Texas A&M's regular season was a laudable one: the Aggies won 44 games and persevered through a very average conference performance to win the tournament championship. A&M's 28 wins versus non-conference opponents is their most in nearly two decades, and the two losses came to teams that were named to the NCAA regional field today.
That resume, with all its greatness and slight inadequacy, earned the Aggies a No. 1 seed and some level of protection in the first round of regional play. The final product wasn't enough to warrant a national seed, but A&M really couldn't have asked for a much clearer path to the College World Series in Omaha.
First, the Aggies are playing at home, where they put a 29-6 record on the board this year. Olsen Field hasn't been itself in quite a few seasons, thanks mainly to the on-field performance and a "wait and see" attitude that many casual fans had toward the hiring of Rob Childress.
Still, that atmosphere was somewhat reignited in the Friday night loss to Texas, when the first sellout crowd in the Childress era came through the turnstiles. The championship run through the Big 12 tourney has re-energized and captivated that fringe crowd, and the house will be rocking this weekend. Olsen Field was once feared as one of the absolute worst places for an opponent to play, and that atmosphere should make its' triumphant return this weekend thanks to the recent play.
In addition to playing at one of the best environments in college baseball, A&M really received a favorable regional draw. Many insiders felt that Louisiana-Lafayette was also worthy of a top seed, and the knee-jerk reaction is to conclude that the committee did A&M no favors by including them in the College Station regional. Upon further examination, the Ragin' Cajuns have some gaping holes that make them vulnerable in postseason play. Other than their projected Friday night starter, all of their "above the line" pitchers (those who have more innings pitched than games the team played) have allowed more than a hit per inning pitched. ULL does boast a very high RPI, but has played just six games against Top 50 competition, winning only one. They're also just 13-10 against Top 100 teams away from home.
Make no mistake, ULL can play ball, but the perceived bark may be worse than the bite. They have some very big bats in the middle of the line-up and talent on the hill, but question marks abound.
ULL will play Ohio State on Friday afternoon, and you can bet that A&M fans will be pulling hard for the Buckeyes in the upset. RPI and overall record suggests that the Cajuns should win in a romp, but OSU brings the great regional equalizer to Olsen—a top notch Friday starter. The best pitcher in the regional not named Kyle Nicholson is Cory Luebke, the Big 10 Player of the Year. He holds an 8-1 record with a 1.91 ERA and 88 Ks in 107 innings pitched. He doesn't beat himself, as evidenced by a 1.06 WHIP, and opponents are barely hitting above .200 against him.
Regardless of the winner in Friday's 1 PM game, the mere presence of Luebke helps A&M. He forces ULL to throw their number one starter, who is head and shoulders above the rest of his teammates on the hill. Either result suits the Aggies; if ULL wins, they've burned their best pitcher for the tournament, but if OSU wins, ULL is now in the loser's bracket and the Buckeyes staff is much thinner than the Cajuns.
Then there's Le Moyne, whose arrival in College Station is a mental and logistical Godsend for the Aggies. When Sam Houston State won their regional, most thought the Bearkats would be sent just 45 miles down Highway 30 to play the Ags, with a #68 RPI, one outstanding starter and closer, former head coach Mark Johnson and several disgruntled former Aggie student-athletes in tote. Thankfully, the NCAA's sense of humor isn't nearly as wicked as perceived.
LeMoyne isn't one of the weakest four seeds in the tournament, and they have pretty good stats from their frontline pitchers, but their overall quality is such that Childress has the option to not throw Nicholson or David Newmann on Friday night. He may ultimately choose to do so anyway, but a streaking Kirkland Rivers or Scott Migl may be the final choice for a variety of reasons.
Winning the first game is an absolute must, especially for an A&M team that's pretty thin in the pen, but conventional wisdom tells you that you'd rather have your third or fourth best starter throwing against the fourth best team on Friday than the second best team on Sunday. Nicholson also has plenty of experience out of the bullpen and, if you find yourself into an unexpectedly dicey situation on Friday night, you bring him in for a few innings. Childress knows what he has in his All-American, and it's likely that his exact role in the regional will be defined by A&M's performance rather than a normal rotation.
The best case scenario is to win without going to "the well" on Friday, leaving Newmann and Nicholson to throw on Saturday and Sunday.
Finally, the Aggies got as good of a draw as they possibly could have for a potential Super Regional match-up. Rice is an outstanding team, and there are certainly easier outs in the national seeds, but the situation provides A&M with many intangibles that they might not receive with a different pairing.
The selection committee withdrew its wicked sense of humor for A&M, but pulled it out firmly for Rice. The Owls start off with a perceptively easy contest against Prairie View A&M, but everyone knows what happened the last time Rice was paired with a gimme SWAC team. Baylor and TCU round out the Rice regional field, and combine to give the Owls—on paper—one of the toughest regionals in the nation.
Assuming A&M wins their regional and Rice survives theirs, which they should, then a rematch of the 2004 regional is set-up for Rice Village. Though the Rice fan base has grown by leaps and bounds under Wayne Graham, Reckling Park will quickly become Olsen Field South and give A&M the home-fan advantage. A&M has also defeated Rice twice this season, both times in Houston, and should have all of the confidence in the world that they can take the Owls down again. Should A&M win their regional but Rice get knocked off, a Super Regional would return to Olsen Field for the first time in nearly a decade.
A&M really couldn't have asked for more from the selection committee, but getting a favorable draw and doing something with it are two very different things. A&M is carrying significant momentum from their conference tournament championship, but execution is key in regional play and will ultimately tell the tale. The table is set with nearly every possible physical, mental, and logistical advantage for the Aggies to return to the College World Series.
It's all about execution.
A Blessed Road
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