The Tucson Regional figures to be one of the more competitive and difficult regionals in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The regional features four conference champions in host and top seed Arizona (Pac 12), two-seed New Mexico State (WAC regular season), three-seed Louisville (Big East regular season) and four-seed Missouri (Big 12 tournament).
The regional kicks off on Friday night with New Mexico State (35-22) taking on Louisville (39-20) at 4:00 p.m. (MST) and Arizona (38-17) taking on Missouri (32-26) in the nightcap at 8:00 p.m. (MST). With the weekend’s games being televised on ESPNU it also one of the featured regionals nationally.
New Mexico State enters the tournament the recipient of an at-large bid and are making just their third NCAA Regional appearance and first since back-to-back appearances in 2002 and 2003. The Aggies were eliminated from the WAC tournament in two games. Louisville is also entering the tournament on a two-game losing streak having dropped a pair of games last Friday in the Big East tournament to be eliminated. The Cardinals are making their sixth NCAA Regional appearance and were College World Series participants in 2007. The Cardinals are slated to sent right handed pitcher Justin Amlung to the mound to face the Aggies. Armlung was named the Big East pitcher of the year and Louisville Slugger Third Team All-America and was one of ten All-Big East Team members. Armlung goes to the mound with an 8-4 record boasting a 2.36 ERA with 100 strikeouts in 103.0 innings pitched.
The Aggies will counter with the regional’s most potent offense. The Aggies sport a batting average of 308 with 469 runs scored including a regional-best 47 home runs, 17 more than the second highest home run hitting team in the regional, Louisville (30). The Aggies are led offensively by preseason All-American catcher Zac Fisher. The lefty is batting .363 on the season with 18 doubles, six home runs and a .525 slugging percentage. The Aggies had seven players named to the All-WAC Teams in 2012 and will send lefty Ryan Beck to the hill. Beck is 5-6 with a 4.22 ERA with 94 strikeouts in 91.2 innings pitched.
This game figures to have plenty of offense with the Aggies batting .308 and Louisville batting .295. The two teams are the two highest scoing teams in the regional with New Mexico State scoring 469 runs while Louisville scoring 404. The Cardinals figure to have a significant pitching advantage with a team ERA of 3.31, best in the regional, in 516.2 innings pitch (most in the regional). THey’ve strike out a regional-high 446 batters and opponents are batting just .245 against the Cardinal staff. The Aggies have the regional’s highest ERA at 5.50 which is to be expected considering the favorable hitting conditions the Aggies and their opponents usually see in Las Cruces. Despite that apparently pitching disadvantage the Aggie staff has struck out 421 batters though opponents are hitting .297 against them. Both teams are similar defensively with the Aggies sporting a .965 fielding percentage while Louisville is slightly better at .966. The Aggies have turned 47 double plays, most in the regional while Louisville is close behind having turned 40 double plays.
Getting on the board first is going to be very important in this ballgame. The Cardinals are 31-8 when scoring first, the Aggies are 21-8 when scoring first though they have been able to come from behind as well boasting a 14-14 record when their opponents score first while Louisville is 8-11 when their opponents strike first.
Arizona comes in off of their first conference championship since 1992 sharing the title with UCLA and it is the Wildcat’s eighth postseason appearance in the past 10 years. It is also Arizona’s first hosting duties since that same year. The Wildcats feature seven All-Pac 12 members including Golden Spikes Award Semifinalist and Pitcher of the Year watch list member Kurt Heyer. The righty is 11-2 on the year with a 2.03 ERA with 91 strikeouts in 119.2 innings pitched. The Wildcats are slated to send Heyer to the mound in game one where he’ll face a Missouri squad that enters the regional as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Tigers were in danger of missing the tournament altogether but stormed through the Big 12 tournament and have won five in a row with wins over Texas A&M and Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament. The Tigers are also making their eighth regional appearance in the past ten seasons but their first as an automatic qualifier. The Tigers will sent sophomore lefty Rob Zastryzny (5-5, 3.84 ERA, 71K, 103.0 IP) to the mound.
The Tigers are wielding hot bats having hit .359 in four games in the Big 12 tournament and tournament MOP shortstop Eric Garcia hit .500 with three RBI and five runs. The Tigers also placed five members on the Big 12 All-Conference team.
Offensively Arizona figures to hold the advantage in this matchup with a .325 batting average to Missouri’s .274 average. Arizona has scored 390 runs on the season while Missouri has scored 330, though Missouri holds a significant power edge with 29 home runs compared to just 18 for Arizona, the fewest among the four regional participants.
The pitching matchups figure to be very even as Arizona’s team ERA is 4.04 while Missouri is a nearly identical 4.06. Both teams’ opponent batting average are solid with Arizona allowing opponents to hit just .261 while Missouri counters with a .269 opponent batting average.
Getting on the board first will be vitally important to Missouri as they’re 20-6 when they score first but just 12-20 when their opponent scores first. The score after six innings will also be an important number to watch as Arizona is just 2-11 when trailing after six inning but is 32-5 when leading after six innings.
On the importance of winning the first game in the regional:
“Game one’s important in any series, whether you’re talking about the NBA Playoffs, the World Series or a regular season baseball series. Obviously you want to win the first game or else you have a long road ahead of you. The uniqueness of playing on the west coast in the Western Athletic Conference is that the travel is insane. And Arizona has to deal with this a little bit, too. We have to play five and six game weeks sometimes, which builds depth. So we’re not worried about having to play a lot of games, but it is very important to win game one.” — New Mexico State head coach Rocky Ward
On the home field advantage Hi Corbett provides:
“It’s a big advantage. Being the head coach for 11 years, I really felt it this year (moving to Hi Corbett). This weekend was a perfect example. The crowd was electric on Friday and Sunday, and even Saturday. I mean no disrespect to Sancet Field, I love it there, but being here is special. You want to win so that you can stay at home at the end of the season.” — Arizona head coach Andy Lopez
On Hi Corbett Field:
“The first thing that stood out to me on the stat sheet was that Arizona hit a lot of doubles. Then I saw the field and I understand why. I can see that it holds a lot of people so there should be a crowd. Now we have to do our job and show them some good baseball.” — Missouri head coach Tim Jamieson
On the makeup of Louisville’s team
“We have balance in a lot of areas. We have four senior stars. You normally don’t have that many, maybe one or two, but we have four. We have a lot of young guys, too. We have plenty of arms. We want to be in the winner’s bracket, but if we have to fight our way back from the loser’s bracket, we have enough arms to do it. We’ve got a balanced lineup with a few guys that can hit it out of the park, a few guys that hit line drives and a few guys that can steal bases. So I like the balance that we have.” – Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell
2. New Mexico State