The NCAA tournament is the one time of the year that a random college baseball fan could possibly find a reason to pull for the little guy. Sure, it starts as a joke. Surely Coastal Carolina cannot make it out of their regional so let’s pull for them. Then, the Chanticleers win a couple of games and have a chance to move on. Next thing you know, Coastal Carolina is beating Arizona in the national title game as one of the most shocking national champs of all time.
My goal is to take a look at the field and give you an idea which teams could either make a run, make for a fun time, or gain followers this weekend as the NCAA tournament kicks into gear. I left out Cal State Fullerton and the AAC from the list due to their constant trips to the tournament and national profiles.
Florida Gulf Coast (42-18, #2 Seed, Chapel Hill Regional):
Don’t try to be the hipster that saw the rise of the Eagles this season. FGCU was coming off of a 27-32 record in 2016 and were seen as the fourth or fifth best team in a talented A-Sun conference. Then, the season started and the Eagles flew.
Nick Rivera was again excellent in earning A-Sun Player of the Year honors, but teammate Julio Gonzalez had an impressive season with a .337 average. Freshman of the year Richie Garcia (.284 average) and first team A-Sun selection Kutter Crawford (1.58 ERA, 7-1) turned FGCU from a possible Cinderella to a legitimate #2 seed.
Playing in the Chapel Hill regional will not be an easy task, but FGCU is not scared of the big boys in taking out Florida, Florida State, South Florida, and others in route to a 42-18 overall record. As long as they can stay in the moment, they will give the Tar Heels everything they can handle this weekend.
Southeastern Louisiana (36-20, #2 seed, Baton Rouge Regional):
One thing you can say about the Lions is that they are not afraid of the big boys. They finished with 20 losses on the year, but put together one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation with LSU, ULL, Rice, Vanderbilt, South Alabama, West Virginia, and Southern Miss among their toughest games.
The Lions don’t scare you in the batter’s box, but they do an excellent job of getting on base. As a team, their average is only .255 with it jumping to a .368 on base percentage. Once on base, the goal is to advance runners via stealing, sacrifices, walks, hit by pitches, or anything.
Southland Player of the Year Tanner Schwaner is the stud in this lineup with a team-high 68 RBI and an OPS over 1.000. Teams will have to pitch around him and take their chances with the bottom of the lineup.
The Lions have played LSU and Rice and know exactly what to expect out of both programs. Pitching is the key as Southeastern Louisiana cannot afford to get into slugging matches during regional play.
Missouri State (40-17, #2 seed, Fayetteville Regional):
Quick, name me the conference Missouri State is a part of. The Bears are the regular season champions of the Missouri Valley Conference after being a preseason #3 pick. Led by star third baseman Jake Burger, the Bears earned six first team All-MVC picks this season.
Burger (.341/22 HR/63 RBI) was the conference Player of the Year, second baseman Aaron Meyer (.292 average), and Blake Graham (.338/9 HR/33 RBI) lead and offense that has multiple .300 hitters and two players with 19+ homeruns. This offense is stacked.
It is slightly amazing that reliever Brian Young (0.68 ERA) is overlooked. That is until you look at the rest of the pitching staff. Jake Fromson (1.86 ERA/81K) is the first option out of the bullpen and has been nearly unhittable. Top starter Doug Still (7-2, 2.57 ERA) has been very good, but there is a scary lack of starting pitching behind the junior. Getting getting out of the Fayetteville regional is a tough challenge.
Yale (32-16, #3 seed, Corvallis Regional):
Hey NCAA selection committee, I thought you tried to keep teams somewhat local in regionals. Well, you missed the boat a bit on this pick as the Bulldogs must travel over 3,000 miles to participate in the Corvallis regional.
If you are a fan of wild scoring games with lots of offense, you may end up falling in love with Yale. This is a team that scores over seven runs per game and gives up 5.79 runs per game. For example, a three-game series versus Harvard ended with a total of 75 runs scored including finals of 21-13, 13-9, and 12-7.
Sure, being put in #1 overall seed Oregon State’s regional over 3,000 miles from home isn’t ideal, expect the Bulldogs to put an entertaining product on the field for offense driven fans.
Southern Miss (48-14, #1 seed, Hattiesburg Regional):
Picked as the #3 team in a stacked CUSA, the Golden Eagles were dominant in the #6 ranked conference in the nation. They racked up Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, as well as head coach and assistant coaches of the year.
USM ended the regular season with five first team All-CUSA honorees that included CUSA POY Dylan Burdeaux (.384/11 HR/68 RBI), Taylor Braley (.317 average), Kirk McCarty (10-2, 2.96 ERA), Nick Sandlin (10-1, 2.16 ERA), and Colt Smith (6-1, 3.08 ERA). That doesn’t even mention CUSA FOY Matt Wallner (.345/19 HR/61 RBI) he would be the player of the year in other conferences, but was relegate to second team honors. As a whole, the Golden Eagles mash the ball with the best of the best, sporting five players with 200+ at bats and an average over .300, as well as 85 homeruns and 8.40 runs scored per game.
With Mississippi State and South Alabama both making the trip to Hattiesburg, it will take a stellar effort from USM to advance and face the winner of the Baton Rouge regional.
Dallas Baptist (40-19, #3 seed, Fort Worth Regional):
Go ahead and call me out on it, I am an unabashed Patriots fan during tournament time. They play an entertaining game and do a great job of adjusting to the talent on the roster.
This year’s team happens to be offensively gifted with Austin Listi (.332/20HR/50 RBI) leading the way. DBU has four players batting over .320 on the year and three players with double-digit homeruns (84 as a team). Then you add in a healthy Delvin Granberg, who is batting .373 on the year.
The Patriots got stuck in a very tough regional with a 2/3 matchup versus a offensively gifted Virginia squad. The Cavaliers are not normally so gifted at the plate, but this year is different. Expect runs to be scored in that game in Fort Worth.
Long Beach State (37-17-1, #1 seed, Long Beach Regional):
The Dirtbags came out of nowhere to go 37-17-1 and earn a national ranking as high as #7 according to Baseball America. So, what did the selection committee give them as a reward? The region of death.
LBSU gets a hot and talented San Diego State squad in the opener, only to be rewarded with the winner of Texas and UCLA if they win. The bats went silent in two regular season meetings with the Bruins and the Longhorns always know how to play in the postseason.
The Dirtbags are a throwback program that plays great defense, has excellent pitching, and hits at the right time. Ramsey Romano (.338 average) is the top batter for a team that only gets a multi-base hit 25.8% of the time. Despite the lack of slugging prowess, they get on base 4.5 times per game via walks and HBP. Then, it is all about the steal and sacrifices.
What separates the Dirtbags from the rest of the Forgotten is the pitching staff. Dave Smith (8-1, 1.55 ERA), Darren McCaughen (8-2, 2.66 ERA), and John Sheaks (7-3, 3.97 ERA) are one of the best trios in the nation. Smith is ruthless and efficient, forcing batters to swing at tough pitches and put the ball in play for the excellent defense. McCaughan is a bit more dominant when he is on, averaging almost a strikeout per inning. Sheaks is a bit up and down, but has the ability to dominate when he is hitting the strike zone. I won’t even get into the bullpen, except to say that the combination of Josh Advocate as the set up man and Chris Rivera as the closer is tough to beat.