The Irish travel to Lexington, Kentucky this weekend to compete in the four-team double elimination regional. Kentucky is hosting the event, the first time the Wildcats have ever had the honor of doing so. They'll play Ball State while Notre Dame will battle College of Charleston. First pitch for the Irish is slated for 2 p.m. down in the Bluegrass state.
But who is the second seed, College of Charleston? They are the winners of the Southern Conference Tournament Championship after the Cougars beat the Citadel 5-4 to capture the automatic bid. It was their first league tourney title. College of Charleston ended the season 45-13 overall and 20-7 in SoCon play.
A bonus for the Cougars in tournament play is the strength of their pitching staff. They are led by Nick Chigges, the probable starter against Notre Dame on Friday. The junior right-hander has been downright scary this season for opposing hitters, logging a 10-1 record in 14 games started with a miniscule 1.44 ERA. That's good for sixth in the NCAA. Chigges has struck out 81 batters in 100.1 innings pitched.
He's not alone in leading this Cougar squad into the post-season. Sophomore Danny Meszaros has compiled a 9-2 record this year to go along with a 2.88 ERA. The right hander has struck out 85 in 84.1 IP. Rounding out a strong trio of starters is Graham Godfrey. The sophomore right-hander is 8-2 in 2006 with a 3.16 ERA. That's three pitchers with under a 3.16 ERA. It's imperative for a team in the NCAA Tournament to have deep, strong pitching. If these three can get it to the closer, that bodes well for College of Charleston. Junior Josh McLaughlin has 14 saves on the season and a 1.39 ERA.
Irish head coach Paul Mainieri has named junior Jeff Samardzija the starter on the mound on Friday. He'll face a College of Charleston lineup that offensively has seven of their nine regulars hitting .319 or better. Center fielder Larry Cobb is tops with a .369 batting average. The junior also has some speed, swiping 20 bases on the year. The leading RBI man is Chris Campbell. The junior second baseman, who was a preseason first-team All-American by the NCBWA, has driven in 57 runs despite hitting just four home runs. The junior is at .329 for the season with 15 doubles. College of Charleston has hit 34 home runs in 2006 compared to Notre Dame's 32.
Win or lose, the Irish will play one of the teams from second match-up slated for 7:00 p.m. on Friday. The top-seed, Kentucky, went 42-15 on the season and received the home site despite losing their first two games in the Southeastern Conference tournament. The Wildcats did win the SEC Eastern Division and tied Alabama for the best overall regular season record. For his efforts, head coach John Cohen earned SEC Coach of the Year.
While College of Charleston does it with their pitching, Kentucky gets it done with a lethal offensive attack. The Wildcats have one of the premier players in college baseball in Ryan Strieby. The junior led the conference in RBI's (75), slugging percentage (.474) and doubles (20). Strieby also blasted 20 home runs while batting .340. These monster numbers allowed him to be named SEC Player of the Year and be a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace Award, given to the nation's best player.
Strieby has some company in putting a charge into the baseball. Kentucky was third in the nation in home runs as they jacked 92 out of the park. The Wildcats have three players with 16 homers or more on the season. Along with Strieby's 20, Sean Coughlin and John Shelby both have 17 while Collin Cowgill's 16 aren't far behind. All four of these Kentucky players have 53 RBI's or more. They rank 12th in the nation in runs per game by averaging 8.4 a contest. If Notre Dame meets up with the Wildcats, sophomore Wade Korpi's highly effective changeup could cause the big boppers to be a bit off-balance. One thing is for sure: whoever faces this Kentucky lineup will have their hands full.
The fourth team in the regional is Ball State. Notre Dame is familiar with the Cardinals. The Irish beat Ball State 6-4 back on April 5th at Frank Eck Stadium. The Cardinals, who are the fourth seed, are in this position after winning the MAC Tournament Championship over Kent State this past Saturday. Ball State went unbeaten in the event and brings a 37-20 record to Lexington, including winners of 16 of their past 18 contests.
The good: the Cardinals can hit the ball. They hit 60 home runs on the season, led by Brad Miller's 21. The senior hit .333 while driving in 75 and also had a .688 slugging percentage. Justin Rogers leads the team in hitting with a .358 average.
The bad: Ball State's three top pitchers all have high ERA's. Their team mark is at 4.58 compared to Notre Dame's 3.48. Ryan Degreeter has the best ERA at 4.42 along with a 3-4 record. Tyler Pritchard is 7-2 on the year with a 4.66 ERA while Ben Snyder's 4.71 mark is good for a 7-5 record. If they can get the ball to closer Kyle Heyne, the Cardinals are in good shape. The 6'5" right handed junior has a 1.99 ERA and has closed out 11 ballgames. Heyne has struck out 45 in 40.2 innings pitched.