Road to Omaha Begins in Columbia Tonight
Four teams come to Columbia this weekend with the same ultimate goal in mind – Omaha. They'll all tell you that tomorrow is the only day that matters, but realistically, there is one goal from February to June and it starts here.
Four teams from two states, and two represent power conferences. Plenty of pitching and a boatload of power will dominate the field this weekend. Unlike the SEC tournament last week in Birmingham - a pitching masterpiece - this Regional looks to post more football scores than baseball. The top two home run hitting teams in the country – Wofford and South Carolina – go at it on Friday. The top team ERA in the country, Charlotte, will try to negate the short porches at The Sarge. Charlotte also led the nation in winning percentage (.825). The Gamecocks lead the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (hold all Jess Todd/Arkansas jokes until later, I meant the Carolina pitchers lead the nation). After that, there's NC State, Ray Tanner's alma mater and previous employer, not only looking to jump on the old coach, but also looking to settle the ACC vs. SEC argument.
With all of these factors, what kind of car does your team represent on "The Road to Omaha?"
No. 4 seed Wofford Terriers
Apparently Terrier Head Coach Steve Traylor has dismissed the notion there is someone on the team named Cinderella. After going 5-0 in the Southern Conference Tournament last week, the Terriers not only became the lowest ranked team to ever win the Conference title, but they also found a boost of confidence that had been missing all year.
Coach Traylor says his announcement to retire only a few weeks ago is not the reason for the teams increased focus, but his players disagree. West Columbia's Brandon Waring, tied for the national HR lead (27), politely disagreed, "That's what everyone keeps asking us, so it is kinda' like we're doing it for him now."
Ben Austin, though he would not come out and admit it, leaned into Coach Traylor and said, "It is pretty cool, though." This brought a loud laugh from all attending the press conference.
Austin also added how the "underdog tag" has added to their motivation, "I mean we're going into this with pretty much the same odds people gave us in the Southern Conference Tournament which was… ‘slim to none.' I would say that's what people probably say about us this week too."
Pitching: Their top two pitchers sound like a country duo, Austin and Austin, that's Ben Austin and Austin Redwine. Both threw on two days rest in the Southern Conference Tournament last week, so they may be a little more over worked than they are letting on. However, they were both darn good in their second starts.
Though the pitching staff seems improved, they sport an ERA of 7.35. That ranks in 267th place out of 283 teams. Mix that statistic with the dimensions of Sarge Frye field and things could get ugly fast.
Austin and Redwine should go in that order, with their Game three starter listed as TBA.
Offense: West Columbia native Brandon Waring is tied for the lead in home runs throughout collegiate baseball. With 27 home runs and 75 RBI's under his belt, the junior third baseman is as dangerous as they come. Add to it that he's playing at "home," and it makes for a nice but potentially dangerous story. It should also be noted that Waring is 12-for-13 in stolen base attempts.
"It's definitely exciting for me to be back in Columbia to play in front of the home crowd," said Waring, "I can get some of my family and friends to come out and see me play."
Wofford is also the only team in the country to hit more home runs than South Carolina. As a team, Wofford hit 106 long balls in 2007, edging the Gamecocks by two. Shane Kirkley, John Brandt and Michael Gilmartin hit another 43 home runs between them.
Defense: Describing Wofford's defensive prowess as "poor" would be too kind. Out of 283 teams ranked, the Terriers stand at #201. Needless to say, this team is all stick.
What kind of car?
They're a surprisingly powerful car and primed to strike if you don't take them seriously. However, because of the porous defensive and generous pitching staff, these guys can break down at any moment.
"I don't know about the psychology of the Gamecocks right now. I'm sure they're a confident team coming in." said Coach Traylor. "Things are different though. Obviously, this isn't a mid week game back in March somewhere. This is an NCAA Regional. We're throwing our number one pitcher. They're throwing their number one. We're playing our best baseball of the year; they always play well, so it's a whole different deal. We're real anxious to throw our guys out there against their guys, and we'll give ‘em a run for their money."
No. 3 seed Charlotte 49er's
Before the weekend is over, many will question the #3 beside the name "Charlotte." They led the nation in Earned Run Average and they led the nation in winning percentage. With a 47-10 record, 23-4 in conference, the Charlotte 49er's are a team to be reckoned with.
Charlotte is ranked higher in most polls than NC State. Perhaps their conference and RPI is what created the awkward ranking. Though Charlotte's resume of numbers is much more impressive, the RPI heavily favors the 37-21 Wolfpack. Keeping in mind the Wolfpack play in the ACC, one can understand why their RPI is so impressive. The 49er's are riding a nine game winning streak, using speed and offense. The team set several Atlantic 10 Tournament records last week. Their 25 hits in one game was a record, as was their tournament .456 batting average. Aaron Bray and Cory Lane tied the tournament record for hits in a game, both going 5-for-5 in the tournament final.
Pitching: If the offense (see below) is described as scrappy and annoying, then the pitching is a nightmare that never stops. The 49ers have the best ERA as a staff in the country (2.31) and they sport a starting pitcher, Adam Mills, who has the best ERA in the country at 1.06. As if Mills weren't enough, Spencer Steedly ranks 57th in ERA (2.56). Adam Mills is also second in the country in victories (13) and third in strikeouts (136).
Offense: Scraaaaaappy! Not only are they fast and scrappy, but they seemed to be the loosest team on media day as well. Head Coach Loren Hibbs was laughing with the media, as were his players. Some interesting statistics about this scrappy offense are impressive. Though their home run hitting doesn't hold a candle to Carolina or Wofford, they can hit. The team batting average was .320 (21st in the nation), they averaged 0.54 triples per game (4th in the country), and they averaged 2.4 doubles per contest (9th in the country).
"The higher level you play at, the faster the game gets. Balls are hit harder, the guys run faster, the pitcher's breaking stuff is more crisp and later. The movement on his fastball and velocity is greater," said 49er Head Coach Loren Hibbs, "We're used to playing fast. We try to do things in practice to speed the game up on a regular basis. We play a quality non-conference schedule to try and prepare us for what we're getting ourselves into this weekend."
Junior Brad McElroy hit a .412 this season, while senior Kris Rochelle hit .392. Senior Cory Lane is 6th in the country in triples. Simply put, they can hit.
Defense: Though the defense is not nearly as potent as the pitching staff or the offense, it still sports a respectable fielding percentage of .967. That puts the Niners' defense in the top half of the nation at #73.
What kind of car?
They're driving a Mustang. It's not a Porsche, not even a Corvette, but if you're not driving something really fast, you might be in trouble.
"We're able to recruit guys that are skinny and run. We can't get the big physical guys who can run, so the guys that we get are very athletic guys as far as we're concerned and we run around pretty well," said Coach Hibbs, "That's the style we want to play. It shows up more defensively than it does offensively. We got one big hairy guy who doesn't run the bases real well, but he DH's for us. We won't give him a glove."
No. 2 seed N.C. State Wolfpack
A journalist's dream has the Wolfpack coming to Columbia pitting Ray Tanner's old team against Ray Tanner's new team. Ahhh, the possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, NC State Head Coach Elliott Avent and USC's Ray Tanner both deny this game means anything more than any other.
Coach Avent said, "Unless he's playing, I don't see how that's gonna' be a problem. And if he is, I don't think that will be a problem either."
A little known nugget of juicy news, according to some NC State media, is that when Ray Tanner was the coach at N.C. State, he fired volunteer coach Elliott Avent. Apparently, Coach Tanner had Coach Avent managing a summer league team almost twenty years ago. Assuming Avent would play the N.C. State kids on his summer league team to gain some experience, Tanner would ship them to him. So the story goes, Tanner sent Avent a promising young shortstop to get some much needed playing time. Avent wouldn't play him, even though he was an N.C. State kid, so Tanner axed him.
Again, that's coming from an elderly member of the N.C. State media, not either of the coaches.
Pitching: N.C. State ace, Andrew Brackman, suffered a personal tragedy when an ex-girlfriend passed away in a car accident less than two weeks ago. Couple the tragedy with inflammation in his right elbow and he will not be available in Columbia. A huge blow to N.C. State and their chances, the rest of the staff should not be ignored. Nonetheless, losing your Friday night starter is never a good thing.
Sophomore LHP Eric Surkamp is 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA. Surkamp has been the victim of tough luck and virtually no run support lately. Though his ERA in his last five outings is 3.51 and he's allowed only a smidgeon above one base runner per inning, he's won only once and lost three of those starts.
The Wolfpack's team ERA is ranked 34th nationally at 3.85, but again, there will be no Andrew Brackman to deal with. Without Brackman, the team ERA inflates to 4.00. Though it might not seem like a big difference, consider that their national ranking would drop nearly 30 spots.
Coach Avent disagreed that there would be a negative effect on his squad, saying, "You learn in baseball, and probably sports in general, to separate things on and off the field. Not having Andrew Brackman and Tommy Fochi available to practice and on the field, that's something you have to overcome, but you have to step up. The other stuff, you grieve for your teammates. That's what team is all about. You feel for ‘em. You feel for their families, but you don't mix the two."
The Wolfpack will go with Surkamp against Adam Mills in game one against Charlotte on Friday. The rest of the rotation is TBA.
Coach Avent made a subtle challenge to the nation's ERA leader (Mills) when he said, "He must be a bulldog and go after it, but you know, he'll have to because we're gonna go after it too. We got a pretty good ball club."
Offense The offense is average all around. In their defense though, like South Carolina, N.C. State plays in a legitimate power conference where normal weekends consist of Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia, Clemson and so on. Though they won't hit many home runs or steal many bases, the Wolfpack are consistently good hitters throughout the lineup.
Dallas Poulk, the fill-in second baseman and leadoff hitter, is hitting .389 at the top of the lineup to get things started.
Defense: The Wolfpack defense, like Charlotte, is average. With a fielding percentage of .966, there is room for improvement, but is usually reliable.
Senior catcher Caleb Mangum and sophomore outfielder Marcus Jones have the two best gloves on the team.
What kind of car?
Like Charlotte, they'd be a Mustang on their way to Omaha. Whereas Charlotte might be a 2007 Mustang, N.C. State is more like the late 60's version that has been rebuilt and renovated. They're a muscle car from a muscle conference. They've been through the wars, so no one in this field scares them.
Junior closer Eryk McConnell (RHP) commented on his excitement of coming to Columbia for a Regional. "Me and Caleb (Mangum) have friends that went to our high schools that play (for USC). It's good to kinda' compete with them, get back with them …and it's just good to be here."
No. 1 seed South Carolina Gamecocks
Everyone says the Gamecocks played terrible in the SEC Tournament. I whole-heartedly disagree. The Gamecocks are a team built for power. Ray Tanner has an offensive mind and an offensive inducing stadium, so he recruits for the long ball. He'll tell you to your face he's a fan of the home run. These guys can play small ball when they have to, but he'd much rather hit it over the fence because nobody can catch it over there.
Here's the problem with Regions Park where the SEC Tourney is held every year – it's the exact opposite. It's built for pitching. The Gamecocks were like the proverbial fish out of water all weekend, and they still put up a heck of a fight. Remember, USC took the Arkansas Razorbacks, the #7 national seed, down to the last inning of a one run game before being eliminated. Had the umpire had his eyes open when Jon Willard obviously made an awesome play in left field, the Yardcocks would have won that game and forced another.
As for Jess Todd and his 17 strikeout performance: There were three no-hitters taken into at least the seventh inning within those two days also. One of them was against Vanderbilt! Jess Todd is a first team All-SEC starter, and he would have struck out 17 Hank Aaron's that day.
Gamecock veteran Steven Reinhold probably summed up the mindset of the Gamecocks best: "I think the team realizes it's go time. We're looking forward to putting on the cleats and giving it our all for a couple days."
Pitching: Sure, the pitching staff has had its ups and downs throughout the season, but somehow they always seem to have one of the starters looking great while another slows down. When all else fails, Alex Farotto, Jeff Jeffords or Curtis Johnson come in and throw three or four innings of no hits and five strikeouts (that's happened on more than one occasion).
The scariest thing about this staff is the unknown. Harris Honeycutt, Mike Cisco, Arik Hempy, and (to a lesser degree) Blake Cooper have had their poor outings, but they've had some absolute dominating performances as well. If an opponent gets a hold of the wrong guy on the wrong day – watch out.
As stated before, per nine innings, this staff has registered more strikeouts than any other team in the country.
Arik Hempy, sidelined for most of 2006, summed up the staff saying, "I think this is going to be big for our team. I wasn't here last year, so it's going to be tremendous, not only for me but for our team, to get where we want to get."
He went on to discuss the pressure associated with a Regional compared to a regular season game. "You really bear down. You don't feel like you have to be on your ‘A' game, but you have to feel like you can keep it close enough to trust the hitters to keep us in the game. You have to step it up."
Coach Tanner reiterated his faith in the staff and pen, saying, "Farotto has thrown his best lately all year, and Curtis Johnson has been pitching well. I've got two veteran guys in Honeycutt and Hempy, and those guys will get a little more rope than the other guys. Unless they are tired or pitching poorly, we'll hang with those guys. They've been around the block a few times."
Offense: This might be one of the scariest offenses in the country. The numbers the guys from one through four in the order have put up are absolutely frightening. You can't pitch around any of them. If you're lucky enough to get through those four, then you have to deal with the surprising pop of Trent Kline, the scrappy and clutch Harley Lail, or the hugely underestimated Andrew Crisp. This is the kind of line up where no lead is safe – ask Georgia.
James Darnell, Travis Jones and Justin Smoak all rank in the top 25 for HR's per game, and they are all tied for 13th place in the nation for total home runs on the season (18). Also worth noting, the Yardcocks are 8th in the country in Slugging Percentage and 10th in the country in scoring.
USC's Steven Reinhold discussed the Gamecocks' excitement to play at home for a Regional. "The ball seems to carry a little better here, and being our home park, we're used to the backdrop and playing at night here. You try to hit well and do the same things everywhere you go, but you always feel a little better at home."
Defense Though they've had their lapses from time to time, it's overall a very steady offense. The Gamecocks are ranked near the top in fielding percentage (7th). There usually won't be many free runs scored when you play USC.
What kind of car?
In this Regional, against these teams, the Gamecocks are like a Corvette. They could wipe out the opponents before we even get to Monday. But, that's not to say all three opponents don't have the ability to show up in a brand new Porsche on any given day.
The Gamecocks are a proud bunch of fine young men (I know, I sound like Brad Scott. He said that after every game, even if the Gators beat USC by 50). These kids are all very intense ball players who may have been slightly embarrassed (in their own minds) in Birmingham. Ray Tanner is an intense coach, and his squad is a group that feels like they still have something to prove. This weekend could be all business from the Gamecocks' perspective.
Prediction: Though there will be a game on Monday, the Gamecocks will advance to Chapel Hill. Do not be surprised to see Charlotte or even Wofford beat them once, as those teams are extremely motivated and underestimated.
In the end though, the Gamecocks will advance to a Super Regional, pitting South vs. North in the battle of the Carolina's.
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