Team with something to prove – As the ACC Tournament opens Virginia is considered virtually a lock for a top-8 national seed. But following a sweep in Chapel Hill last week and an OK performance against Miami the previous weekend, there are some doubters. Virginia is 5-5 over its last 10 outings and over the last six have been outscored 23-13 dropping four of those contests.
The Cavaliers went wire-to-wire during the ACC season as the best team in the conference and have remained in the top 5 nationally since the first of April – including multiple weeks at No. 1. That said, they need to prove that the last 10 games was an outlier in what has been a very impressive season of work to ensure that spot. The Hoos need to win at least two games in the Tournament to shake any doubters.
Despite finishing third in the conference in hitting, the Cavaliers are built around pitching defense. Led by Danny Hultzen, the first back-to-back ACC Pitcher of the Year honoree since the award was established in 2005, the Hoos have four solid starting hurlers in Hultzen, Will Roberts, Cody Winiarski and Wednesday’s starter Tyler Wilson. With solid middle relief and the nations save leader in Brandon Kline, Virginia has the arms to make a deep run in the ACCT.
The question for Virginia is hitting.
Since Virginia’s 10-day exam break the Hoos are hitting just .190 (35-for-184) against Miami and UNC pitching, averaged a paltry 2.2 runs per game, were fanned 39 times and stranded 40 base runners. It’s that last number however that should give Coach Brian O’Connor hope. Virginia has excelled this season at moving base runners along and so the fact that there were at least runners on base give hope – now the Cavaliers need to execute.
For Cavalier fans that might be worried they should remember that the 2009 club closed out the regular season 6-4 including a season ending series loss at Virginia Tech. That group made it to Omaha.
NCAA Tournament Needs: The Hoos need to win 2 games in Durham to lock up a top-8 national seed. Go 1-2 and they may open the door for another ACC club. Their top 2 RPI will still make taking them out of the national picture a very difficult to explain decision.
#1 Virginia (45-9, 22-8 ACC)
Last 10 games (5-5)
Team ERA 2.33
Team BA .302
Team FLD .981
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #2
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (2-4)
North Carolina (0-3)
Under the radar – It’s really odd to suggest that a team that went to the College World Series each year from 2006-2009 is under the radar but after squeaking into the NCAA field last spring (after failing to make the ACC Tournament field) Carolina has quietly emerged as one of the top teams in the country. Buoyed by the nation’s best RPI and coming off a sweep of then No. 1 Virginia, the Tar Heels have gone from being a hosting contender to a top-8 seed contender over the last three weeks.
In a season that offered Coach Mike Fox one of his difficult challenges as a skipper, it was not supposed to be this way. There were no big name stars like Dustin Ackley or Brian Goodwin and the staff was not littered with names like Alex White, Andrew Miller or Daniel Bard that struck fear into opposing batters.
No, this was a collection of savvy, game tested veterans and some very talent freshmen that has gradually climbed the national polls and the RPI rankings. What Fox got from his club this season was a higher level of consistency at the plate and on the mound, especially from a bullpen that was abysmal by Carolina standards in 2010. The games the Heels lost last season became wins in 2011 with better clutch hitting and a much better effort from the backend.
The pitching staff has seen their rolls take shape throughout the course of the season and things appear to be in very good order. One of those savvy, game tested veterans, Senior Patrick Johnson (10-1, 2.74) has emerged into a legitimate Friday starter. Southpaw newbie Kent Emanuel (6-1) who was projected to go very high in MLB draft (slide to Pirates in the 19th round after making his intention to go to UNC first widely known) has been everything advertised leading the Heels in ERA (2.83) with superb control fanning 70 while walking just 20. After a bit of a slow start right-hander Chris Munnelly (6-4, 3.98) has filled the Sunday starter role for UNC which entering the season was a question mark.
In an interesting twist, Senior Greg Holt (7-1, 2.90 ERA, 49.2 IP) is slated to make his first start of the season Thursday against Miami followed by Johnson and Emanuel.
Offensively the Heels are sixth in the conference in hitting .286. ACC Freshman of the Year Colin Moran leads the team with a .355 BA and a league-leading 67 RBI. Georgia Tech simply refused to pitch to Moran during their series in Atlanta – he’s that good folks. Levi Michael (.311, 46 RBI) and Tommy Coyle (.307, 31 RBI) round out the Heels top hitting trio that ACC opponents will face this weekend.
NCAA Tournament Needs: The Heels are a hosting lock – with the top RPI in the land, two wins at the ACC Tournament will probably lock up a national seed for Carolina.
#4 North Carolina (44-12, 20-10 ACC)
Last 10 games (8-2)
Team ERA 3.41
Team BA .286
Team FLD .978
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #1
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (5-4)
Wake Forest (1-2)
Team with the most to gain: Miami is currently pegged as a potential two-seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Coming off a 7-8 record over its last 15 games, UM has something to prove to committee. With a 19 RPI, an ACC Tournament title and some faltering among other potential hosting candidates, the Cane might re-enter the hosting discussion.
Miami has been very consistent on the mound this season recording the fourth best ERA in the conference at 3.24. But if the Hurricanes are going to make a run in Durham they will need greater consistency from their offense and defense. Defensively the Canes are poorest team in the league behind basement dwelling Wake Forest. Offensively, Miami is hitting .273 good enough for 8th in the league.
The Hurricanes began the year with essentially a completely new weekend rotation. Freshman Bryan Radziewski, LHP (8-2, 3.10 ERA) established himself an a solid Friday starter while Eric Whaley (7-4, 2.76 ERA) and fellow righty E.J. Encinosa (4-5, 3.16 ERA) delivered key outings on Saturday and Sunday. If the offense can produce, Miami can win all three of its pool games.
The culprit for the poor production is from a power outage the team has suffered in 2011. Last spring UM belted 106 dingers, recorded a .516 slugging percentage and average 7.6 runs per game. This season the drop-off has been dramatic as the Canes notched a mere 28 home runs, a .391 slugging percentage and 5.5 runs per game. Whether it’s new bats, the loss of slugger Yasmani Grandal or the drop in home run production of Nathan Melendres and Harold Martinez who combined for 30 long balls last season but deliver only five this year, the Canes cannot rely on the 3-run homer this season.
Though the power numbers are down Melendres was the team’s only All-ACC selection leading Miami in hitting with a .321 average and 23 RBI. Rony Rodriguez leads the team in hr (10), was second with 36 RBI and posted a club best .587 slugging percentage.
NCAA Tournament Needs: The Canes are pretty strong two-seed lock but a title could open up the hosting door.
#5 Miami (33-20, 19-10 ACC)
Last 10 games (5-5)
Team ERA 3.24
Team BA .273
Team FLD .963
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #19
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (6-3)
Wake Forest (3-0)
North Carolina (2-1)
Nothing to lose – The Deacons return to the ACC tournament after a two-year absence having won eight of their last ten. Wake comes into the tournament with the stats of an eight seed, finishing 8th in the conference in pitching, 12th in batting as well as last in defensive fielding percentage.
Despite being an 8-seed Wake is 15-15 in the league and has signature wins over North Carolina (2), Florida State, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Clemson. Does Wake have the potential to pull an upset in this tournament? Yes they do.
The offense has struggle this season hitting just .230 but the Deacs have some pop in their bats finishing third in conference with 49 round trippers. Carlos Lopez paces the club with a .284 batting average and is tied for the team lead with 11 home runs. Matt Conway will begin Wednesday game hoping to extend a 15-game hitting streak. He is second on the club in RBI and in home runs.
Wake Forest has two solid starters in all-conference selections Tim Cooney and Brian Holmes.
Cooney has posted a 7-2 record and a 2.53 in 13 starts this season. His ERA is good enough for eighth in the conference, while his 92.1 innings of work are fifth in the ACC. In addition, Cooney’s strikeout to walk ratio has been excellent with 86 strikeouts compared to 16 walks.
The interesting question for Wake skipper Tom Walter is when to start his all-conference stud. Bottom-line, as the #8 seed, if Wake doesn’t beat Virginia their chances of getting to title game are significantly diminished by the Tournament tie-breaker process. That would suggest Cooney but Wake will go with Holmes Wednesday. With a 3-3 record Holmes has started 10 games but holds a team best 2.51 ERA.
NCAA Tournament Needs: With an overall losing record and a 57 RPI the Deacons only hope of making the NCAA Tournament field is to win the ACC Tournament.
#8 Wake Forest (25-28, 15-15 ACC)
Last 10 games (8-2)
Team ERA 4.51
Team BA .230
Team FLD .962
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #57
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (2-4)
North Carolina (2-1)
National seed on the line – With Virginia and Carolina likely national seeds, Florida State and Georgia Tech each have a shot at a top-8 seed and may not only play for a spot in the conference title game but may well playing for the chance to host a Super Regional on Friday.
Though only finishing fifth in the ACC batting average stats, the Noles offense has been very consistent this season finishing the regular season leading the league in on-base percentage, runs scored and RBI; FSU was second in the conference in HR and third in slugging percentage.
Florida State is hitting .292 with a .449 slugging percentage and .411 on-base percentage. James Ramsey leads the Noles with a .349 batting average followed by James Boyce (.341) who comes into the tourney on 12-game hitting streak. Mike McGee (.338) is the third best of five FSU batters hitting over .300. The trio has combined for 24 of the clubs 52 round trippers.
The pitching rotation has been somewhat inconsistent this season with the leagues sixth best ERA (3.52). That’s led skipper Mike Martin to make some recent changes in his rotation. Florida State will send Robert Benincasa (2-1, 3.72 ERA, 2 starts) to the mound for an expected match up with the Wolfpack’s Cory Mazonni in the opening game. Sean Gilmartin (10-1, 1.35 ERA) will face Clemson on Thursday, followed by Mike McGee (2-3, 5.10) to battle Georgia Tech on Friday.
The question for Martin is how far can his offense take his team? This a good offensive squad but it is not complemented by a reliable starting rotation. What may save the Noles is if they score a lot of runs they do have an abundance of arms in their middle relief and at closer with Daniel Bennett.
NCAA Tournament Needs: Losing two of three to Clemson has hurt FSU’s case for a national seed but an ACC title might reopen the conversation considering the Noles #4 RPI.
#2 Florida State (39-15, 19-11 ACC)
Last 10 games (6-4)
Team ERA 3.52
Team BA .292
Team FLD .972
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #4
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (3-3)
Georgia Tech DNP
North Carolina State(2-1)
On cruise control: Georgia Tech is flat out good. Their starters deliver quality starts week-end and week-out pacing the Jackets to the No.2 ERA (2.86) in the ACC plus they possess a potent offense that is also second in the league in hitting (.308).
Tech has gotten stellar offensive production from both veterans and rookies. It begins at the top of the order with freshman Kyle Wren (.370, 54 runs scored) who is Georgia Tech’s top hitter. Even with a drop off in the powers numbers, junior third baseman Matt Skole (.351) is second on the squad in hitting, home runs and leads the team with 55 RBI. In addition to Skole and Wren, three other Jackets boast plus .300 averages. Tech has a lot of power in the middle of its lineup and very good speed at the top of the order.
Tech’s three weekend hurlers, Mark Pope (11-3, 1.54 ERA), Jed Bradley (6-3, 3.71 ERA) and Buck Farmer (10-2, 2.89 ERA) have combined for a 27-8 record and a 2.60 ERA. Pope leads the ACC in four different categories, including wins (11) and innings pitched (105.1) and his 1.46 ERA is the fourth lowest in the ACC. Tech starters pound the strike zone and force the opposition to make contact.
With a group of starters that typically go five, six and seven innings into games, the Tech bullpen has not been taxed this season. When they have been called on, however, they have delivered as well.
If the Jackets have a weakness it’s a defense that ended the 2011 campaign 9th overall.
NCAA Tournament Needs: Like the Seminoles, Tech is a border line national seed – a ACC Championship prize could move the nations #7 RPI team off the bubble.
#3 Georgia Tech (39-17, 22-8 ACC)
Last 10 games (7-3)
Team ERA 2.86
Team BA .308
Team FLD .968
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #7
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (4-2)
North Carolina State (3-0)
Too hot to handle – There’s always one hot club coming into a post season tournament and entering this week’s conference showdown Clemson is that team.
The Tigers have relied on a strong offensive performance this season, leading the ACC in hitting, executing at a .342 clip with runners in scoring possession and utilizing an aggressive running game swiping 98 bases in 129 attempts this season, a year after the Tigers stole 106 bases in 2010. The Tigers are averaging 7.2 runs per game and hitting .320 with a .455 slugging percentage and .408 on-base percentage. John Hinson has a .326 batting average, seven homers, 35 RBIs, 21 stolen bases, and is riding a 12-game hitting streak. Richie Shaffer leads the team in homers (10), RBIs (45), and runs (58) as well. Will Lamb has hit safely in 41 of his last 44 games and is batting .343 entering the ACC Championship. Phil Pohl is batting .328 with 17 doubles, four homers, and 31 RBIs.
What has been the key for the Tigers impressive run over the last 30 games has been the return of shortstop Brad Miller from injury. Miller is 56-for-114 (.495) with 36 RBIs in the last 31 games and he is hitting an ACC-best .431 with a .536 on base percentage with 21 steals.
Clemson is not just about hitting – the Tigers have the ACC’s third best ERA (3.12) and recently came off a streak of allowing three runs or less in 10 consecutive games. Prior to the FSU series, Clemson went 90.1 innings and allowed just 11 earned runs (1.10 ERA).
The Tigers will start sophomore righty Dominic Leone (5-2, 3.67 ERA) on Wednesday but Coach Jack Leggett has not named his game two and three starters.
NCAA Tournament Needs: With a top 10 RPI and closing out the season on a mega hot streak, the Tigers have earned a hosting opportunity in the upcoming NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in Durham. Even an ACC title however, it may not be enough to boost Clemson into the national seed picture.
#6 Clemson (39-17, 17-13 ACC)
Last 10 games (8-2)
Team ERA 3.12
Team BA .320
Team FLD .969
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #9
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (7-2)
North Carolina State (1-2)
Georgia Tech (2-1)
Florida State (2-1)
What club will show up – State has been a middle of the pack team all season so it’s no surprise they finished the year 15-15. The biggest question with the Wolfpack is what team will show up? The Pack is 17-3 against teams with 100+ RPI but have a losing record (16-20) against teams with a below 100 RPI.
NCS enters the week having won 7 of its last 10 outings but the Pack has been inconsistent all season. State swept an excellent Tar Heel club in the regular season but lost its recent series to a good but not exceptional ETSU squad.
Last spring the Pack made it to the ACC title game as the seven seed it’s not an impossible task to think the NCS could return.
With their seventh in the league in pitching, seventh in the conference in hitting but fourth in ACC in defense, statistcailly State is a middle of the Pack outfit.
Though the starting rotation is not yet knows State will send righty Rob Chamra (8-2, 4.03) and righthander Cory Mazzoni (4-6, 3.61) to the mound for certain. Coach Elliott Avent has been mixing and matching his third starter but Ethan Ogburn (6-3, 4.12) and Danny Healey (2-4, 6.10) are the likely options.
Harold Riggins is hitting .311 overall but has been stroking the bat over the last 19 games going 24-for-70 (.342) while John Gianis is batting .338 (21-for-62) in his last 17 games. Pratt Maynard leads the club in hitting at .335.
NCAA Tournament Needs:With a top 30 RPI and and a top 10 strenght of schedule State is a lock for the NCAA Tournament and is projected as a #3 seed in most Regional projections. An ACC championship may move the Pack up to a two seed but State is probably set as a #3.
#7 NC State (33-23, 15-15 ACC)
Last 10 games (7-3)
Team ERA 4.20
Team BA .282
Team FLD .974
Rating Percentage Index (RPI) #30
Record vs. Bracket Opponents (3-6)
Georgia Tech (0-3)
Florida State (1-2)
11 a.m. – #3 Georgia Tech vs. #6 Clemson
3 p.m. – #1 Virginia vs. #8 Wake Forest
7 p.m. – #2 Florida State vs. #7NC State
11 a.m. – #4 North Carolina vs. #5 Miami
3 p.m. – #2 Florida State vs. # 6 Clemson
7 p.m. – #3 Georgia Tech vs. #7 NC State
11 a.m. – #1 Virginia vs. #5 Miami
3 p.m. – #2 Florida State vs. #3 Georgia Tech
7 p.m. – #4 North Carolina vs. #8 Wake Forest
11 a.m. – #6 Clemson vs. #7 NC State
3 p.m. – #5 Miami vs. #8 Wake Forest
7 p.m. – #1 Virginia vs. #4 North Carolina
1 p.m. – Pool A winner vs. Pool B winner
Greg Waters is a freelance writer based in Virginia and is a contributor to College Baseball Daily.