by Greg Waters
The Virginia Cavaliers (38-17-1, 18-12 ACC) are hosting their sixth NCAA Regional in the last nine seasons. The regional features a rematch of the 2010 Charlottesville Super Regional where Oklahoma came back from an opening game loss to Virginia to take the final two contests and advance to the College World Series.
The weekend is likely to get off to an ominous start as severe weather threatens one and possibly both Friday games. In anticipation of a long, wet afternoon the opening game between top-seeded Virginia and #4 Army originally scheduled for 4:00 PM has been moved up to 11:00 AM to take advantage of a four hour gap in the expected stormy weather. Game two pits Appalachian State, the #3 seed against Big-12 Championship runner-up and second-seeded Oklahoma.
No. 4 Army Black Knights (41-13, 18-2 Patriot League Automatic, RPI: 112)
The Knights last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2009 finishing 2-2 in the Austin Regional. Army enters the regional after winning their sixth Patriot League Championship. Army heads to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in school history and fourth time in the last nine years.
Pitching: Chris Rowley and Logan Lee who combined for a 19-2 record, lead the way for an Army team with a field best 3.20 ERA and a .243 OBA. Rowley, who leads the NCAA with an 11-0 record, has a 1.97 ERA over 91⅓ innings of work. A Dick Howser Award semifinalist, given annually to the nation’s top collegiate baseball player at any position, Rowley has tossed six complete games and five shutouts in 14 season starts. Southpaw Logan Lee is 8-2 with a 3.28 ERA in 85 innings. The Second-team all league honoree hurled a nine-inning, complete-game shutout in Game one of the Patriot League tournament earning him a spot on the All-Tournament Team. Seven-game winner Nick Dignacco (7-2) rounds out the top three on the rotation with a 3.38 ERA through 66⅔ innings. Alex Robinett also has seen time as a starter for Army, pitching a 2.73 ERA and a 3-1 record. Gunnar Carroll who comes in to shut things down late has eight saves and a 2.45 ERA in 51⅓ innings and 21 appearances.
Offense: Army is a scrappy offense, very patient, station-to-station team that will draw a lot of pitches. The Knights lead the regional field in stolen bases (109) and second in sacrifice bunts (69). Kevin McKague, the 2012 Patriot League Player of the Year serves as the catalyst for the Army offense batting .389 with six homers, 44 RBIs and 45 runs scored. Patriot League All-Tournament Team selection catcher J.T. Watkins, and Harold Earls have also been significant offensive contributors. The Conference Rookie of the Year Earls is third in the League in hitting with a .347 average, and Watkins is batting .318 with five homers, 31 RBIs and 25 runs scored. Tournament MVP Zach Price is one of four Black Knights batting .300 this season. He’s tallied a League-best 50 runs. Overall Army is hitting .290 with a .386 OBP.
No. 3 Appalachian State Mountaineers (39-16, 21-9 SoCon At-large; RPI: 40)
The Southern Conference regular season champion makes its first NCAA postseason appearance in 26 years this weekend. The Mountaineers last appearance in the tournament came in 1986 where they went 0-2 in the Stillwater Regional. Appy State has never faced Virginia or Oklahoma and is 2-0 all-time against the Black Knights. The Mountaineers come into the Charlottesville regional with the field’s most potent offense.
Pitching: While the offense gets most of the press, the ASU pitching has been decent this season. Appalachian’s current team ERA of 4.16 ranks ninth in school history. Staff ace Ryan Arrowood (10-0, 4.03) has pitched at least six innings in each of his last eight starts and worked seven innings in six of the eight and is expected to face the Sooners in game one. Righty Seth Grant (6-3) who leads the club with a 3.33 ERA will face the winner of the UVa-Army match-up. Prior to allowing a season-high eight earned runs in 4.2 innings in his last outing versus Samford, Grant had surrendered just one earned run over his previous three starts (20 IP). Lefty Rob Marcello (6-4, 5.19) is the projected starter if State gets to a game three. Also of note is left-handed reliever Ryne Frankoff has 14 strikeouts in his last five appearances (7.2 IP).Appalachian’s pitchers have been strong this season with two outs as opponents are hitting just .250 (150-for-599).
Offense: Appalachian State enters the regional this weekend with the top BA (.307) and SLG% (.460) and second in OBP (.387). Senior DH Daniel Kassouf paces ASU with a.345 BA which includes 17 HR and 60 RBI. Since missing two games with a knee injury early in May, Tyler Zupcic has hit safely in 12-of-13 games with eight multi-hit efforts, six doubles, 15 runs scored, a .426 BA (23-for-54), .508 OBP and .537 SLG% during the 13-game stretch. Tyler Tewell owns Appalachian’s longest current hitting streak at eight games and has hit safely in 29 of the last 32 games overall. He is batting .394 (50-for-127) with a .440 OBP, .559 SLG%, 22 RBI and 29 runs scored over the 30-game stretch. Will Callaway and Hector Crespo have both reached base safely in 16-straight games. Trey Holmes is hitting .348 (8-for-23) with two doubles, a home run, four RBI and five runs scored during his current six-game hitting streak. In the Southern Conference’s statistical rankings, the Mountaineers lead the league in 10 different categories and rank second in nine others.
No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners (38-22, 13-10 Big XII At-large; RPI: 28)
The Sooners return to the site of their 2010 Super-Regional title having won 20 of their last 28 games and are ranked No. 23 in Collegiate Baseball’s poll, and No. 24 in the NCBWA poll. Oklahoma advanced to their second Big 12 Championship game for the first time since winning the inaugural title in 1997, losing 8-7 to Missouri last Sunday.
Pitching: Oklahoma boasts one of the nation’s top pitching staffs with a 3.38 team ERA this season which ranks fourth in the Big XII and 46th nationally. The Sooners also average an impressive 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings, the second-best mark in the Big XII and the 26th-best in the NCAA. OU enters the regional with the second best ERA (3.35) and the top K/BB ration (467/193). The Sooners’ pitching staff features three eight-game winners in right-hander Jonathan Gray (8-4) and lefties Jordan John (8-6) and Steven Okert (8-7). John will take the bump against the Mountaineers sporting an 8-6 record with 2.30 ERA, 97 strikeouts and four saves in 109.2 innings. Junior 2012 Big 12 All-Tournament team honoree Steven Okert who has gone six innings or more in three of last four starts, ranks seventh in the Big 12 in saves (4) and 10th in strikeouts (71). The southpaw hurler had a 2.23 ERA in Big 12 play (5th best in the league) and has gone 2-1 record with two saves (0.00 ERA, six hits, two walks and nine strikeouts) in his last five appearances as the go-to guy in the Sooner bullpen. Gray has won his last five starts with 31 1/3 innings and 39 strikeouts while recording at least six strikeouts in each of his last eight starts.
Offense: First-team all-Big XII honoree Max White paces the Oklahoma’s offense hitting .356 with two homers and 54 RBI. Freshman Hunter Lockwood ranks second in the Big XII with 11 home runs and has driven in 39 runs in 50 starts this season. Jack Mayfield has been a consistent performer for OU this season with a solid .286 BA and is tied for second on the team with 19 extra-base hits and is second with 61 hits. One of the hottest Sooners is Matt Oberste. A Big 12 All-Tournament team selection, Oberste went 4-for-7 in the championship with three homers, four RBIs and four runs scored. The sophomore DH is tied for second on the team with five homers and is sixth in doubles (8), despite playing in 35 games (28 starts). OU is tied for second in the Big 12 with 33 home runs on the season. The Sooners are 20-5 when they hit a home run in a game this year.
No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers (38-17-1, 18-12 ACC At-large; RPI; 9)
Pitching and defense have been the strengths of Virginia baseball for years but this season the pitching has not reached past levels but the offense has stepped up and led the ACC for most of the season. The ‘Hoos also rank third in the league and 49th nationally in fielding (.973). Virginia is making its ninth-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament having reached the College World Series in two of the past three seasons. After a slow start the Hoos are 15-4 since April 17th including a 7-2 mark against NCAA tournament clubs.
Pitching: For the first time in several seasons Virginia does not enter a regional with three or four quality starters. Fortunately the Hoos have had a dominant bullpen. In the last 27 games, Virginia’s firemen have posted a 14-3 record and 2.57 ERA in 122.1 innings of work. Opposing batters have hit .221 in that stretch. If you remove the bullpen’s outing against Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament (13 earned runs in four innings), the UVa relievers have a 1.67 ERA since April 4. Branden Kline (6-3) will start the opener against Army. Kline leads UVa with 88 innings pitched, he’s fanned 89 and owns a 3.68 ERA. Over his first seven starts, Artie Lewicki amassed a 5.36 ERA, a 22-9 strikeout-walk ratio and a 1-2 record. But in his last four starts he has delivered four quality outings and a 2-0 record. Lewicki has been Virginia’s most consistent pitcher over the last month has been impressive in league play where he led the team with a 2.87 ERA in nine conference starts. Opponents are hitting .230 against him and the K-BB ratio has improved to 33-10. The big question for Virginia is who will pitch a third game. Options include Scott Silverstein who has been the Saturday starter but has failed to get beyond three innings in his four of his last seven starts. If he is healthy, Shane Halley is an option and depending on the match-ups, coach Brian O’Connor might consider running lefty Kyle Crockett. Hailey is 9-1 with a 1.71 ERA in 21 appearances while closer Justin Thompson has notched 12 saves with a 2.41 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 32 appearances.
Offense: Virginia enters the regional with the fields second best BA (.298), 424 SLG% and the top OBP (.402). What’s amazing is the Virginia has won 15 of its last 19 games while veterans Jared King, Stephen Bruno, Chris Taylor and Keith Werman have struggled at the plate. The quartet combined to go 8 for 38 in the ACCT but the good news for Virginia faithful is that King, Bruno and Taylor all got hits in UVa’s final tournament game against Florida State as the trio had its best day in Greensboro with a 5-13 afternoon. The Hoos also need lead-off man Chris Taylor to get hot. The Virginia shortstop is just 11-43 (.257) since the start of the Miami series. Same holds true for first baseman Jared King. Since that time, King has produced just 10 hits and nine RBI; his average has dropped to .275. King is just 10 for 75, a .133 batting average during that time. Bruno, Colin Harrington and freshman Derek Fisher are swinging above .300 and Fisher leads the Virginia offense in RBI, HR and triples. Offensively, Virginia is hitting .301 as a team this season (tops in the ACC) and averages 7.0 runs per game, good for 13th nationally in scoring. The Hoos are a team that manufactures its runs and though they have not done so at the rate of past seasons, Virginia still swipes a lot of bases and leads the regional field in sacrifice bunts and sac flies.
Summary: Oklahoma is certainly the sexy pick out of this regional after coming down the stretch strong but Virginia has been pretty hot the last three weeks as well. Many analysts look back to 2010 and think maybe the Sooners can repeat their Super Regional victory of two years ago. But three things are very different; the Sooner do not have heavy left-handed batting line up of 2010 that blasted Virginia’s plethora of righty arms, Virginia has reliable left-handed relief out of the pen this year and Oklahoma (like everyone else) doesn’t have the benefit of the juiced bats that allowed them to crank out 105 bombs in 2010, compared to 33 in 2012. The only possible storyline here is Appalachian State could make it to the finals, otherwise, no drama here.
3. Appy State