By: David Collier
For the first time since 2003, Mississippi State is playing host to an NCAA Regional. This field is stacked and is considered among the toughest regionals in the field of 64. The No. 1 seed Bulldogs have been playing good baseball as of late, but No. 2 seed South Alabama was also in hosting considerations. No. 3 seed Mercer and No. 4 seed Central Arkansas will also be tough teams to beat.
Let’s take a look at each team:
1. Mississippi State Bulldogs (43-17, 16-14 Southeastern Conference)
The Bulldogs enter regional play playing really well as of late, including winning seven of their last nine games. After finishing fourth in the SEC West in the regular season, Mississippi State made it to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament last week. This is the 12th time the Bulldogs are hosting a regional, but they’ve only advanced out of those regionals five times.
Mississippi State has a powerful offense that makes them a tough matchup in postseason play. They are averaging 6.1 runs per game and are hitting .296 as a team. The Bulldogs are led at the plate by right fielder Hunter Renfroe and shortstop Adam Frazier, who both are hitting .352. However, Renfroe is in a big slump, hitting .167 (7-for-42) over the past nine games, while Frazier is hitting at a .471 clip (24-for-51) in the past 10 games.
The Bulldog pitching staff combined with their solid offense is what makes them a tough matchup for anyone in the postseason. Mississippi State holds a team ERA of 2.77 and has a solid rotation of starters, including right-hander Kendall Graveman (5-5, 3.04 ERA), left-hander Jacob Lindgren (4-3, 4.18 ERA) and left-hander Luis Pollorena (6-3, 4.30 ERA). Graveman will get the starting nod on Friday. Their bullpen is also strong with left-hander Ross Mitchell leading the charge in middle relief with an 11-0 record and 1.51 ERA. At the back end of the bullpen, right-hander Jonathan Holder is an outstanding closer, entering the weekend with 16 saves and a 1.00 ERA.
2. South Alabama Jaguars (42-18, 20-10 Sun Belt)
South Alabama had a great year, claiming a share of the regular season Sun Belt title, but the Jaguars are just 3-5 in their last eight contests. This weekend will be South Alabama’s 25th appearance in a regional and the first since 2006. They are 6-2 all-time against first round opponent Mercer.
The Jaguars are led by their offense, which hits .302 as a team and averages 6.9 runs per game, which ranks 14th in the country. Their leader at the plate is Jordan Patterson, who boasts a .360 average with 49 RBI. Patterson, who was named the Sun Belt Player of the Year by the league’s coaches, is one of six players with over 140 at-bats hitting over .300. South Alabama’s RBI leader is Nolan Earley who has knocked in 58 runs this season.
For South Alabama to win this weekend’s regional, they will rely heavily on their pitching staff to keep them in games. The Jaguars hold a 4.21 team ERA and have a steady rotation of starters. Their typical Friday night guy has been right-hander Jarron Cito, who is 4-3 with a 5.65 ERA. However, right-hander Matt Bell is the staff leader with a 6-1 record and 3.52 ERA. Left-hander Jacob Noble rounds out the starting rotation with a 3.70 ERA and a 5-3 record. Left-hander Kyle Bartsch will be looked upon to close out games this weekend, as he has totaled 12 saves this season to go along with his 252 ERA.
3. Mercer Bears (43-16, 20-7 Atlantic Sun)
As the regular season champions of the Atlantic Sun, Mercer heads into Starkville for their second all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears, who have won six of their last eight games, received their first ever at-large bid to the field of 64. Mercer has wins this season over notable teams such as Georgia Tech, East Tennesse State and Ohio State.
Mercer wins games with their offense, which is sixth in the country averaging a stellar 7.4 runs per game with a .301 club batting average. Chesny Young leads the Bears with a .394 average and 61 RBI. Nick Backlund is the top run producer with a team-high 65 RBI. Mercer is also very efficient on the base paths, successfully stealing 70 of their 89 attempted stolen bases. Young, Sasha Lagarde and Michael Massi have combined for 43 stolen bases and have only been caught 11 times total.
Although the Bears are more known for their offensive prowess, their pitching staff is a solid as well with a 4.06 team ERA. Right-hander Brandon Barker is their ace on the mound with a 7-1 record and 2.35 ERA, while right-hander D.J. Johnson has also been good, posting a 6-2 record to go along with his 2.80 ERA. Left-handers Grant Papelian and David Randall have also been shifted in and out of the rotation throughout the season. Papelian is 3-4 with a 5.60 ERA, and Randall is 2-0 with a 4.76 ERA. At closer, Mercer is in good hands with right-hander Dimitri Kourtis, who has nine saves, a 5-2 record and 3.21 ERA. The Bears pitching staff also gets help from their fantastic defense, which ranks first in the nation with a .982 fielding percentage.
4. Central Arkansas Bears (39-20, 12-15 Southland)
For the first time since 1959, Central Arkansas is making a national postseason appearance thanks to stringing together five straight wins to claim the championship of the Southland Conference Tournament. The Bears last national postseason appearance was in the 1959 NAIA playoffs. They moved to Division II in 1993 and eventually to Division I in 2007, but they did not become eligible for postseason play until their transition period ended end 2010. Many won’t give Central Arkansas a chance this weekend, but the Bears won a series against Mississippi State earlier this season in Starkville.
Offensivley, Central Arkansas really struggles, hitting just .268 as a team. The Bears have just two players hitting over .300, but they still average 6.9 runs per game. Forrestt Allday is the team leader with a .383 average. Michael Marietta is the leader in RBI with 56 to go along with his .315 batting average. Central Arkansas also is efficient on the base paths, stealing 90 of 111 attempted stolen bases this year. Jonathan Davis and Blake Marchal have a combined 42 stolen bases and have been caught just eight times combined.
The Bears pitching staff makes up for some of their offensive shortcomings, and they have a team ERA of 2.78, which ranks 15th nationally. The ace of the starting rotation is right-hander Caleb McClanahan, who is 10-5 on the year with a 2.17 ERA. Left-hander Jeffrey Enloe and right-hander Bryce Biggerstaff have also been good this year. Enloe has posted a 7-5 record and 3.28 ERA, while Biggerstaff is 5-4 with a 2.91 ERA. Right-hander Ethan McKinzie is the leader on the staff in saves with five. Central Arkansas has just two players on the staff with an ERA over 3.50.
Five Players To Watch
RF Hunter Renfroe – Mississippi State
For most of the season, Hunter Renfroe was among the top hitters in the SEC, hitting over .400 and totaling 15 home runs and 54 RBI. However, a recent slump has dipped his average over 50 points. For the Bulldogs to get out of their regional and keep their College World Series hopes alive, they need Renfroe to start swinging a hot bat.
RHP Kendall Graveman – Mississippi State
It’s been an up and down year for Kendall Graveman on the mound, as he’s posted a 5-5 record and 3.04 ERA. Mississippi State head coach John Cohen is leaning on Graveman to get his club a win in Friday’s opening game against Central Arkansas, but Graveman lost in an earlier matchup with the Bears, giving up four runs (three earned) on five hits in 5.2 innings of work.
RHP Caleb McClanahan – Central Arkansas
Like Graveman, Caleb McClanahan is no stranger to Mississippi State, but he is also looking for a better outcome the second time around. He gave up two runs on three hits in 4.1 innings in the Bears lone loss to the Bulldogs. But if he pitches like he has multiple times this year, Mississippi State could find itself fighting through the loser’s bracket.
1B Jordan Patterson – South Alabama
South Alabama is the favorite to upset Mississippi State, but if they’re going to come out as regional champions, they’ll need Jordan Patterson to do what he’s done all year. Patterson is hitting .360 with 49 RBI and four home runs. He’s a dynamic player that can change the complexion of a game.
RHP Brandon Barker – Mercer
Although they’re more known for their offense, Mercer will rely heavily on their ace Brandon Barker in game one against South Alabama. Barker is an impressive 7-1 on the year with a 2.35 ERA. He has also totaled 78 strikeouts to just 26 walks, and opponents hit just .251 off Barker. If Barker can get Mercer into a Saturday matchup with Mississippi State, they’ll have a big opportunity to get in the drivers’ seat of the regional.
Friday, May 31
Game 1: No. 2 South Alabama vs. No. 3 Mercer – 3 p.m. – ESPN3.com
Game 2: No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 Central Arkansas– 8 p.m. – ESPN3.com
Saturday, June 1
Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 – 3 p.m. – ESPN3.com
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2 – 8 p.m. – ESPN3.com
Sunday, June 2
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4 – 3 p.m. – ESPN3.com
Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 4 – 8 p.m. – ESPN3.com
Monday, June 3
Game 7 (If Necessary): Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 – 3 p.m. – ESPN3.com
No. 1 seed Mississippi State will advance to a Super Regional with a win over No. 3 seed Mercer.
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