The road to Omaha starts Friday.
On Sunday the South Carolina Gamecocks found out they would be hosting a regional in the 2011 NCAA baseball tournament. On Monday USC found out that they were the #4 national seed, which meant that they would also have the opportunity to host the super regional if they survive the regional. That could prove harder than most would expect since the Gamecocks also found out that they would be hosting the Stetson Hatters, North Carolina State Wolfpack, and Georgia Southern Eagles.
Earlier in the week Gwinnett Gamecock made some great observations regarding South Carolina's draw in the regional. He noted, among other things, that the Gamecocks' slate appeared significantly tougher than their neighbor to the North. This thought caught some traction around Gamecock nation, as it should have. Well, I decided to delve a little deeper into the topic with my trusty copy of Microsoft Excel. What I found both confirmed my suspicions and was surprising in its breadth.
It would seem that Gwinnett Gamecock's intuition was correct in asserting USC's difficult post-season schedule. When averaging the RPI Rankings of the #2-4 seeds of each regional site, the Columbia regional comes in with a 45.00. That's good enough to make the Columbia regional the most difficult field for a #1 seed of all 16 regional sites. The Clemson regional comes in at 58.00, which makes it the seventh most difficult host site. Likewise, when #1 seeds are factored into the equation, the Columbia regional's average drops to 35.25, which is, again, the hardest in the field. The next closest is the Nashville regional at 37.00. The easiest regional? Well, that, of course, went to the #8 national seed Rice Owls. In fact, there were quite a few surprises in the seeding for this year's NCAA baseball tournament. If one were to rank the #1 seeds from best to worst on the basis of the average RPI of their #2-4 seeds, the list would look like this:
#2 (1)Virginia - 89.33
#3 (3)North Carolina - 81.67
#4 (7)Texas - 78.33
#5 Texas A&M - 74.00
#6 Arizona St. - 73.67
#7 Oregon St. - 67.00
#8 Cal St. Fullerton - 66.00
#9 (5)Florida St. - 58.67
#10 Clemson - 58.00
T#11 (2)Florida - 56.33
T#11 Georgia Tech - 56.33
#13 UCLA - 52.33
#14 TCU - 51.00
#15 (6)Vanderbilt - 48.00
#16 (4)South Carolina - 45.00
So for all the worrying and hand-wringing about whether the Gamecocks would pull down a national seed and what number it would be, it literally could not have mattered less. I'm sure the Gamecocks' comrades in getting screwed, the Vanderbilt Commodores, are equally miffed about how the regional selection process shook out. But the only thing left to do is play the games, though.
Those games begin Friday at 1:00pm when #2 seed Stetson faces off against #3 seed N.C. State. The Gamecocks will take the field against the #4 seed Ga. Southern at 7:00 pm.
Georgia Southern (36-24, 18-12 SoCon) is far form a typical #4 seed in a regional. The Eagles have earned a #80 ranking in the RPI, claim a team batting average of .294, and a team ERA of 4.52. Last week they won the Southern Conference Tournament title thanks to a mamoth performance from starting pitcher Chris Beck. Beck earned two wins and set a SoCon record with 22 strike outs in the tournament. Georgia Southern has star-power on the offensive side as well in sophomore outfielder Victor Roache. Roache was recently named one of 30 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Player of the Year award. Roache is hitting .327 and leads in nation in home runs with 30. His slugging percentage on the season is an eye-popping .789. For comparison's sake, the highest slugging percentage on the Gamecocks belongs to Christian Walker at .561. The Eagles have collected some impressive wins this season. In addition to single victories over Georgia Tech and Florida, Georgia Southern also claims a series wins against College of Charleston and Elon (the SoCon regular season champion), and sweeps versus Furman, The Citadel, and Davidson. The Eagles are every bit the dangerous team they're reported to be, so it is no wonder that Coach Tanner chose to go with Michael Roth in the opening game rather than save him for game two.
Not that anyone expects game two to be any easier than the opener. USC will likely face Stetson on Saturday if they survive the match with Georgia Southern. The Stetson Hatters (41-18, 23-7 A-Sun) boast a team batting average of .297 and a team ERA of 3.77. Stetson (which is located in Florida, not Texas, by the way) is led by sophomore pitcher Kurt Schluter (8-0, 1.40 ERA). In 57.2 innings of work, Schluter has amassed 55 strike outs and surrendered 0 home runs. Schluter is a two-way player, much like Carolina's Steven Neff, but hasn't had an at-bat all year after hitting .301 in 2010. He was named the Atlantic Sun pitcher of the year. Shluter's counterpart at the plate is junior Nick Rickles. Rickles is hitting .353 with 12 home runs and a .621 slugging percentage on the season. The Hatters have five players batting over .300 this year. Steton started the season hot out of the gate with a sweep of UGA and by winning the Bright House Invitational. Their biggest win of the season might be an extra-inning affair versus Florida State in Tallahassee. Other than that, their resume is pretty ho-hum. They have a lot of "W"s, but most all are over teams that you and I don't care about. Stetson has an RPI of 23, but is not ranked in any of the major polls.
If the Gamecocks don't face Stetson on Saturday, that means they'll be having a showdown with N.C. State. USC and NCSU have some history together, owing mostly to the fact that Ray Tanner played for - and then coached for - N.C. State before being lured away to Columbia. From what I know there aren't many hard feelings on Tanner's part, but that doesn't mean the feeling is mutual for N.C. State fans. The Wolfpack (34-25, 15-15 ACC) is ranked #32 in the RPI and is the #2 seed in the Columbia regional. The 'Pack is not ranked in any of the major polls, making South Carolina (#4) the lone squad of the regional to be ranked. As a team, N.C. State is hitting .280 and their team ERA is 4.14. The team's fielding percentage is .976 as compared with South Carolina's .974. The 'Pack is led by junior Pratt Maynard, who is hitting .331 with 5 home runs and a slugging percentage of .490. On the mound, the Wolfpack's best option is junior Cory Mazzoni. Mazzoni (5-6, 3.38 ERA) claims 125 strike outs in 106.2 innings of work and carries a very respectable .217 opposing batters' average. That's probably why N.C. State is holding him in anticipation of a Saturday show down with the Gamecocks. N.C. State's season has been anything but consistent. The 'Pack were swept by Georgia Tech and Miami, but did the sweeping of #3 national seed North Carolina and Boston College. In between were various series either won or lost 2-1 against the rest of the ACC field.
As for the host team, South Carolina comes into this weekend having experienced mixed results recently. The Gamecocks brought home a share of the SEC regular season title, but failed to win it outright when they couldn't sweep an Alabama squad that finished sub-.500 in SEC play. The 'Cocks earned the top seed in the SEC tournament by virtue of a tie-breaker and were the first #1 seed in six years to win their opening game. However, they followed that performance up with a respectable loss to Vanderbilt and a not-so-respectable loss to Georgia. Now the Gamecocks will begin defense of their 2010 National Championship in earnest. USC is ranked #6 in the RPI and #4 in all four major polls. Pitcher Michael Roth (11-3, 1.17 ERA) was recently named as a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award. Roth had struggled recently, but after allowing 3 runs in the first inning of the SECT opener he locked it up and pitched his first complete game of the season. The Gamecocks team ERA is 2.66 thanks in large part to the 58.1 innings John Taylor has pitched in relief. Meanwhile the Gamecock offense has picked up a little steam heading into the post-season. Christian Walker still leads the team with a .357 average and 9 home runs. Evan Marzilli has been heating up lately, as well. Marzilli is hitting .307 and an OB% of .419. Coach Tanner is expected to go with Colby Holmes on the hill Saturday, but Forrest Koumas is still a possibility. Regardless of who starts or Carolina, the Gamecocks will need to play some of their best ball of the year to make it out of this regional alive.