Thursday Thoughts - Weeding Out The Weak

Natural Selection rules! The elimination process has begun and the weak-links of the pack are being exposed one by one and those hungry enough to make it to Omaha are going to be the ones who prosper among the wild.

CheetahStalk.jpg
("Hmmm, which one is the weak link here? Which one? You!... You look lame.)

So we begin another weekend of paring down the contenders from the pretenders. Only the strong - or those that got favorable seedings - will survive the road to Rosenblatt Stadium.

Now that we have perspective and hindsight as our guide, let's take a quick look back at what we've gained in knowledge before we go full-bore into what we look for in our crystal ball for the weekend ahead.

And remember, in the words of Henry Rollins, it's okay to disagree with me, but you're wrong.


WHAT WE LEARNED---
Here are the top 10 things that the elimination of 48 teams this past weekend told us about the college baseball landscape this post-season. Go ahead, I'll wait while you grab a pen and paper... Okay, follow along.

1- Dare I say, the NCAA selection committee got it mostly right at the top?
Yep, the No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament went 13-3 in getting to the Supers.
The only interlopers into this party were Wichita State (who's pitching is a lot better than most of the No. 1 seeds anyway), Fresno State (playing better than any 4-seed ever has) and UC Irvine (No. 2 ERA in the country? Fuggetaboutit!). Despite some obvious hiccups sprinkled throughout the tournament brackets, the committee can still be commended.

2- Even the greatest upsets in the NCAA baseball tournament, don't mean a lot in the grand scheme of things.
It's not like the March Madness upsets. Because, despite their respective Bison stampedes they suffered, Georgia and Florida State are still moving on to the Supers. No muss. No fuss. Kinda leaves ya' flat though, doesn't it? Maybe they should make a new rule, any national seed that loses to a 4-seed deserves to be eliminated. And if you lose to a team with a losing record? You get banished from the NCAA tournament for the following year.

3- Despite the compacted schedule and five-game weeks this season, offense still rules the regionals.
Still not enough quality pitching is being developed out there. Though, it's not as bad as it used to be in the old 6-team regional format (thank God), you still saw an unhealthy dose of football-type scores in the Game 6's and Game 7's this weekend. Coastal Carolina gets the award for most gluttonous offense of the weekend.

4- The West is good.
See, toldja. I made it widely known that the last two years, the West wasn't that strong (I know, I know, Oregon State still won it all, so sue me). But I gave fair warning that this would be a better year for the occidental types. Sure enough, in games they played against other regions of the country, we're talkin' 14-0 so far in the NCAA tournament. And, taking some fuzzy geography into account, if you consider the Mississippi River the dividing line, the three non-No. 1 seeds to advance all came from Pony Express Land.

5- Until further notice, the ACC is still the Kingpin.
Other than Georgia Tech not being able to close out Georgia when they needed just one win, the ACC looked pretty good this weekend. Miami, North Carolina and N.C. State made it through without a scratch. FSU came out of its funk to look monstrous at the dish again. Leaving all of us to wonder, did that whole Bucknell thing really happen? Wow.

6- SEC? Ummmm, not so much.
One of the things I've always maintained is that, sure, the southern superconference gets a lot of preferential treatment (especially with that whole RPI-favoring thing), but they rarely get sent out of their own region. This time, I paid close attention to how Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky did on their far-flung adventures. Well, they came home goose-egged. The Cats did make the title round as a 3-seed up in Ann Arbor, but collectively the three went just 3-6 in all. In fact, the conference as a whole, was 0-for-7 on the road in making the Supers. Only the home team Bulldogs and Tigers are still alive. Now, will this change the committees view on the SEC when it comes to awarding NCAA bids in 2009? Hell no. At some point past performance has to come into the selection process, because it's just common sense.

7- 8pm start times for baseball games really sucks.
Going to the Fullerton games this weekend was painful. The 8pm start time meant the earliest the games would end was 11pm. Then the cooling off period. Then the press conference. Then the 45 minute drive home. Then, the writing of the column. Then sleep. You get the idea. C'mon ESPNU, you've got to have better time slots.

8- Guess what? Both Oklahoma AND Oregon State belonged in the field of 64.
OU did a great job, vanquishing Vanderbilt in a pair of games to make the championship round in Tempe. Judging by how the Pac 10 did overall (other than Cal, every Pac 10er made the Regional title round or the Supers), OSU probably deserved a bid after all. Hell, maybe even Washington State, considering they won a series AT Oklahoma this season.

9- Arkansas, Florida, Cal and (gulp) Dallas Baptist didn't belong.
The Gators and Patriots were the only No. 2 seeds to go 0-2 (and that hurts, considering I thought the Gators were better and that I was on the Patriot bandwagon after seeing them win at San Francisco two weeks ago). Arkansas and Cal were barely competitive in their games. And again, I don't know HOW to pound this into the thick skulls of committeemen everywhere (and this includes basketball) but a team that finishes 9th in its conference has no business being in the NCAAs. Just stop it now people.

And 10- The RPI still sucks.
No need for explanation here.


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NOW, LET'S MOVE FORWARD AND ON TO THE SUPERS---
It's 16 up and just eight to go after this weekend's games in the Super Regionals. Again, couldn't the powers-that-be come up with something better than "Super Regionals"? It's sounds so much like a 10-year old came up with it. I digress, here's the matchups and what to watch for.

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THE FRIDAY STARTERS:

- North Carolina State (41-20) at Georgia (39-22-1)
This is the SEC champion vs. the 4th place team from the ACC, shouldn't this be a rout? Not in this ACC-heavy season. Both teams come in having capable offenses with a lot of diversity. Obviously, Georgia has the more intimidating bats, led by All American Gordon Beckham and the power planks of Rich Poythress and Bryce Massanari. Their scowl begins when they get off the bus. State's offense has slowly, but surely, gotten better as the year went on. Though I admit, the one time I saw them this year, they struggled mightily against Maryland. Let's see how they do on a much bigger stage.

Key Matchup:
Georgia starters Stephen Dodson and Nathan Moreau vs. the Pack bats.
My guess is that Clayton Shunick gets the W on Friday, so the Dogs comeback ability will be tested again. Dodson and Moreau must pitch well on Saturday and Sunday. No two-ways about it.

The "Don't Forget" factor:
Georgia Tech doesn't have the pitching depth that State does. If it becomes a war of attrition, I give the edge to State. I mean, Joshua Fields can only carry the Dogs so far.

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
To be fair, when they've played the best teams on their schedule, Geogia has lost three-game weekends against almost all the good teams they've faced. Sure you could argue Ole Miss and Kentucky as good teams, but the big exception was their winning at LSU. And that was before LSU became LSU ifyouknowwhatImeanandIthinkyoudo.

- Wichita State (47-15) at Florida State (52-11)
FSU got it's John Travolta-with-a-paint-can stride back about it after the debacle that was the Bucknell game. Posey, Guinn, Stidham, Delmonico and the like are ready to punch and jab the 'Noles way back to Omaha for the first time since 2000 and are more than capable of turning games into Arena Ball, even against WSU. But don't fall asleep on these Shockers. Like Georgia above, FSU made a big comeback last weekend against pretty weak pitching staffs. The Seminoles can't afford to do that against the Shockers, they've got the arms to shut people down. Rob Musgrave, Aaron Shafer and Anthony Capra are going to be the best threesome FSU has seen all season. All three are under 3.00 ERA. Also, keep an eye on that Seminole defense. When I saw them vs. Miami, it had a lot of shaky moments, as witnessed by the .958 fielding percentage (2nd-worst in the ACC).

Key Matchup:
FSU's No. 2 and 3 starters Elih Villanueva and Ryan Strauss vs. the left-handed heavy WSU bats.
Guys like leadoff man Andy Dirks and 3B Conor Gillaspie will see that short porch in right field at Dick Howser Stadium and start to salivate. Especially with FSU's right-hand hurlers.

FSU-ElihVillanueva.jpg
(Elih Villanueva will be a huge cog in the Seminole machine this weekend.)

The "Don't Forget" factor:
Florida State hasn't been the best home team in the post-season. They lost Super Regionals in both 2002 and 2005 at Dick Howser Stadium and also lost to Mississippi State in the Regional round last season. Sometime soon, the worm has to turn, right?

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
Despite making it this far in the post-season, Gene Stephenson told me earlier in the season that this team wasn't as mentally tough as some of the great Shocker teams he's commandeered to Omaha. If that's still true, there's no way they beat the 'Noles on the road.

- Arizona (41-17) at Miami (50-8)
So if you'd had told me at the beginning of the season that these two would be facing off with each other in the post-season, I'd have thought that'd be an awesome championship round in Omaha. But here we are. And don't feel sorry for the Cats going into the Mark Light humidor, they have what Oregon State coach Pat Casey called "the best 1-to-6 pitching staff in the country." Now, will Preston Guilmet and David Coulon pitch deep into games here? They'll need to. But in deference to that, with Ryan Perry, Daniel Schlereth and Jason Stoffel, Arizona also has possibly the best bullpen in college baseball, including two of which were taken as first round picks (Perry and Schlereth). But again, they're going up against names like Alonso, Weeks, Sobolewski and Tekotte. C'mon, you don't think Miami is going to stop hitting now, do you? One word of warning Hurricanes: Don't fool around with nip-and-tuck games here like you did in the Regionals.

Key Matchup:
The big bats of Ziegler, Glenn and Steele vs. UofM's frosh sensation Chris Hernandez.
The experienced sticks will need to jump on young Hernadez early for this to become a competitive series. The Cats' offense has been a little hither-and-yon lately, so they can't afford a slow start in this environment.

The "Don't Forget" factor:
Arizona's done it before. This team reminds me of the 2004 UofA outfit that stunned the heavily-favored Jared Weaver-led Long Beach State team that year. Plus, coach Andy Lopez was at Florida before moving on to Tucson and knows the lay of the land in Coral Gables. His team will be well-versed in the ways to beat the Canes.

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
In Baseball America's Top 50 lists for Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors in their pre-season issue, Arizona had just as many prospects listed (5) as did the Canes. So in the scouts eyes, they're pretty evenly matched teams.

- Stanford (37-22-2) at Cal State Fullerton (41-20)
These two again. Being the two best programs on the West coast, I don't know if they'll ever completely go away. Stanford missed the Regionals last year, but will be making its second Super Regional appearance in three years. Fullerton is, well, Fullerton. When I saw them last week it was as if I was seeing their 1999 team or 2001 team or 2004 team all over again. Same style. Same solid defense. Only the names have changed. Stanford has a junior-heavy lineup that features some lumberjacks. Jason Castro (.372-12-63 and 10th pick in today's draft), Sean Ratliff (.298-20-65) and Cord Phelps (.352-13-53) are heavy hitters in the John Gall-Carlos Quinton-Ryan Garko mold. The Fullerton rotation of Jeff Kaplan, Cory Arbiso and Daniel Renken is the one thing that isn't so Coke Classic about the Titans. They've been good, but not dominant, like we're used to seeing from Fullerton teams of yore. Yet, they'll battle all the way and beat you with smarts and that incredibly fast defense behind him.

Key Matchup:
The Shortstops.
They don't go head-to-head or anything, but SU's Jake Schlander could be the best defensive SS since Jay Pecci and CSUF's Christian Colon is a stud in the making. Schlander only hits .232, but he'll improve. Colon is the kind that likes to get dirty and make plays. He may have a few errors here and there, but he'll be an All-American in the years to come.

CSUF-C.ColonDirty.jpg
(With his aggressive play in the field and on the basepaths, it's obvious that Christian Colon doesn't mind getting dirty for his team)

The "Don't Forget" factor:
The Trees swept three straight from the Titans back in the second week of the season, 12-5, 11-7 and 6-5.

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
Reverse-omens.
In 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2006, Fullerton lost the season series to Stanford, but still made it to Omaha. Looks like 2008 is a Fullerton-to-Omaha year again.


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THE SATURDAY STARTERS---

- Coastal Carolina (50-12) at North Carolina (49-12)
In the last 10 years we've had Dirtbags, Ragin Cajuns, Irish, Titans Owls, Tar Heels and Anteaters in Omaha. Wouldn't it be cool to add Chanticleers to that unique nickname list? Well, don't bet on it. At least not with North Carolina standing in the way. But give the Chants a punchers chance here. Because the two things they have going for them are 1- Confidence and 2- A different style of play. I'm not sure UNC has seen a team quite like CCU this year, exhibiting perhaps the most diverse offense in the country. Scott Woodward is a perfect example of this unique combo, hitting seven home runs and with 42 stolen bases on the season. Dock Doyle (.366-16-72) and David Sappelt (.355-18-67) are also potent weapons. The Chants scored 47 runs in their three wins at the Conway Regional. But this IS the Heels we're talking about here. They're post-season vets and can trot out the arms that led the nation in ERA (2.79). Hard to bet against that. See you in Omaha, Heels.

Key Matchup:
The fast-twitch legs of the Chants (105 steals) vs. Tim Federowicz and Mark Fluery.
Not sure if the Heels catching combo has come across a team that has this much speed on the basepaths. So pressure, and first batter walks will play a huge part in how things turn out.

The "Don't Forget" factor:
Coastal beat North Carolina by an ugly 11-4 score back in March. In fact, the Chants did it by knocking Matt Harvey (now the No. 3 starter for UNC) out before he could register three outs, as part of a six-run top of the first.

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
Experts in post-season ways.
In the last two years, UNC has won 18 post-season games and made it to the national championship round. That's value in experience, people.

USC-BigFogg.jpg
(With temps expected to be in the mid-90s in Cary and 100+ in Tempe, I hope more teams start to incorporate those "Big Fogg" machines like they use on the football sidelines.)

- Fresno State (40-28) at Arizona State (48-11)
After coming up just short the last two years, the Dogs broke through this year, beating San Diego two of three games and generally looking pretty inspired in doing so (you saw some of my pictures, right?). But this will be an entirely different kind of animal this weekend. ASU has one of the most bludgeoning attacks in the country. The Toreros couldn't throw these kind of bats at FSU. So even with repeat inspired performances from Justin Wilson and Clayton Allison, it may not be enough. Big sticks like Brett Wallace (the 13th overall pick in today's draft) and Ike Davis (the 18th pick) will get to any pitcher eventually. As long as Mike Leake and Josh Satow don't tank it in their two starts, the Devils will go to The O once mo'.

Key Matchup:
Clayton Allison (3-5, 3.74) vs. Josh Satow (9-3, 4.58)
If Allison has another game like he did back on Saturday vs. San Diego (complete game, 5-hitter), this could give the Bulldogs a fighting chance. To the Bulldogs' advantage, they also have Brandon Burke as an effective closer. Something ASU lacks with its pitching attrition.

The "Don't Forget" factor:
Fresno ace Tanner Scheppers, who was the 48th overall pick in today's MLB draft, has been out of the lineup for the last six weeks, and still the 'Dogs are on a 9-1 tear. Only if, only if...

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
Home Hades advantage.
Not only will the temperatures be in the 100s, but keep in mind that Fresno went just 10-18 in road games this year. Meanwhile, ASU lost only three times at Brock Ballpark all season.

- Texas A&M (46-17) at Rice (45-13)
Wait a minute, didn't we already do this one a year ago? Yep, and is there any hope for a different outcome, where Rice won in two quick games? Sure there is. As long as A&M's young arms continue to play up. And don't forget the fact that the Ags have a junior-senior-heavy lineup. That's invaluable this time of year. But home field advantage and over all big game smarts is what should propel the Owls to Omaha again.

Key Matchup:
The young Aggie arms vs. the experienced Owl bats.
This is more of a mental game this weekend. If Loux and Raley play beyond their years, this is a nip-and-tuck series that goes three games.

The "Don't Forget" factor:
If the Owls commit errors like they're handing out free ice cream once again, the Aggies offense is much more capable of making it pay than any of the Owls' regional opponents did.

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
Reckling Wreckin' Machine.
Rice has gone 27-5 in post-season games at Reckling Park. However, their only post-season elimination at home? In 2004 to Texas A&M.

- UC Irvine (41-16) at LSU (46-16-1)
Probably the most intriguing Super Regional matchup out there. This is one of those oil and water comparisons. LSU has channeled it's primate past and is back to Gorilla Balling its way through the current 23 game win streak. UCI, meanwhile, will use its West-coast style of bunting, running, stealing, pitching and selling popcorn on its way to wins. Can't wait to see how this turns out. How good is LSU's offense? Ryan Schimpf, the No. 9 hitter in the lineup has hit 10 home runs on the season. Not a single UCI player has double digit dinger totals. Twenty-three straight? Man, this LSU team has its cajun hoodoo magic working.

Key Matchup:
UCI relief ace Eric Pettis (17svs) vs. the LSU order.
I'm relatively certain that Irvine will have to replace its starters at some point in every game this weekend. LSU's late inning magic has been as ridiculous as Oklahoma's football mojo back in the late 70s and early 80s. If Pettis can quell that rising purple emotion monster, the 'Eaters have a shot. If he can't? Katy bar the door.

The "Don't Forget" factor:
Even though he's been a giant killer in the post-season, winning games at Texas, at Wichita State and against Arizona State in Omaha, Scott Gorgen had an off-day last week vs. ORU. Can't afford that here or these purple 'Eater eaters will make you pay.

The you-won't-find-this-on-a-scouting-report factoid:
The last blast at the Box.
With LSU moving into a new Alex Box Stadium next season, there's no way the Bayou Gods will allow LSU to lose its last home series, right? Methinks not. But then again, this is Irvine. They've been known to not give a rat's arse about what a raucous crowd might want.

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(The "Intimidator" will need some extra mojo workin' for it to get a pair of Ws against the likes of UC Irvine this weekend in the last hurrah at old Alex Box Stadium.)

Hope you have a hot one where you're at. And I hope your team stays away from the hungry cheetahs that are stalking to weed out the pack.

G'night

Comments

Let's take an objective look at the SEC "bias."

Hard to argue against LSU and Georgia as national seeds. Georgia had its ups and downs but was in the top 10 most of the year, won the conference, and won its home regional. LSU after a poor start is now hotter than anyone, ran through their last 4 conference series, SEC tourney, and home regional.

As for the other 7, they were all sent on the road for regional play. Ole Miss made the finals against the #1 team in the country, Kentucky eliminated host Michigan to reach their regional finals, South Carolina lost to a suddenly hot NC State team playing at home, and Alabama had host Coastal Carolina on the ropes before giving up one big inning and essentially collapsing. Vandy admittedly played poorly against an OU team that probably didn't deserve a bid, but no reasonable person can argue that the Commodores should have been left out. Florida went 0-2 at rival FSU but finished 3rd in the conference and likewise deserved a regional spot. Arkansas also went 0-2, and they are the only team from the conference that made the post-season who didn't deserve it. I agree with you Eric that a team that doesn't finish in the top half of its conference shouldn't get a post-season ticket.

So all in all, the 2 SEC teams that deserved to host a regional did so and took care of business, the one that didn't crapped out as expected, and among the rest some played well and some didn't.

I wonder if underachieving preseason #1 UCLA had been sent out to another area of the country like Nebraska or Michigan and lost, whether John Savage would be whining about his team being sent on the road instead of playing close to home.

Bottom line- you've got to beat the good teams in your neck of the woods if you expect to beat the great ones from across the country.

In the words of Peter Griffin, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa... this is NOT my Batman glass.

My point was that the SEC rarely gets sent out of its region in the post-season, so I was mostly interested in seeing how Arkansas, Vandy and Kentucky did. And as I suspected, none did very well. And again, recent past performance has shown the SEC hasn't done so well once it faces teams outside its region. That's why it's not a shock that six of the last 10 0-2 teams in Omaha have been SEC teams. And even Mark Etheridge wrote last year that a lot of that may have to do with the (mostly) weak pre-conference schedules.

I had no prob with Georgia and LSU playing home regionals and getting national seeds. Especially with the fact that the Bulldogs had a tough Georgia Tech team as its No. 2 seed. They earned that regional title.

In a perfect world, a better solution would be to go ahead seed the teams 1-to-64 and send teams anywhere and everywhere in neutral site Regionals, like basketball does. But baseball isn't to that point yet, obviously. My hunch is that having a lot of Northern guys on the selection committee this year showed in how a few more Southern teams got shipped out of their region.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert