Thrill of Victory

NCAA regional play highlighted by favorites' success

An exciting three days of NCAA Baseball Tournament action is behind us, and an interesting night remains ahead, before the tournament moves into the weekend’s super regional action. Here’s recap of the weekend.

Unpredictably predictable
Baseball is a high-variance game, which means that unlike college football and basketball, mediocre teams have a much-better chance of beating powerhouses in general. That means that you’d expect some upsets with lower-seeded teams moving through to a decent degree, but that’s not what happened over the weekend.

Of the 12 completed regionals so far, 11 teams that advanced were the 1-seeds. The other was 2-seed Oklahoma, which many (myself included) felt would advance; the Sooners had won 40 games coming into the weekend, including a tournament title in last weekend’s Big 12 Tournament.

By comparison, last year, six of the 16 regional champions were non-1 seeds.

Unfinished business
Of course, regional action hasn’t finished yet. There are five remaining regionals to be decided today.

Winner-take-all games take place tonight in Nashville (Vanderbilt – Georgia Tech), Starkville (Mississippi State – Central Arkansas), Eugene (Oregon – Rice) and Chapel Hill (North Carolina – Florida Atlantic). The big surprises are that Carolina and Vandy got extended to Monday, as they were the tournament’s 1 and 2 overall seeds, respectively.

Carolina had no-hit FAU until the seventh until Ricky Santiago hit a 3-run homer to the deepest part of the park, giving the Owls a 3-2 lead that would hold and forcing a rematch in Chapel Hill tonight.

Pitching was not Georgia Tech’s strong suit, and the Yellow Jackets – who had to beat Illinois earlier in the day just to get to Sunday night – were running thin on it as they took on Vandy. But coach Danny Hall played a hunch and threw sophomore Josh Heddinger, who hadn’t gone more than 6 2/3 innings in any career start. Heddinger threw 127 pitches and 2-hit the powerful Commodore lineup, shutting them out for just the second time all year.

I said on Friday that MSU had gotten the toughest regional, for no small reason due to 4-seed Central Arkansas, which took two of three games from the Bulldogs in Starkville earlier in the season and got to the title round yesterday. Sure enough, UCA picked up a 5-2 win in front of over 10,000 opposing fans last night and will get a chance to win the regional tonight.

In Eugene, Oregon got a second crack at a Rice team that beat it 1-0 on Saturday, as OU thrashed the Owls 11-0 last night to force a final game.

First-time hosting jitters
Teams hosting regionals for the first time sometimes slip up in their introduction to the big stage, as Vanderbilt did in 2007. This time, Virginia Tech fell victim in its first chance, going 2-2 in its regional and falling to Oklahoma.

Indiana looked as if it might be a candidate to go out early, also. IU’s Chad Clark made an error in the ninth to allow two Valparaiso runs to score, and the Hoosiers trailed 4-1 heading into the bottom of the inning as Valpo brought in closer Karch Kowalczyk, who had 12 saves and a 0.36 ERA. Kowalcyzk got the first out, but then a single and two doubles brought the Hoosiers to within two with a man on second for Clark.

The second baseman had never had a walk-off hit in his career and hadn’t homered all season… so, of course, he hit the second pitch of the at-bat over the fence in left to give IU a win. Indiana went on to win two more games to earn a road trip to Florida State next weekend.

As for Kansas State, whatever jitters the Wildcats had after giving up two runs in the first inning of the Friday opener vs. Wichita State didn’t last long. Even though WSU threw ace Chad Elam, the Wildcats got nine runs in the first en route to a 20-11 victory, and made it through the regional without a loss.

What else stood out
If you’re looking for the most impressive team this weekend, it was probably Cal State Fullerton. The Titans beat Columbia, 4-1, knocked off Arizona State, 1-0, and then disposed of ASU again by a 6-1 score. The Titans allowed 13 hits the whole weekend, hit three batsmen, and incredibly did not allow a walk in three games.

As for the most disappointing team, take your pick between Florida, Clemson or Ole Miss. The Gators went 0-2 on the weekend; yes, they were a 3-seed, but coach Kevin O’Sullivan has plenty of talent, and for a program used to going to the College World Series, a two-game flame-out was unacceptable. The two losses pushed UF under .500 at 29-30 for the season.

Meanwhile, Clemson had a chance to spoil South Carolina’s postseason by getting slotted in the same regional with their hated rival, South Carolina. Not only did the Tigers fail to oust Carolina, they didn’t even get a shot, losing twice to Liberty and never playing the Gamecocks. It’s the third-straight year that the storied program hasn’t made it out of a regional.

Meanwhile, 2-seed Ole Miss never got a shot at that much-anticipated match-up with host North Carolina State, sandwiching two losses to William & Mary around a lone win over 4-seed Binghamton. The Rebels probably didn’t have the offense to advance, anyway, but don’t tell that to the fans in Oxford right now, many of whom are calling for coach Mike Bianco’s head. Ole Miss has pumped millions of dollars into facilities improvements over the past few years, and though Bianco started coaching at Ole Miss in 2001 and has been to a regional every year but two, the Rebels have not been to a super regional since 2009 and haven’t been to Omaha in his tenure, period.

One insider told me before the season that Bianco needed to make it out of the first weekend of the postseason if he wanted to be around for 2014, though no change has been made as of Monday afternoon.