By: John Lockwood
Runs will be at a premium this weekend, as the opening round of the NCAA Houston Regional gets underway at Reckling Park, in Houston TX. The four teams that comprise the regional are seeded as follows:
1) #13 Rice
4) Alcorn State
In the opening round set to begin Friday afternoon, the Cal Golden Bears will take on the Baylor Bears at 2pm, followed by the Rice Owls versus Alcorn State at 6 pm. All games will be played at Reckling Park.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at the four teams in the Houston regional:
Rice (41-19, 16-8; 1st in Conference USA)
The host of the Houston Regional, the Rice Owls shared the Conference USA regular season title with Southern Miss, but won the conference outright with a victory over intra-city rival Houston in the CUSA Tournament. The Owls come into the NCAA tournament at an RPI of 11, having gone 13-10 against teams from this year’s field of 64.
While offensive numbers are down across the nation, the Owls have especially sworn the name “BBCOR,” as their team batting average dropped from .326 in 2010 to .285 in 2011. The most notable drop in production has come from last year’s National Player of the Year Anthony Rendon, who went from bashing 26 homeruns last year to a paltry 6 this season, while his runs batted more than halved from 85 to 35. Interestingly however, although his average dropped 67 points, Rendon did increase both his doubles (12 in 2010 to 20 in 2011) and walks (65 to an NCAA-best 78) in 2011, showing that he is still the all-around stellar player he was from a season ago. While fellow Owl junior Michael Fuda’s production has fallen off the face of the Earth this season (.346, 7 HR, 45 RBI in 2011; .247, 0 HR, 16 RBI), sophomores Michael Ratterree and JT Chargois, as well as junior catcher Craig Manuel have picked up the slack—the trio are batting .322, .306, and .310 respectively. While the Owls are not the most prolific offensive team in the NCAA tournament, as we’ll see, the Owls have to be considered the most dangerous hitting team in this regional.
Without a doubt, pitching has been the strength—as it has been for the other teams in the regional—of Rice in 2011. Led by a pair of electric arms, the Owls compiled a jaw-dropping 522 strikeouts on the season, tops in CUSA, as well as a 3.21 team ERA—good for second in conference. Coach Wayne Graham’s 1-2 punch on the mound this season has been CUSA Freshman of the Year Austin Kubitza (6-4, 2.33 ERA, 93 K’s) and junior Matthew Reckling (4-1, 3.07 ERA, 91 K’s) who finished the season second and third in the conference in strikeouts, respectively. Perhaps even better for the Owls has been their bullpen, where senior Tony Cingrani (4-2, 1.76 ERA, 12 SV, 65 K) and sophomore Tyler Duffey (8-1, 2.50 ERA, 73 K) have lurked all season, slamming the door on opposing batters at the end of games.
The biggest keys for the Owls in this regional will be if they play at their level of talent. Kubitza has already proven he can pitch in big games (see his 4-0 complete game shut-out of Southern Miss at the end of the regular season), so the burden will be on Rendon and co. who will have to contend with some particularly tough pitching as the Regional progresses.
Baylor (29-26, 13-14; 5th in Big 12)
The Baylor Bears hope to bounce back from a disappointing finish to the Big 12 season in which they were two-and-out in their conference tournament. But the Bears, who had the fifth toughest schedule in the country, come into Houston battle-tested; toughened by 30-games against 2011 tournament teams in which they managed a respectable 16-14 record. In their last ten games—all against teams in the field of 64—the Bears are 5-5 and, compared to the other three teams in the field, are perhaps the most well prepared for the level of competition they will face this weekend.
Like Rice, the Bears strength comes in the form of their pitching staff, who posted a 3.91 ERA, 5th best in the Big 12. Right hander Logan Verrett has been the best starter for the Bears this season. The junior from Corpus Christi has gone 6-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 93 innings this season, mowing down 91 batters against just 28 walks. Verrett is coming off a disappointing finish to the season however, in which he tossed five innings of no-hit baseball against Oklahoma State only to allow four runs in the sixth inning and finish with five walks on the day in his team’s 6-2 tournament loss. In head coach Steve Smith’s bullpen is Max Garner (2-4, 2.74 ERA, 7 SV) who has held opposing batters to just a .228 batting average in 2011. However, only one other pitcher on the staff (Brooks Pinckard, who is known more for his speed on the bases; see below) has a winning record and an ERA below four.
At the plate this season, Baylor has struggled. The Bears were second to last in the Big 12 in hitting at .268, and only had one starter hitting over .300. That player was first baseman Max Muncy, who has been the Bears offensive leader in just about every category. The sophomore from Keller, TX, hit .329 this season, with a team-best 9 homeruns, 43 RBI, and 37 runs scored. Muncy also led the team in walks with 35 and on-base-percentage at .433. Given the Bears relative inefficiency at the plate, one player that has been absolutely essential to the Bears offense has been lead-off man Brooks Pinckard who leads all the Big 12 in steals with 32 (and has only been caught stealing twice). If the Bears want to get out of the opening round, both Pinckard and Muncy will have to be on the top of their game against an especially stingy Cal Bears pitching staff.
While Baylor has struggled at points this season, they have been swinging the proverbial weighted warm-up bat in preparation for their NCAA regional. Of all the teams playing in Houston, the Bears have had the toughest road getting there, but are also the most prepared. Yet at the same time, the Baylor Bears are very much a team whose sum is greater than its parts. In order for Coach Smith’s squad to advance from Houston, their pitching, offense and defense will all need to show up for this weekend’s games. Or else we’ll just be seeing repeat of their Big 12 tournament finish last week.
Cal (31-20, 13-13; 6th in Pac 10)
The Cal Golden Bears come into the Houston Regional looking to prove that they are in fact from the “best coast.” The Bears, who finished sixth in the Pac-10 and were two-and-done in their conference tournament (courtesy of Stanford), carry an RPI of 45 as well as an 8-16 record against teams in the 2011 field of 64.
If you had to guess what Cal’s strength would be—it’s pitching, there I spoiled it—the Bears finished the season second in the Pac-10 with a 2.85 ERA. The Golden Bears allowed the third fewest homeruns, second fewest walks and the second fewest hits of any team in their conference. While only using 10 pitchers, coach David Esquer has a plethora of talented arms to choose from. Starter Erik Johnson (6-3, 2.08 ERA) has been stellar for his team, ranking third in ERA, second in opposing batting average (.184) and allowing the fewest runs (21) of any starter meeting the minimum. Also terrific have been senior starter Kevin Miller (6-4, 2.27 ERA), freshman lefty Kyle Porter (4-0, 1.87 ERA, 2 SV) and junior closer Matt Flemer (2-2, 2.40 ERA, 5 SV).
And the Bears haven’t been that bad swinging the bat either: they are fourth in the Pac-10 in team average (.284), fifth in slugging (.398) fifth in hits (506) and fourth in homeruns (25). That being said, no one player has more than four homers and no starter is slugging over .449. The Bears leader offensively is the diminutive sophomore Tony Renda, who is fourth in the league in hits, batting .330 with 38 RBI. As well, the Bears don’t get on base much as evidenced by their .353 team OBP—third worst in the Pac-10—and don’t steal much either—only 43 stolen bases on the season. What results is an offense that can produce runs, but needs their hits to come all at the same time in order to do so.
On Cal’s side is their .977 fielding percentage which is tops in their conference (This also helps to explain why all of Erik Johnsons measly 21 runs allowed were earned). In the absence of a dominant hitter, the Bears proved that they were a team to be reckoned with by staying within the top 30 for a lengthy part of the season. However, as with all things, their run of luck came to an end, and the Bears sputtered to the finish line going 4-5 to end the season. While the Bears will not face an offensive juggernaut in their first round match-up against Baylor, the pressure will be on Dan Hubbs’ pitching staff to keep last year’s National Player of the Year at bay in order to advance to the Super-Regionals.
Alcorn St. (27-28, 19-4; 1st in SWAC)
After going 19-4 in the SWAC and winning their first conference tournament in school history, Alcorn State is making their first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Braves come into the Houston Regional with a 229 RPI—the lowest of any team in the NCAA tournament. Hitting .276 as a team, Alcorn State is led offensively by Miami, FL-native Kilby Perdomo who paces his team with a .357 average, 10 homeruns, and 49 runs batted in. On the mound, despite sporting a 6.12 team ERA and .299 batting average against, Alcorn State is led by Steve Easter who is 8-5 with 4.44 ERA and only 19 walks against 76 strike outs. Unfortunately for the SWAC champions however, they are 0-11-1 against teams from this year’s field of 64. The Braves’ best finish against a team from the 2011 NCAA tournament: a tie with Dallas Baptist, 16-16 in 16 innings.
Both Cal and Baylor played Rice already this season: Cal took a 7-6 victory in 15 innings at AT&T Park in San Francisco, while Baylor won 12-8 in ten innings at the Houston College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston. While both were incredibly close games, both games occurred relatively early-on in the season and since that time the Rice Owls have appeared a completely different team this side of conference play. The Owls are winners of 7 of their last 9 and were 13-3 in the month of May. To boot, the Owls are playing on their home turf, where they amassed a 22-10 record during the 2011 season. While Cal’s pitching is good enough to get them past the Bears, ultimately it is just too much pressure on the Cal Bears’ pitching staff to expect them to shut-down a team as loaded with talent as Rice. Thus it just boils down to one question: Can the Rice Owls play like they are the Rice Owls?
4. Alcorn State