The tournament is set to get underway this weekend. Here's a brief rundown of things to know.
With the NCAA baseball tournament slated to get underway this weekend—and the College World Series in Omaha a few weeks later—we’ve got three storylines to know as the regionals begin.
It’s Looking Good for Vanderbilt
No. 2 Vanderbilt has the easiest path to Omaha among the national seeds. Indiana State, McNeese State and Ohio State make their way to Nashville this weekend to duel with the nation’s best offense.
The Sycamores are the No. 2 regional seed after winning the Missouri Valley tournament, but they’ll be hard pressed to hold SEC Player of the Year J.J. Bleday in check. Indiana State played 16 games against the top 48 seeds in this tournament, compiling a 7-9 record in such games (including a 7-1 loss at Vanderbilt). They have only two regulars with an OPS better than .800, so they’ll have to rely on their pitching to keep it close with Vandy.
The problem for ISU is that Triston Polley and Collin Liberatore, their two best starters each with sub-3.00 ERAs, both struggled against quality conference opponents in Illinois State and Dallas Baptist. Don’t expect an upset against this SEC powerhouse.
Don’t Sleep on the Cornhuskers
Nebraska (No. 3 seed in Stillwater regional) was smoked in a four-game series against Oregon State in February, but has since performed well against top-notch programs like Baylor and Arizona State. The Cornhuskers outscored their non-conference opponents and were projected as a low No. 2-seed by D1 Baseball before the bracket release.
Matt Waldron leads the pitching staff with 82 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings. He’s only walked seven this season, which could prove valuable as regional hosts Stanford drew free bases at a below-average rate in the Pac-12.
At the plate, the lineup doesn’t have great depth, but Aaron Palensky, Mojo Hagge and Spencer Schwellenbach all get on base in more than 40% of their plate appearances. Coupled with the fact that Stanford and Connecticut aren’t ultra imposing No. 1 and 2 seeds, the Huskers are the strongest regional No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament field.
A Fun Hypothetical to Consider
Unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, the word “regional” holds a bit more geographical meaning in baseball. It doesn’t completely sway committee decisions (see Oregon State hosting Creighton, Michigan and Cincinnati), but it is a greater factor.
Consider that East Carolina, NC State and Campbell will square off in Greenville, N.C. in their biggest games of the season—all as schools within 90 minutes of each other. NC State and Campbell will clash on Friday while East Carolina takes on Quinnipiac.
East Carolina is the host and favorite. Spencer Brickhouse leads the Pirates at the plate with a .613 slugging percentage and 12 dingers. AAC Pitcher of the Year Jake Agnos is the star on the mound with a 2.00 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 90 innings. Right behind him is a crafty 5’11” lefty in Jake Kuchmaner, whose ERA also hung under 3.00 this year. While these numbers might shine, it’s important to note the AAC doesn’t have the depth or quality of teams as the ACC or SEC.
To label NC State the underdogs is a stretch. They had a case to host this regional with 42 wins, including 18 in ACC play. Infielders Will Wilson, a likely first round pick, and Evan Edwards lead the ‘Pack at the plate with 16 and 13 homers, respectively. Their lineup isn’t too deep, however, and their starting pitching is a noticeable weak spot. Neither of their top two starters managed an ERA under 3.90 this season. Still, they’ve got plenty of pop in their lineup and robust cast of relievers.
Campbell sits in this trio as the potential spoiler. The Camels had a top 50 ERA in the nation, and their pitching staff is similar to Indiana State’s (solid peripheral numbers but unimpressive strikeout rates). But their lineup is much better than the Sycamores, with six regulars with an OPS better than .800. Matthew Barefoot leads the team with 13 dingers, and yes, he does play with cleats on. The Camels won’t be an easy out.