By: Nolan Alexander
Filled with four teams scattered across the Southeast, the Atlanta Regional features the ACC regular season co-champion in Georgia Tech, a solid Southern Mississippi squad that earned a share of the Conference USA regular season title, a Mississippi State ball club that finished second in the SEC West, and Ohio Valley Conference champion Austin Peay. The double-elimination regional will open when Southern Mississippi,the second seed, takes on the three seed Mississippi State at 3 PM ET Friday. First seed Georgia Tech battles the fourth seed Governors of Austin Peay in the second game on Friday at 7 PM ET. The winner of the Atlanta regional is pitted against the victor of the Gainesville regional.
Georgia Tech (40-19, ACC At-Large)
Coming into this season, Danny Hall’s team was filled with question marks on the field with 17 freshman on the roster giving Tech the youngest team in the nation. The question marks quickly turned into bright spots for the team as Georgia Tech rode a 16 game win streak during the month of March. When the freshmen played like veterans and the veterans followed suit with the high level of play, most notably the stellar weekend rotation of Mark Pope, Jed Bradley, and Buck Farmer, Georgia Tech rose to top ten spots in the polls. Then the rugged ACC ran its course and cooled off Tech’s record but with a 40 win season the Yellow Jackets earned the right to host a regional for the third straight year and an appearance in the NCAA tournament for the 25th out of 27 seasons.
After earning a share of the Coastal division and ACC regular season crown with the number one national seed Virginia Cavaliers by posting a 22-8 record in conference play, Georgia Tech went 1-2 at the ACC tournament in Durham, NC. The lone victory was highlighted by Mott Hyde’s steal of home against NC State in the top of the 15th inning which was part of the longest game in tournament history. Over the course of the last 10 games, Tech is an even 5-5.
Offense: Like most teams in the country, the power numbers were down across the board for Tech this season. In 2010, the Jackets belted a school record 122 homeruns. This season, there have been only 41 long balls. Centerfielder and first team ACC honoree Kyle Wren has been a table setter for the offense batting .352 from the leadoff spot and led the ACC with 88 hits. He’s followed in the lineup by Jacob Esch who has hit a team leading 21 doubles and ranked in the top 5 for hits in the ACC. The biggest threat on the offense comes from junior Matt Skole. Skole has driven home 57 runs and hit 9 homeruns. Despite facing various defensive shifts by opposing teams, the left handed hitter has improved as a batter this year by posting a .348 average, the highest he has ended a season with during his collegiate career. Freshman DH Daniel Palka leads the team with 10 homeruns and is second on the squad with 47 RBI. Switch hitter Brandon Thomas is a speedster on the basepaths, swiping 19 bags in 21 attempts.
Pitching: The weekend rotation has been the headline for this team. Golden Spikes Award semifinalist Mark Pope, big lefthander Jed Bradley, and sophomore Buck Farmer make up a three man rotation that has a combined 27-10 record. RHP Mark Pope has been the ace of the staff with a 1.77 ERA through 112 IP and 5 complete games. While his strikeout numbers are up this season with 88, Pope is a groundball pitcher who works with a high tempo going after batters. Throw in the 102 strikeouts of lefty Jed Bradley (6-3), the consistent solid outings of RHP Buck Farmer (10-3), and freshman RHP starter Matthew Grimes (7-3), and Tech has a pitching staff that can compete with the best of them. The Jackets go deep in the pen which is led by closer Luke Bard with a 2.98 ERA and 8 saves.
Southern Mississippi (39-17, CUSA At-Large)
A little over a month ago this team was in talks of hosting a regional and in the discussion for a national seed. Since then, injuries and academic casualties have derailed the Golden Eagles’ hopes of hosting first round action in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. CUSA Coach of the Year Scott Berry’s ball club has battled through them though by earning a share of the Conference USA regular season title with national seed Rice by finishing with a 16-8 conference record. Southern Miss is limping through the month of May with a 7-7 record and like Georgia Tech posted a 1-2 mark in tournament play. Again like Georgia Tech, Southern Miss put together an impressive March by swinging for a .320 clip with 16 HR, 128 RBI, and an ERA of 3.31
Southern Miss is no stranger to a regional in Hotlanta(where temperatures will be around 100 this weekend). Just two years ago the Golden Eagles stormed the field at Russ Chandler stadium by defeating Georgia Tech to earn a trip to Gainesville, FL to face the Florida Gators where they eventually punched the school’s first ticket to Omaha. B.A. Vollmuth carried Southern Miss in ’09 by stepping in for injured starter Brian Dozier and began a dazzling postseason career with 2 homeruns in the same inning against Georgia Tech and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Atlanta Regional.
The Golden Eagles have already met regional foe Mississippi State this season when they dropped a 5-4 decision at Trustmark Park in Pearl,MS on April 5. Defense hurt the Golden Eagles’ chance of winning that game by committing four errors in the field.
Offense: The lineup would be greatly benefited if senior Tyler Koelling can bounce back from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the conference tournament. The Cellular South Ferriss Trophy recipient, given to the best collegiate player in the state of Mississippi, led the team in batting (.367), hits (84), and is second with 46 RBI. Koelling is a tough out, only striking out 9 times this season. Koelling hits from the two spot in the lineup and is a vital sparkplug to the offense. First basemen Adam Doleac sustained a foot injury and will be a much needed part of the USM attack with a .413 OB%. Marc Bourgeois has been a senior leader and is second on the team in hitting. The most powerful bat in the order is that of B.A. Vollmuth. His 12 HRs and 48 RBI lead the team along with his .559 slugging percentage. Vollmuth was also injured during the course of the season when he hurt his hip flexor in April, but is ready to go for the NCAA tournament. Don’t look for the Golden Eagles to wow with a bunch of stolen bases, as they are a collective 24-40 in the category.
Pitching: The Golden Eagles’ ace is the only pitcher from the season’s weekend rotation who will for sure see action in Atlanta. Todd McInnis, honored as the Conference USA Pitcher of the Year, has led the team with 81 strikeouts in 89.2 IP. The right handed McIniss has had a stellar career in Hattiesburg leaving the school atop the wins chart (32) and starts (66) and is within striking distance of innings pitched (4.1 IP away). After McInnis and his 2.61 ERA the next solid weekend starter will be sidelined the rest of the season. Geoffrey Thomas led the team with 10 wins but will not be available. Fellow starter Jonathan Thompson is academically ineligible heading into the regional. Josh Thomason (RHP 2-2 3.07 3 GS) and Boomer Scarborough (RHP 1-1 2.89 8 GS) are possibilities to start for Southern Miss. RHP Collin Cargill has been dominant as a closer this season. The redshirt senior has 8 saves and a 1.05 ERA. Cargill knows how to pitch with runners on, having seen over 40 double plays turned in his career on the mound.
Mississippi State (34-23 SEC At-Large)
Back in postseason play for the first time since a trip to Omaha in 2007, John Cohen’s Bulldogs are looking to find consistency at the right time this season. Mississippi State has seen flashes of excellence in all phases at times, and has been on the opposite end as well at times throughout the season. MSU (14-16) tied for second in the SEC West after being tabbed by coaches in the preseason polls to finish last. Mississippi State’s eight win improvement in the SEC from last year to now is the largest in program history.
After a hot start to the month of May, where the Bulldogs reeled of 8 straight victories, Mississippi St. lost a home weekend series to LSU and then made a quick exit from the SEC tournament in Hoover, AL. The extra rest may be what the pitching staff needs after battling through the harsh SEC gauntlet.
Offense: The Mississippi State offense is steered by third baseman Jarrod Parks. Parks leads the team in almost every offensive category. Having played and started in 56 games, Jarrod Parks can be relied upon to bring his bat to the plate everytime he steps in. Nick Vickerson does a little bit of everything for the Bulldog offense. He’s swiped 25 out of 28 bases, hit .310 along with 7 HR, and driven in 28 runs. C.T. Bradford, Jaron Shepherd, and Cody Freeman have shown cases of solid play throughout the 2011 campaign. MSU is a team that likes to manufacture runs without a plethora of pop in the lineup but has shown that they can run well with 84 stolen bases and likes to pressure opponents with the running game.
Pitching: LHP Luis Pollorena will toe the rubber against Todd McInnis of Southern Miss in the opening contest. Pollorena sports a 6-5 record and a 4.44 ERA and was primarily a reliever to start the season but has been moved to a starting role which began with a 6-3 win at Tennessee early in May. The Bulldogs are leaning toward sending RHP Evan Mitchell in their second game. The righty from nearby Marietta, GA has made 5 starts with a 5-1 record and 3.49 ERA. LHP Nick Routt, who was roughed up against Arkansas in the SEC tournament, RHP Devin Jones, and RHP Chris Stratton are among the names who could be called to start if Mississippi State advances past the first couple of games. From the pen, RHP Daryl Norris and RHP Caleb Reed are strong options to limit opposing lineups. Caleb Reed (0-1 1.48 ERA 11SV 60 K 54.2IP) is probably the pitcher Mississippi State feels most comfortable with on the hill. He’s not the most overpowering pitcher, but uses a good change of speeds to keep hitters off balance and knows where to attack. With the exception of Reed, the pitching staff has been very inconsistent for the Bulldogs. Coach John Cohen has pieced together many rotations on the weekend and is hoping his starting pitchers will perform consistently well this postseason.
Austin Peay (33-22, OVC Automatic)
The Governors are the hottest team coming into the Atlanta regional, having won 7 out of their last 8 contests. Included in those wins is an Ohio Valley Conference Championship. It was Austin Peay’s fourth OVC Championship and six AP players made the all-tournament team. Austin Peay has waited until the right time to get hot. A sub .500 record in March and an 11-7 mark in April, the Governors were no lock to head to the NCAA tournament. Defense and solid pitching that were missing earlier in the season have been key to Austin Peay’s recent roll. OVC Coach of the Year Gary McClure’s team is a dangerous fourth seed entering the Atlanta regional.
Offense: Austin Peay has speed and a bunch of it. The Governors have combined for 95 stolen bases in 126 attempts and hit the ball pretty well too with a .306 team average that is the highest amongst the regional participants. The Governors have belted 45 homeruns including 13 from first baseman John Hogan. Hogan has also tallied up an impressive 62 RBI on the year. Michael Blanchard doesn’t hit for power (1 HR) but uses his speed to extend what would normally be doubles into triples (5 3B). Add in 28 stolen bases and Blanchard is someone who the Governors want to see on base. Jordan Hankins paces the team with a .361 average. The smaller field at Russ Chandler Stadium ( LF 328, CF 400, RF 334) can be beneficial to the play of Austin Peay.
Pitching: OVC Pitcher of the Year Jeremy Dobbs ( LHP 9-2 3.43 ERA 85K 86.2 IP) will face Georgia Tech’s Mark Pope in the Governors’ first game. Dobbs led the OVC with eight victories and a 9.15 strikeouts per nine innings ranked second. LHP Jack Snodgrass doesn’t have an intimidating record (3-6), but carries a nice 3.72 ERA. He also mowed down a career high 11 batters against Jacksonville State on May 27th. Southpaw Zach Toney has limited opponents to hitting .288 against him through a team high 14 starts. It would be beneficial for Dobbs & Co. to go chew up as many innings as they can on the mound. Righty Mike Hebert has made 31 appearances in relief and gives the team a dependable go-to option out of the bullpen.
1. Georgia Tech
2. Mississippi State
3. Southern Miss
4. Austin Peay
Nolan Alexander serves as the Georgia Tech Radio Announcer for WREK. He can be contacted by clicking here.