The NCAA Blacksburg Regional is set to kick off Friday, May 31st at English Field where Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Coastal Carolina, and UConn will battle for a spot in the Super Regionals. This four-team field features an interesting mix of national powerhouses and Cinderella stories. Here’s the breakdown of each team:
#1 Virginia Tech – The Hokies enter the Regional playing excellent baseball, as they have won 8 of their last 9 contests, with the only loss coming to #3 North Carolina in the ACC Title game last week. VT has been rewarded with its first ever regional host. The Hokies will be throwing lefty Joe Mantiply on Friday against Connecticut. The senior amassed a 6-0 record this season with a 2.92 ERA in 12 starts and also came out of the pen twice in relief for VT. The Hokies also rely heavily on RHP Devin Burke who posted a 10-3 record with a 3.30 ERA in 95.1 IP. Burke has struggled with command at times this season, posting just a 1.50 K/BB ratio, but has worked around trouble by holding hitters to a .254 batting average against. The Virginia Tech offense features four starters with at least 48 RBI, led by Tyler Horan who smashed 11 HR and knocked in 50 RBI, starting in all 58 games this season for the Hokies. VT has a 17-9 record at home and figures to benefit from playing at English Field.
#2 Oklahoma – The Sooners are coming off a 7-2 victory over Kansas in the Big 12 Championship that earned the team its first conference title since 1997. At 40-10, Oklahoma became just the third team (Rice, Florida State) to reach the 40-win plateau in each of the past five seasons. Playing on the road this season has not been kind to the Sooners as they hold just an 8-10 record as opposed to a 25-6 record at L. Dale Mitchell Park. The Oklahoma lineup is centered around Junior Matt Oberste who homered and knocked in four runs against Kansas in the championship game. At 6-2, 209 pounds, Oberste is huge power threat, blasting 10 homers and driving in 54 en route to a stellar .636 slugging percentage. Oklahoma’s rotation is a huge strength, tied mainly to the success of Jonathan Gray and Dillon Overton who each recorded 9 wins on the season. Gray struck out 127 batters in his 110.0 innings of work, and finished the season with a 1.55 ERA. The Sooners will be a tough out in this regional because their starting pitching is going to keep them close in the majority of their contests. Despite losing 9 of their last 12 regular season games, it seems like this team is peaking when it’s most important.
#3 Coastal Carolina – Coastal enters the regional after earning a Big South at-large bid, finishing the year at 37-21. The Chants have reached their seventh straight NCAA Regional, dating back to 2007. Coastal has played 11 teams from the field of 64, earning an 8-10 record, highlighted from victories against Georgia Tech and Kansas State. The Chants lineup doesn’t feature much pop but features four starters with a .400+ OBP. Jacob May is the catalyst of the offense, reaching base safely at a .414 clip and recording 16 steals on the year. Ben Smith and Tyler Poole hold down the Coastal rotation, holding 2.19 and 3.86 ERAs, respectively. The Chants also have reliever Ryan Connolly who appeared in 30 games, finishing the year with 11 saves and 66 strikeouts in 77 innings of work. The Coastal bullpen is a strength and will be a crucial piece of the puzzle if the Chants are going to upend the Sooners on Friday afternoon.
#4 Connecticut – The Huskies are coming off an improbable BIG EAST Championship title in which they defeated Louisville, USF, Rutgers and Notre Dame in impressive fashion, despite holding just a 1-11 regular season record against the four conference foes. The Huskies are led by sophomore starter Carson Cross, who finished the season 7-4 with a 2.52 ERA in 89.1 innings pitched. Cross, who converted to a starter this season and took over the #1 spot for Coach Jim Penders, registered 73 strikeouts and held opponents to just a .243 batting average in his 2013 campaign. Connecticut’s lineup features 4 freshmen and is anchored by veteran presence, including LJ Mazzilli and 5th year senior Billy Ferriter. Mazzilli returned to Storrs for his senior season after being drafted in the 9th round of the 2012 draft by the Minnesota Twins. Mazzilli has posted a team-leading .364 BA, 6 HR and 49 RBI in 247 AB’s this season. Connecticut is a dangerous team despite their mid-season struggles and could give teams trouble if Cross and Junior Anthony Marzi twirl gems similar to the ones they posted in the conference tournament.
Three Players to Watch
1. Jacob May – The speedy Chanticleers centerfielder was named to the 2012 Cape Cod Baseball League All-Star game and continues to put up good numbers in his junior campaign. May has the ability to turn the game around for the Chants and must continue to set the table if Coastal is to win the Regional
2. Tom Verdi- The Connecticut SS has had an interesting year, as he batted just .260 but still managed to hold a very impressive .402 OBP. Verdi bats near the top of the lineup for Coach Penders, so it will be important for him to get things going and give LJ Mazzilli a chance to drive in some runs. Verdi is a leader on this team and his approach will be important to the slew of freshmen that follow him in the order.
3. Chad Pinder – Arguably one of the best players in the Regional, Pinder plays phenomenal defense and has had a nice season at the dish, batting .327 with 48 RBI. Pinder is a highly touted prospect and figures to make some noise in the game against Connecticut.
Due to NCAA policy, Jeff Piascik will not be picking the winners of the contest.
CBD Editor Brian Foley predicts:
#2 Oklahoma over #1 Virginia Tech to advance to the Super Regional.