Regionals Preview - Part I

The second season begins on Friday night for the Stanford Cardinal as they host the UNLV Rebels at Sunken Diamond in NCAA Tournament play. The Cardinal are the top seed in the Palo Alto Regional while the Rebels come in seeded fourth. In Part I of our regional preview, we take a look at two teams that are looking to hit their way to Omaha. Read on for all the details.

1. Stanford Cardinal (44-12, 16-8 Pac-10)

The Stanford Cardinal earned the #1 seed in the Palo Alto Regional and the overall #5 national seed with a sparkling 44-12 record during the regular season.  That 44-12 mark is the second best regular season during Mark Marquess' 28 years as a head coach.  Stanford is looking for their sixth consecutive trip to the College World Series as they enter this NCAA Tournament as the #1 ranked team in the country.

The Cardinal breezed through the non-conference portion of their schedule.  They notched series wins over top-ten opponents Cal State Fullerton and Texas and entered the start of Pac-10 play in April as the best team in the land according to the national polls.  And outside of back-to-back series losses in early/mid May at Washington and Arizona (both tournament teams), Stanford had little trouble in conference play as well.  The Cardinal finished with a 16-8 record in Pac-10 action, one game ahead of second-place Washington.  As a national seed, Stanford would host a super regional if they were to advance.  This is very good news for the Cardinal as they sport a dominating 27-3 record at Sunken Diamond this season.

Hitting is clearly the strength of this team as there may not be a better offensive squad in the country.  The Cardinal hit .327 as a team and average a whopping 8.5 runs per game.  Stanford does it with the long ball as they've slammed 89 home runs this season.  They have a realistic shot to break the school record of 102 (set by the 1997 team) with a deep run in the postseason.  The Cardinal can and will play small ball to manufacture runs, but doubles and homers are definitely how this team scores the majority of the time.

Individually, it all starts with sophomore second baseman Jed Lowrie.  Lowrie was named a First Team All-American by Sports Weekly last week as the he's hitting .407 with 16 homers and 66 RBI on the season.  The Salem, Oregon has plenty of help though as Danny Putnam (.388-15-57) and John Mayberry, Jr. (.338-14-57) along with Lowrie form possibly the most fearsome 3-4-5 combo in college baseball. 

Pitching isn't the strength of the Cardinal as they sport a very young staff (eight of their ten regular pitchers are freshmen or sophomores), but when you score 8 1/2 runs per game, the pitching doesn't need to be perfect.  Leading the way is sophomore lefty Mark Romanczuk (11-2, 4.03) and sophomore righty Jeff Gilmore (9-2, 4.56).  The #3 starting spot has been a roller coaster ride this year and it continues to be unsettled here at the beginning of the NCAA Tournament.  Recently, the Cardinal have just gone with a pitching-by-committee approach in the games not started by Romanczuk or Gilmore.  The bullpen is very deep this season for Stanford as it's led by senior David O'Hagan.  O'Hagan is 6-1 on the year with a 2.62 ERA, .188 opposing average, and six saves.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Sam Fuld, CF  (Sr., .280, 4 HR, 29 RBI)
2. Jonny Ash, 3B  (Sr., .384, 5 HR, 33 RBI)
3. Jed Lowrie, 2B  (So., .407, 16 HR, 66 RBI)
4. Danny Putnam, LF  (Jr., .388, 15 HR, 57 RBI)
5. John Mayberry, Jr., 1B  (So., .338, 14 HR, 57 RBI)
6. Brian Hall, RF  (Sr., .356, 9 HR, 52 RBI)
7. Donny Lucy, C  (Jr., .313, 11 HR, 44 RBI)
8. Chris Carter, DH  (Jr., .281, 8 HR, 36 RBI)
9. Chris Minaker, SS  (So., .269, 3 HR, 30 RBI)

SP- Mark Romanczuk, LHP  (So., 11-2, 4.03 ERA, 105 IP, 39 BB, 91 SO)
SP- Jeff Gilmore, RHP  (So., 9-2, 4.56 ERA, 98.2 IP, 22 BB, 69 SO)
SP- Blake Holler, LHP  (Fr., 4-2, 4.29 ERA, 56.2 IP, 22 BB, 49 SO)
SP- Matt Leva, RHP  (Fr., 5-2, 5.06 ERA, 26.2 IP, 10 BB, 14 SO)

Notes: Fuld is now just 15 hits shy of John Gall's career record on the Farm ... Ash was a career .314 hitter before this year, but has broken out to the tune of a .384 average in his senior campaign ... Lowrie is a strong candidate for Pac-10 Player of the Year which should be announced sometime this week ... Putnam should be drafted somewhere in the first three rounds next week ... Hall leads the team with 13 stolen bases (in 16 attempts).

4. UNLV Rebels (37-22, 20-10 Mountain West)

UNLV enters the weekend on a high note as they swept through the Mountain West Conference Tournament last weekend in Las Vegas.  The Rebels went a perfect 4-0 which was capped by a 6-3 win in the championship game over San Diego State.  In the regular season, UNLV finished in a three-way virtual tie for first place in the Mountain West.  It should be noted that the Mountain West was an extremely weak conference this season.  Only UNLV from the conference reached the NCAA Tournament, while as a whole, the MWC was rated as just the 23rd toughest conference (out of 31) in the country.  It was ranked in the RPI below the likes of the Big Ten, Big South, America East, and WCC among others.

The Rebels' non-conference record isn't particularly impressive which has resulted in their #4 seed in this regional.  UNLV was swept by Cal State Fullerton to open the season.  Twice they weren't even competitive losing by the scores of 13-1 and 14-6.  The Rebels also compiled an 0-2 mark in a midweek series with Arizona and went 0-2 in a pair of midweek games versus UC Irvine.

Buddy Gouldsmith is in his first season as the UNLV head coach.  Last season, the Rebels had an excellent year as they went 47-17 and were ranked in the top 25 for the majority of the season.  In postseason play, UNLV lost to Arizona State in the Tempe Regional championship game.  This team, while still qualifying for the NCAA's, isn't nearly as strong as last year's UNLV club.

Like Stanford, UNLV relies heavily on their hitting.  In fact, you can count on one hand the number of teams this year with more impressive offensive numbers than the Cardinal and the Rebels are one of those squads.  UNLV is hitting a robust .338 as a team while they're averaging an amazing 10.1 runs per game.  They have tremendous balance in their starting lineup as eight starters are hitting above .300 and six of them have connected for six or more home runs.

UNLV has hit for fewer homers than Stanford (73 compared to the Cardinal's 89), but their team slugging percentage is right there with the Cardinal.  The Rebels don't play a lot of small ball, but have been plunked with an extraordinary amount of pitches this year.  A Cal State Fullerton-like 103 times.

However, it should be noted that UNLV has played an extremely weak schedule this year.  According to Boyd's World, the Rebels' schedule is just the 119th toughest in the country while Stanford's currently sits at #9.  So while UNLV has put up some gaudy hitting numbers this year and while they are an above-average hitting team, comparatively speaking, Stanford is probably the better offensive club.

Pitching and defense is where UNLV struggles mightily.  The Rebels' team ERA is a whopping 6.07 with the lowest earned run average on the staff stands at 4.93.  Defensively, they aren't any better with a terrible .961 team fielding percentage.  UNLV does go about ten-deep with their pitching staff, but is it really quality depth?

Individually, the first name to watch for this weekend is #3 hitter and right fielder Eric Nielsen.  Nielsen is hitting .410 with 16 homers and 86 RBI and was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year last week.  He leads this team in just about every offensive category and will be a tough out all weekend.  Hitting behind Nielsen is center fielder Brent Johnson.  Johnson was an All-Conference selection as he's hitting .367 with six homers and 72 RBI (hit over .400 in MWC play).  Following Johnson is second baseman Ryan Ruiz and his .392 average with six homers.  This looks to be a very dangerous middle of the order which means it's going to be imperative for the Cardinal pitchers to set down the guys at the top of the lineup so they can keep this offense in check.

On the mound, the most likely candidate to start against Stanford on Friday night is senior lefty Jake Vose.  Vose is 10-3 with a 4.95 ERA in 103 2/3 innings pitched.  Vose has lots of experience and the Rebels may want to go with a lefty against the Cardinal's lefty-heavy starting lineup.  Last weekend in the Mountain West Tournament, Vose was hammered for nine runs (eight earned) on 13 hits in 6 1/3 innings pitched.  Hardly a dominating pitcher (opponents hitting .305 against), but he does have big-game experience.

The two other weekend starters for the Rebels are senior right hander David Seccombe (9-2, 5.22) and sophomore right hander Matt Luca (7-5, 5.99).  As the numbers indicate, both of these pitchers have been very up-and-down as well this season.  And remember, UNLV's schedule was hardly one of the toughest on the west coast.

UNLV has played some wild games this season.  A sampling of some their game scores this year: W 24-10, L 14-12, W 18-11, W 22-12, W 19-17, L 16-10.  If Romanczuk doesn't start on Friday, we could be looking at a high-scoring affair.  These guys can hit, but don't appear to have the arms to shut down the potent Cardinal hitting attack.  But if Romanczuk does get the call, look for him to go as long as possible (to preserve the bullpen for the rest of the weekend) which could result in a more one-sided affair in favor of Stanford.  UNLV can be a dangerous #4 seed because of the way they hit.  They're better than last year's #4 seed, Illinois-Chicago, but not nearly as tough as the #4 seed in the 2002 sub-regional which was, of course, Cal State Fullerton.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Andrew D'Angelo, LF  (Sr., .337, 7 HR, 43 RBI)
2. Zeke Parraz, 3B  (Jr., .393, 3 HR, 22 RBI)
3. Eric Nielsen, RF  (Jr., .410, 16 HR, 86 RBI)
4. Brent Johnson, CF  (Sr., .367, 6 HR, 72 RBI)
5. Ryan Ruiz, 2B  (Sr., .392, 6 HR, 49 RBI)
6. Ryan Bird, DH  (So., .304, 3 HR, 23 RBI)
7. Eddie Gill, 1B  (Sr., .339, 7 HR, 59 RBI)
8. Brad Ross, C  (Jr., .253, 4 HR, 16 RBI)
9. Peter White, SS  (Sr., .346, 9 HR, 56 RBI)

SP- Jake Vose, LHP  (Sr., 10-3, 4.95 ERA, 103/2 IP, 34 BB, 69 SO)
SP- David Seccombe, RHP  (Sr., 9-2, 5.22 ERA, 89.2 IP, 26 BB, 89 SO)
SP- Matt Luca, RHP  (So., 7-5, 5.99 ERA, 85.2 IP, 42 BB, 99 SO)

Notes: Nielsen leads the team in average (.410), runs (82), hits (100), doubles (23), homers (16), RBI (86), and slugging (.717) ... He's also been hit by 25 pitches this season ... Johnson and Ruiz are two threats to steal a bag with 11 and 12 SB's respectively ... White may bat ninth, but he's second on the team in homers with nine.

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