Regional Preview - Part I

The second season begins for the Stanford Cardinal baseball team this weekend, as the NCAA Regionals get started at Sunken Diamond. In part one of a two part Regional preview, the #1 seed Stanford Cardinal and the #4 seed University of Illinois-Chicago Flames are examined. Read on for an in-depth look at the Game 1 matchup.


Palo Alto Regional
#4 Seed University of Illinois-Chicago (39-16) vs. #1 Seed Stanford (41-15)



Regional Schedule:

Friday 2:00 PM: #3 UC Riverside vs. #2 Richmond
Friday 6:00 PM: #4 UIC vs. #1 Stanford

Saturday 11:00 AM: Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser
Saturday 3:00 PM: Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner
Saturday 7:00 PM Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser

Sunday 1:00 PM: Game 4 Winner vs. Game 5 Winner
Saturday 5:00 PM: Game 6 Rematch if both teams have 1 loss
*All Games will be played at Sunken Diamond.


The quest for Omaha begins for 64 teams on Friday, as the 2003 NCAA Baseball Tournament gets underway. Friday afternoon, all the discussion about RPIs, strength of schedule, and even the results of the 56 game regular season are out the window, and all that matters is performance on the field. While the Cardinal may be one of the top five teams in the country, and while the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) is a relative unknown, the Regional format allows for huge upsets as every game is critical.

To recap the format: the first round of the NCAA Tournament (Regionals) is a double-elimination format. If you win one of the 16 regionals, you advance to one of eight two-team Super Regionals, which is best two out of three format. Then comes the College World Series, which is now a mix of the two formats.

First things first: the NCAA Regional. This year's Palo Alto Regional features three automatic qualifiers that won their conference (Stanford: Pac-10, Richmond: Atlantic-10, and UIC: Horizon League). UC Riverside made the tournament as an at-large seed after placing third in the tough Big West Conference.

In the first part of a two-part preview, the Game 2 matchup between the Stanford Cardinal and the UIC Flames will be covered. The Cardinal are the #6 National Seed (out of 8 #1 teams), while the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames come in as the Horizon League Champions, beating Butler out for the title. UIC won both the regular season and the conference tournament title, advancing to the Regionals as the #4 seed at Stanford. Tomorrow I will preview the Richmond Spiders and the UC Riverside Highlanders. Those two teams will square off in Game 1 on Friday afternoon.

STANFORD

The quest for the third national title begins this weekend. While the Cardinal advanced to a school record 4th consecutive College World Series in 2002, they will be bitterly disappointed if they do not reach a 5th consecutive. Stanford has played in five of the last six College World Series, with only the 1998 team missing out on a trip to Omaha. The senior class of Ryan Garko, Ryan McCally, Tim Cunningham, and Tobin Swope know no different than ending their season in Omaha, as the Cardinal have finished as the runners-up or semifinalist in each of their first three years at Stanford.

The Pac-10 Champions seem to be peaking at the right time. After a series loss to Arizona back in late April coupled with a 2-0 loss to Santa Clara, the Cardinal have come on strong in the month of May, winning 14 of their last 15 games to end the regular season. Clinching the Pac-10 title last week, Stanford easily beat Cal Poly three-in-a-row to wrap up their ninth consecutive 40-win season.

Leading the way for the Cardinal into the postseason are their upperclassmen, particularly Ryan Garko and John Hudgins. Garko, who was named Co-Pac-10 Player of the Year on Tuesday, has solidified his position as perhaps the best catcher in the country. He is hitting an amazing .406, with 15 HR and 78 RBI. The senior catcher has put together three excellent offensive seasons, and is as tough an out as any player in the country right now. John Hudgins might not have the gaudy numbers that Jeremy Guthrie put up last year, but he has had a tremendous season, one in which won him Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year honors.

Perhaps just as importantly, Stanford's supporting cast has picked up the pace lately. Brian Hall is red hot, with five multi-hit games in a row. Sam Fuld has a 14-game hit streak and has been very hot since the end of April. Donny Lucy is smoking the ball, and Chris Carter has found his power stroke for the second consecutive year at the end of May.

Pitching-wise, the Cardinal are much stronger now that Tim Cunningham is back in the rotation, as the Cardinal's rotation of Hudgins, Romanczuk, and Cunningham is quite formidable. In addition, having Ryan McCally and Matt Manship in the bullpen to close games along with David O'Hagan and Kodiak Quick give the Cardinal their deepest bullpen in years.

While the Cardinal seem primed for another deep run in the postseason, keep in mind that it is never easy. It took a suicide squeeze to beat Marist in the opener of the 2001 postseason, and the Cardinal went to 13 innings last year against Fullerton in the first game.

Probable Starting Lineup:

CF Sam Fuld (.331, 2 HR, 29 RBI).
Fuld continued his hot hitting against Cal Poly, as he now has a 14-game hit streak. If he gets on base, he is highly probable to score, as he has crossed the plate 68 times this season. Last year in the postseason, Fuld came in red-hot but then struggled mightily in the Regionals and Supers before kicking into high gear in the CWS.  Named to the All-Conference team for the third time in three years.

1B Brian Hall (.309, 4 HR, 37 RBI).
Hall has been slightly dinged up lately but because of his hot bat will likely be in the lineup, more likely than not at 1B. Five consecutive multi-hit games for Hall, and he could have had five 3-hit games in a row if not for being pulled early against Cal Poly on Saturday. Mayberry or Lucy could also start here, but with Mayberry struggling and Lucy valuable as a PH, look for Hall as the favorite.

RF Carlos Quentin (.384, 8 HR, 50 RBI).
Quentin's average has fallen over the last few weeks, but keep in mind that he is hitting .384! is 11-game hit streak ended this weekend, but he hopes to start a new one in the postseason. Quentin really struggled in the 2002 postseason and will look to atone for that.  Like Fuld, he earned his third All-Pac-10 honor this week.

C Ryan Garko (.406, 15 HR, 78 RBI)
Check the stats. Garko has shown that he is one of the best hitters in the country, and one of the best catchers as well. Has improved steadily throwing out baserunners, and has the best eye on the team: 15 HR, 13 Ks. Garko hurt his hand against UCLA, but answered all questions about his health this weekend, starting all three games behind the plate.

LF Danny Putnam (.356, 11 HR, 45 RBI)
Putnam was hitless on Friday against the lefty but against righties this weekend he should find his comfort zone. Three hits on Saturday and one on Sunday for the sophomore, who has quietly behind Quentin and Garko put up a very impressive season.  All-Conference performer.

DH Chris Carter (.231, 4 HR, 9 RBI)
You kind of hope that the stats fool unfamiliar teams with Carter at the plate. He got off to a slow start, but lately has been mashing the ball. Typical day on Sunday for Carter: walked in his first AB, homered in his second, doubled in the fifth, hit a rope to right for an out in the sixth. Against righties in the postseason, he will be in the lineup. Stanford's best hitter in the tournament in 2002.

2B Jed Lowrie (.302, 0 HR, 23 RBI)
Lowrie broke a 1-16 slump with a few hits on Friday, but had just one hit in the next two games. However, has a penchant for knocking in runs in key spots, as he did with a 2 RBI single on Saturday and a couple of groundouts that did the job later in the weekend.

3B Jonny Ash (.283, 0 HR, 17 RBI)
Mark Marquess' toughest decision may be whether or not to keep Jonny Ash in the lineup or put Mayberry or Lucy at 1B and move Hall to 3B. Ash was very good both defensively, and offensively last weekend, where he was outstanding at moving runners up and driving them in.

SS Tobin Swope (.286, 1 HR, 29 RBI)
One of the great moments of the year was last weekend when Tobin Swope hit his first career homer and was mobbed by teammates at the plate. But Swope has really struggled offensively over the last month, as his average has dropped around 50 points. 2 for last 19.  Honorable mention All-Pac-10.

Probable Starting Rotation:

Friday RHP John Hudgins (9-3, 3.14 ERA, 17 GS)
The workhorse for the Cardinal will likely go on Friday against UIC. Hudgins went just six innings against Cal Poly, but he was pulled solely to rest him and get him ready for postseason play. Mark Marquess is much more apt to keep a starter in longer in the postseason (see Guthrie's 13 inning game last season) and much less likely to bring a starter back later in the weekend in short relief like other coaches might. So once Hudgins is used, he is almost certainly done for the weekend.

Saturday LHP Mark Romanczuk (10-0, 3.45 ERA, 18G/12 GS)
For some teams it would be scary to have a freshman starting the most important game of the year, but not for the Cardinal. Romanczuk has been incredible this season, most recently combining on a shutout with Matt Manship on Saturday.  Named to the All-Conference team.

Game 3 LHP Tim Cunningham (3-3, 5.49 ERA, 11 GS)
Cunningham pitched in Game 3 in 2001, an elimination Game against Marist, and turned in the performance of his career (8 IP, 0 R, 9 SO). Game 3 will either be late on Saturday, early on Sunday, or potentially not at all. But Cunningham needs to find the strikezone and needs to find it early, or else he could be victim of a quick hook.

Game 4/5 RHP Ryan McCally (5-2, 5.35 ERA, 21 G, 11 GS)
Don't be too surprised if McCally hasn't been used much (or at all) if he makes a start in a fourth or fifth game. However, if he is needed, he will not be held back to make a start. Its possible that Manship might start as well.

Bullpen: RHP Matt Manship (2-4, 3.20 ERA, 20 G, 8 SV)
RHP Kodiak Quick (2-0, 4.41 ERA, 23 G)
RHP David O'Hagan (6-1, 5.88 ERA, 23 G)
RHP Jonny Dyer (2-1, 3.79 ERA, 13 G)


ILLINOIS-CHICAGO

The Horizon League Champions come to Sunken Diamond after winning the league regular season title and the conference tournament. The Flames got a walk-off homer to beat Butler to advance to the NCAA Tournament. UIC has won five in a row entering the Regionals, including their four conference tournament games.

Illinois-Chicago won their conference, but they have played just one tournament team (Arkansas, who swept them the first weekend of the season). Their strength of schedule, according to Boyds World, is 209 (out of 287). Stanford's, by contrast, is #3. The Flames do have a major disadvantage: being a northern school, they started the season on March 1, and had to play their first 11 games on the road. They are an outstanding team at home: 27-3 at their home ballpark, but only 8-13 away from Chicago. They come into the tournament playing very well. Only 16 losses all season, but the Flames lost six in a row to start the year, and just ten since, and are 37-7 since late March. Of course, those wins came against the likes of Viterbo, Chicago St., Youngstown St., Cleveland St., and Wright St.

The Flames are a good hitting team by the numbers (team batting average of .331), but are more known for their pitching. In the conference tournament, their pitching staff walked a grand total of two batters! Two! Ryan Martin has the best numbers on the staff: 7-0 record, 2.01 ERA, opponents hitting .202 against. Ryan Gehring also has impressive numbers, as the sophomore leads the team in innings and has walked just 14 in 96 innings.

Offensively, UIC is led by leadoff hitter Mike Hughes, who leads starters in average with a .384 mark and a .484 on-base percentage. DH Chuck Peters leads the team in HR (11), and a .351 batting average to go along with it.

Stanford will be by far the best team that UIC has faced this year, but they don't seem intimidated In an online journal on the UIC website, 1B Chris Kerpan said, "I stumbled across an article in which the title read ‘Stanford to host UC Riverside, Richmond, and Chicago-Illinois.' I found this amusing because they called us Chicago-Illinois, not UIC and not even Illinois-Chicago. That menial error shows that the great program Stanford does not think very highly of the UIC Flames. However, we all think that we belong and we are going to prove to a lot of people, including those in our regional, that we should not be underestimated."

Probable Starting Lineup:

RF Mike Hughes (.384, 8 HR, 28 RBI)
The leading hitter for UIC, draws a lot of walks and can run a bit (10-14). Junior hits right, throws right.

3B Nelson Gord (.328, 2 HR, 34 RBI)
Switch hitter who either will hit second or eighth in the lineup. Doesn't draw many walks and is only fielding .915.

DH Chuck Peters (.351, 11 HR, 56 RBI)
Senior left handed hitter leads the club in HR and slugging.

1B Brad Ryan (.297, 7 HR, 40 RBI)
Played in all games but 1 this year. Low slugging percentage (not many extra base hits) for a cleanup hitter despite 7 HR. Righthanded.

CF J.P. Moran (.342, 2 HR, 38 RBI)
No errors for the CF who will either hit fourth or fifth. Hits left-handed.

SS Jordan DeVoir (.341, 2 HR, 29 RBI)
Walkoff HR won the Horizon League tourney over Butler. 23 errors at SS for a .912 fielding percentage.

C Kevin Nelson (.341, 4 HR, 33 RBI)
Has thrown out 15 of 28 runners attempting to steal.

2B Bryan Russo (.285, 4 HR, 24 RBI)
10 stolen bases for the 2B but he has the lowest average out of all the starters.

LF J.P. Carey (.346, 1 HR, 17 RBI)
Leads the team in steals and has a high OBP (.441).

Probable Friday Starters:

LHP Ryan Gehring (8-4, 2.34 ERA, 15 G, 13 GS)
Has been the main arm for UIC this year and much like all other starters for the Flames, he doesn't walk many. Only 14 walks in 96 innings.

or

RHP Ryan Martin (7-0, 2.01 ERA, 14 G, 10 GS)
The best numbers for UIC: opponents are hitting just .201 against him. Last start: complete game shutout two-hitter against Butler with 13 K and 0 BB.




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