2009 NCAA Regional Preview: Irvine

UCIs Danny Bibona courtesy of the Daily Pilot

The 2009 Irvine Regional, hosted by the #6 national seed UC Irvine at Anteater Ballpark, is arguably the toughest of the sixteen regionals and will be broadcast live on ESPNU. The ACC Tournament champion Virginia Cavaliers are the regionals number two seed, San Diego St. and superstar Steven Strasburg are seeded third, while defending champion Fresno St. rounds out the field as the fourth seed.

The opening game of the regional will be played at 4 pm PDT on Friday and will feature Virginia taking on San Diego St.’s Steven Strasburg. The second game of the regional will see UC Irvine play Fresno St. at 8 pm PDT. The first elimination game is at 4 pm PDT on Saturday, with the winner’s bracket championship game at 8 pm PDT. The second elimination game is at 4 pm PDT on Sunday with the first regional championship game at 8 pm PDT. If necessary, there will be a second regional championship game at 8 pm PDT on Monday.

#1 UC Irvine Anteaters (43-13, 22-2 Big West)

UC Irvine spent the final month of the 2009 regular season ranked atop nearly every poll, yet their torrid run through the Big West wasn’t enough to overcome a weak non-conference schedule and RPI so they received the #6 national seed from the selection committee. The Anteaters, who went to the College World Series in 2007 and the Super Regionals in 2008, will host a regional for the first time in program history at quaint Anteater Ballpark.

Irvine is a led by an outstanding one-two punch at the top of their rotation in Jr. LHP Daniel Bibona and Jr. RHP Christian Bergman. Bibona, the 2009 Big West Pitcher of the Year, was 11-1 during the regular season with a 2.65 ERA, .210 batting average against and averaged seven innings per start. Bergman went 9-2 with a 3.33 ERA, while going roughly 6.2 innings per start. After the Anteaters’ top two, they have some questions among their starts, but if Irvine can get to the end of a game, they can hand the ball to Jr. RHP Eric Pettis. Pettis was named to the Louisville Slugger All-American Team thanks to a 5-2 record, 3.29 ERA and 16 saves. As a staff, the Anteaters carry a 4.51 ERA and .282 batting average against into the postseason.

The UC Irvine pitching was a known commodity entering the season, but there were questions about their hitting. The Anteaters have answered those questions thouhg with a .318 team batting averahe and 7.4 runs per game. Irvine will find any way to get on base, as evidenced by their 105 hit by pitches this season, sixth most in the nation. Sr. SS Ben Orloff is the sparkplug at the top of the Irvine lineup with a .359 batting average, team-high 59 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. The Anteaters don’t hit for a lot of power, in fact no batter has double-digit home runs this year and they finished 175th in the country this season in home runs. Jr. C Francis Larson leads the Anteaters in long balls with nine and also in RBI with 43.

The UC Irvine gloves are some of the best in the country. Jr. 2B Casey Stevenson led the team in errors with nine, while the team’s .977 fielding percentage was eighth best in the country. With stout arms, an offense that puts the ball in play, a defense that doesn’t make mistakes, experience and home field advantage, UC Irvine has to be the favorites in this uber-tough regional.

#2 Virginia Cavaliers (43-12-1, 16-11 ACC)

Virginia entered the ACC Tournament having finished sixth in the conference, which is wholly unimpressive. When you take a closer look though, you see that while the Cavs did finish sixth, the top half of the ACC was so bunched up that they were only 2.5 games back of first place Florida St. That makes their run through the ACC Tournament and eventual ACC Tournament championship far less surprising. Many were surprised on Sunday afternoon when the Cavaliers was not named one of the 16 hosts and nearly everyone was in agreement on Monday that the Cavs got an unfair draw when they were shipped across the country to play in the Irvine Regional.

The Virginia pitching staff has been fantastic all year long in putting together the nation’s third-best ERA at 3.33. The staff is led by Fr. LHP Danny Hultzen, who was 8-1 with a 2.21 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 73.1 innings of work. Sr. RHP Andrew Carraway is the other Virginia starter and he went 6-1 with a 4.58 ERA in the regular season. The final starting spot has been rotated among a number of pitchers, but whoever gets the start for the Cavs, there isnt much asked of him. That’s because Virginia’s bullpen that boasts six guys with a sub-3.25 ERA.

The Virginia offense is no slouch that looks to push across just a run or two before turning it over to the pitching staff to win the game. The Cavs average 8.3 runs per game and hit .333 as a team. The Cavs’ offense is led by So. CF Jarrett Parker, who is a box score filler. Parker hit .375 this year with 16 homers, 73 runs scored, 60 RBI, a .723 slugging percentage and he even stoled 19 bases. So. 2B/LF Phil Gosselin tied Parker for the team lead with 60 RBI of his own, while hitting .312 and swiping 19 bags, just like Parker. In total, eight Cavs had 30 RBI and batted .300 while all nine starters scored at least 25 runs.

The Cavs caught the ball fine, amassing a .971 fielding percentage, second-best in the ACC. While Virginia caught a bad break having missed out on a top seed and being shipped across the country, they still are an outstanding club with a chance to pull an upset and move onto their first Super Regional.

#3 San Diego St. Aztecs (40-21, 15-9 Mountain West)

San Diego St. has been in the spotlight all season because of their ace and consensus #1 MLB Draft pick, Steven Strasburg. While Strasburg has certainly carried his weight this year by wrapping up Friday nights, the rest of the Aztecs are pretty darn good. San Diego St.’s 40 wins qualified them for their first regional under seventh-year head coach Tony Gwynn and for the first time since 1991.

Jr. RHP Steven Strasburg has been nothing short of sensational this year for the Aztecs. Collegiate Baseball’s 2009 Player of the Year, Strasburg went 13-0 in 14 starts this year, threw a pair of complete games, recorded a nation’s best 1.24 ERA and struck out 15.88 batters per nine innings, also best in the country. Behind him though, San Diego St. has Jr. RHP Tyler Lavigne, who was 7-2 with a 3.32 ERA and .212 batting average against on Saturdays. One of the nation’s more underrated players is So. RHP Addison Reed, who serves as the team’s closer. Reed, one of the best relievers in the country, recorded 19 saves in 24 appearances this year, with a 0.68 ERA. The staff as a whole has a 3.95 ERA and strikes out nearly a batter per inning.

If the Aztecs have a weakness, it’s certainly with the bats where San Diego St. avergages 6.2 runs per game and hits .292 as a team, which was the second to last in the MWC. Jr C/3B Erik Castro is the team’s top hitter in nearly every major category. He leads the club with a .388 batting average, 11 home runs, 56 RBI, a .641 sluggin percentage and a .496 on-base percentage. So. RF Cory Vaughn gets the job done as well, hitting .329 with a team-best 53 runs scored and 15 stolen bases.

San Diego St. can pick it, ranking second in the MWC in fielding percentage, making it that more difficult to score runs against the top of their rotation or back-end of the bullpen. With Strasburg going in the first game, the Aztecs will have the edge, but they will need their offense to step it up if thwy want to have any hope of winning the regional.

#4 Fresno St. Bulldogs (32-28, 12-12 Western Athletic)

Fresno St. entered the WAC Tournament needing to win it all to qualify for a regional. Does that sound familiar? That was the case for the Bulldogs last year and they went on to win the WAC Tournament, a regional in Southern California, a Super Regional and eventually, the national championship. The Bulldogs aren’t the same team that won the national championship last year as they have a very different pitching staff, but there is still a ton of experience on that roster, making them a very difficult out in the regional.

The Bulldogs’ pitching staff was dealing with a lot of holes following the departure of a number of their starters from 2008 and as a result, they’ve been a bit up and down this year. The team has a 5.65 ERA and allowed opposing batters to hit .312, although they do play in a very hitter-friendly WAC. Sr. RHP Holden Sprague is the leader of the rotation with a 7-4 record and 4.34 ERA, but he has allowed 19 home runs. The Bulldogs don’t really have a consistent rotation and have used a number of different pitchers in the starting role, while every pitcher, starters included, have been used extensively in relief.

The Fresno St. offense is led by the 2008 CWS Most Outstanding Player, Jr. 3B Tommy Mendonca. Mendonca hit .345 in 2009, while starting all 60 contests. He hit 27 home runs, drove in 78 runs, scored 54 and slugged .739. Mendonca has gotten plenty of support from his partner on the left side of the infield, So. SS Danny Muno. Muno hit .375 this year, starting all 60 games like Mendonca, stole 13 bags and scored 74 runs. Fr. LF Dusty Robinson chipped in with some power of his own, smacking 14 home runs and hitting .325. As a team, the Bulldogs hit .287 and scored 7.5 runs per game.

Fresno St. has run into trouble defensively, making a WAC-high 86 errors. The Bulldogs are one of the more dangerous #4 seeds in any regional and will provide UC Irvine a tough game on Friday. While they did make a run from the #4 seed last year to a national title, this year’s edition does not have the pitching of last year’s team and will struggle to win a game or two in Irvine.

Prediction:

1) UC Irvine
2) Virginia
3) San Diego St.
4) Fresno St.