin Ackley on the way out, this is their last best chance for a national title. Don't expect them to blow it yet.

10. Houston Regional:

1. Rice
2. Kansas State
3. Xavier
4. Sam Houston State

After winning the Conference USA title, the Owls (who spent a lot of time atop my rankings this spring) deserved a national seed. The committee disagreed, and as such, they'll likely have to travel to Baton Rouge if they get through and make the Super Regional. However, the committee also did them a favor with a very palatable trio of opponents. In the end, as much as I respect what Xavier did this season, they were undoubtedly a fourth seed that moved up when the committee ran out of space filling out their bracket.

The reason this is more difficult than what the Tar Heels and LSU Tigers face is because I really respect Kansas State, and they could really make a play to upset Rice. I hope the Wildcats have the gall to send their number two against Xavier, depending instead on their Rickey Henderson-style offense (.402 OBP, 146 stolen bases) to win the game. That could set up a mammoth second-day pitching match-up between KSU's A.J. Morris (13-1, 1.84) and either of the Rice aces, Ryan Berry or Mike Ojala. Should be fun!

9. Clemson Regional:

1. Clemson
2. Alabama
3. Oklahoma State
4. Tennessee Tech

Before the season, this would have been deemed a near-impossible regional, as I had high hopes for each of the first three seeds. Oklahoma State's season went off the rails as the Cowboys finished ninth in the ten-team Big XII, and yet they still found a way into the tournament. A few weeks ago I wrote that whoever drew Alabama as a second seed should watch their back: the Tide were then winners of eight in a row, and had lost just five times in six weeks. However, they now enter the postseason as losers of four of their last five, and they'll probably face Andy Oliver or Tyler Lyons, both good arms, in the first-round game.

That Friday battle should only serve to help the Tigers, who will slide past Tennessee Tech and have everything ready and waiting for Friday's winner. The Clemson offense isn't what I thought it would be this year, but it has potential, and I can't think of a better time to turn on the afterburners. The team managed a 3.68 ERA with a patchwork pitching staff this year, but if Alabama turns it into a slugfest, can Clemson possibly keep up with the .331/.416/.571 Tide offense? If Alabama gets through the Cowboys on Friday, I like the possibility of an upset here. If not, look for Clemson to head on to Super Regionals.

8. Tallahassee Regional:

1. Florida State
2. Georgia
3. Ohio State
4. Marist

It was only a few weeks ago that Georgia appeared to be the regional host and Florida State looked like the second seed, but the difference in the directions that their seasons have taken since mid-April are amazing. The Seminoles, who after beating North Florida on April 15 ran off a 14-game winning streak, plowed through to take the ACC regular-season title, and eventually lost in the tournament championship to Virginia. Georgia, on the other hand, lost eight in a row starting on April 25, and are just 4-13 coming into the tournament. This is Dave Perno at the helm, however, and last year's runner-ups will not go down quietly.

The Seminoles will certainly be hoping that the Georgia slide includes a Friday loss to the Buckeyes, who will probably have the better pitcher on the mound in ace Alex Wimmers (9-1, 2.68). However, Ohio State just does not have the depth to then beat Florida State and win the regional-only Georgia playing good baseball can do that in this regional. The guys that have been there before have to step up for the Bulldogs, namely Trevor Holder and Rich Poythress, the ace and star of this team, if Georgia is to have any hope of turning this season around.

7. Greenville Regional:

1. East Carolina
2. South Carolina
3. George Mason
4. Binghamton

Sneaking into the bottom of the regional-hosts list was East Carolina, which offers nice facilities and a rabid fan base in Greenville. I don't have a problem with the selection, but I'm surprised this isn't where Virginia was pegged to go. Outside of a tough second seed in the Gamecocks, ECU has a real chance to emerge unscathed after the weekend. If they do, it will be on the heels of an offense that hit .341 during the season with six players topping the double-digit home-run plateau. It's been awhile since the pirates were really tested-the only top 50 RPI team they have played since April 12 is Elon, with whom they split a mid-week home-and-home series.

On the opposite side of the die is South Carolina, who face a difficult opponent in the SEC every week. Before the SEC Tournament they had won five of six weekend series, so they certainly have as many good wins as any two-seed in the country. Like many, there's a big decision to be made with their ace: when do you throw Sam Dyson (8-4, 5.31) into the fire? Considering his up-and-down season, I wait until game two, and see if the Pirates can beat a potential first-rounder. It's just that they can't sleep on George Mason, the third team in this regional to have a cumulative 900 OPS, which, if nothing else, tells you there will be runs aplenty in Greenville.

6. Oxford Regional:

1. Ole Miss
2. Missouri
3. Western Kentucky
4. Monmouth

Two of my preseason College World Series picks face off in this regional, which I may be overrating in terms of difficulty only because Missouri turned on the gas in the season's second half. Since stumbling out of the gates to a 1-7 record, this team is 33-18, including an 11-2 record before the Big 12 Tournament. I like the Tigers, as I always have, in a short series; there are numerous good arms with the potential to shut down an offense here. I'd throw Nick Tepesch at Western Kentucky, and wait until the Rebels game to bring out top 10 pick Kyle Gibson.

Even with Scott Bittle out for the season, the Rebels have the arms to match Missouri, and they're still big favorites to win the regional. Ole Miss doesn't have a lot of power-Kyle Henson's eight home runs led the team-but they play station-to-station baseball as well as anyone in the country. I'm dismissing Western Kentucky here, because a 5.40 team ERA in the Sun Belt Conference does not bode well against power conference teams. You can't ignore their offense, but you can beat it given the arms staring back at you.

5. Gainesville Regional:

1. Florida
2. Miami
3. Jacksonville
4. Bethune-Cookman

The Gators know all three teams in this regional well, as they've all passed through Gainesville this spring, with varied results. Florida took care of Bethune-Cookman in April, practically marking the beginning of freshman Preston Tucker's breakout season. Just two weeks ago, Florida beat Jacksonville in an ugly 7-4 game that saw Jacksonville giving up five unearned runs. While they'll feel confident in either of those match-ups, Miami is looming as the intimidating second-seeded team, having swept Florida in Gainesville in the season's second weekend. Looking through the box scores, Florida's seven errors in three games seem to have opened the door for Miami. The Gators made 79 errors on the season, so Kevin O'Sullivan will need to minimize his team's mistakes to make it out alive.

I look at this Gators team, though, and with a good couple of weeks, I see a serious chance of an Omaha run. With Stephen Locke back on the squad, there are four starting pitchers that are solid, and even more that O'Sullivan can turn to if pressed. Billy Bullock is among the nation's best closers, a sleeper early-round pick that can go multiple innings to close the door, and while the offense has come and gone this season, there's a great deal of potential in the bats of Josh Adams and Matt den Dekker, and it won't take much to awaken them. I have a lot of respect for Jim Morris finding his way to 36 wins this season, but I don't see the Hurricanes getting to 40 this year.

4. Fort Worth Regional:

1. TCU
2. Texas A&M
3. Oregon State
4. Wright State

This is going to be a fun regional, I guarantee it. Not only is this the first time that the Horned Frogs have hosted a regional in Fort Worth, but Texas A&M and Oregon State are both formidable opponents. TCU has experience with Texas A&M, having lost to the Aggies in College Station one month ago. It was a fantastic game, with A&M winning 4-3 in the bottom of the 10th inning, and both teams going deep into their bullpens to keep the game close. These are two very similar ballclubs, with solid, unspectacular offenses, and deep pitching staffs ripe with good arms.

It's impossible to guess what combination of hurlers we're going to see this weekend, but it doesn't matter-even Oregon State has a ton of talent on the mound. The Beavers seem to specialize in their bullpen, and if A&M can't get runs early on Friday, they could quickly fall to the loser's bracket. The same rings true on the opposite side, as the Aggies have Alex Wilson, Kyle Thebeau, and Nick Fleece in line to shorten games. Just as TCU needs a solid performance from good freshman arm Kyle Winkler, A&M will need the same from talented sophomore Barret Loux. If ever there was a time to live up to your potential, it's regional weekend.

3. Norman Regional:

1. Oklahoma
2. Arkansas
3. Washington State
4. Wichita State

This is a really exciting collection of teams, and the more I look at it, the less I believe that the Sooners will be able to win. Landing Wichita State in the first round is a tough draw-while the Shockers aren't flush with talent this season, few coaches have prepared teams for the tournament as often as Gene Stephenson. Riding the momentum of a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament run, the Shockers will look to keep the momentum rolling, and they're no easy draw: three starters with ERAs under 3.00 make for a difficult Friday night opponent, even when considering the bad bullpen and 756 OPS offense.

It will certainly be strength vs. strength against the Sooners, who have as much power as anybody in Norman. The team will have an important decision to make in whether or not to throw Andrew Doyle; personally, I think Garrett Richards has a good enough arm to get them a win. The team to beat here is Arkansas, who swept Washington State to open their season. I look for Brett Eibner to become a star this weekend, and for Dave Van Horn's coaching legacy to add another bullet point-while just 3-11 in their last 14 games, I see Arkansas winning this regional.

2. Louisville Regional:

1. Louisville
2. Middle Tennessee State
3. Vanderbilt
4. Indiana

If there's something consistent about the top three regionals in terms of difficulty, it's that there are teams that could lodge huge upsets 1-4. And if there's a fourth seed that could possibly make it to Super Regionals, it's probably Tracy Smith's Indiana Hoosiers, not playing too far from home in Louisville, Kentucky. Riding a Big Ten Tournament win, the Hoosiers have a pair of early-round arms in Eric Arnett and Matt Bashore, who along with Vanderbilt's Mike Minor are the best three arms in this regional. The Cardinals have no choice but to throw Justin Marks at the Hoosiers, and hope Josh Phegley doesn't make his team a Cinderella. It's probably the worst-case scenario for Louisville.

In the two-three matchup, you have a really underrated MTSU squad against a Vanderbilt team that was able to turn it up when they needed it the most. I'd be surprised if Tim Corbin decides to save Mike Minor for Saturday: the second-seeded Blue Raiders have slugger Bryce Brentz hitting a ridiculous .482/.552/.968, and a team OPS of 1000. However, Vanderbilt has faced better pitchers than Kenneth Roberts (10-1, 2.98), so if there's a more interesting mid-major vs. power-conference battle in the first round, I've yet to find it. In the end, this is the most all-or-nothing clash, pick anyone and you might be right. I can't wait to see how it turns out.

1. Irvine Regional:

1. UC Irvine
2. Virginia
3. San Diego State
4. Fresno State

By now, anyone within earshot of college baseball has heard about the regional of death, and the harshest treatment of deserving first and second seeds that I can remember. UC Irvine beat national second seed by five games in the Big West, and have the toughest set of three teams in the nation. Virginia won the ACC Tournament, deserve to host their own regional, and will send their hitters up against a soon-to-be major leaguer. I can't really complain about any injustices done to San Diego State or Fresno State, it's just really bad luck for college baseball's most visible coach and their most memorable champion.

If there's one thing that will really help Irvine defend their home turf, it's Strasburg's likely win on Friday. The Anteaters can handle both San Diego State's second starter and their offense; it's Virginia that would have been the tougher draw. I don't discount the difficulties they'll have against an emotional Fresno State team throwing Holden Sprague on the mound tomorrow, but the stars are aligned for Irvine to move to 2-0 and wake up on Sunday in the driver's seat. One stumble, however, and there will be little room for error: Virginia is traveling across the country hungry, angry, and ready to prove something. Never a good combination for the host.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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