Burning baseball questions
Ten quandries that may be answered during super regionals
It started with 64 and we're down to 16. Only eight will make it to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. Before we "Play ball!" in the super regionals this weekend, Amy Farnum poses these 10 questions:
1. How much does it mean to have a No. 1 national seed? Or any national seed, for that matter?
Since the Division I Baseball Championship changed to the super regional format in 1999, 11 of 14 No. 1 national seeds have advanced to the College World Series, including in each of the past five seasons. At least three national seeds have earned CWS berths every year, but never have all eight national seeds made the Omaha trip. It will not happen this year, either, as No. 8 Oregon got knocked out by Rice in regional action. Last year, four national seeds went to Omaha -- No. 1 Florida, No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Florida State and No. 8 South Carolina.
2. Does a national seed give a team the inside track to taking home the trophy in Omaha?
This one is pretty simple -- no. Last year’s champion Arizona was not nationally seeded. In fact, an unseeded team has won the CWS in seven of the past nine years. The No. 1 national seed has had even worse luck. The only No. 1 national seed to ever win the national championship was Miami (Fla.) in 1999. The Hurricanes defeated second-seeded Florida State in the championship game. Four times, the No. 1 national seed has not advanced at all, including Vanderbilt’s early exit in the 2007 NCAA regionals.
3. Do first-timers Indiana or Kansas State have a shot at punching a ticket to Omaha?
Absolutely. In each of the past four years, at least one team has won a super regional and advanced to the CWS for the first time. So, yes, Indiana and Kansas State, who won their first NCAA regional championships last weekend, will have a great shot at making their dreams come true. Last year, Stony Brook and Kent State were the darlings of Omaha. In 2011, Vanderbilt made its first trip. TCU went in 2010, and Virginia and Southern Miss in '09. Plus, of the six teams who have advanced to the CWS for the first time in the past four years, four of those have won at least one game in Omaha.
4. Does home-field advantage matter in the NCAA super regionals?
In a word, yes. However, just because a team is playing at home doesn’t mean Omaha is a lock. Since the format was implemented in 1999, at least five home teams have advanced to the CWS. Never have all eight home teams survived the super regionals, and only twice have seven home teams advanced out of the round (2002, '07). Last year, Kent State won on the road at Oregon, Stony Brook shocked LSU in Baton Rouge, La., and Arkansas edged Baylor in Waco, Texas.
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5. Can Carlos Rodon and the rest of the Pack lead NC State to its first CWS appearance since 1968?
I couldn’t talk about home-field advantage without mentioning NC State, which is playing host to its first super regional beginning Friday against Rice. It will be the fourth super regional appearance for the Wolfpack, but they went on the road to Miami in 2003, to Georgia in '08 and to Florida in '12, and are still seeking their first CWS appearance since 1968. Fans are psyched for the opportunity (tickets sold out early Tuesday) to not only cheer on their team but get a glimpse of one of the best collegiate pitchers in the nation in Rodon, who is expected to start Friday. The sophomore left-hander has posted double-digit strikeouts in his past three starts, including 10 against William and Mary in the NCAA regional. However, Rice is no slouch. The Owls knocked off No. 8-seed Oregon -- one of the nation’s top pitching staffs -- in the NCAA Eugene Regional.
6. Only one California team is guaranteed a spot in the CWS. Will it be UCLA or Cal State Fullerton?
This is a tossup. Only nine times in CWS history has a Golden State team not been in the eight-team field (last time in 2005), but this will not be one of those years. UCLA and Cal State Fullerton will meet in the postseason for the fourth time in the past seven years, and third time with a trip to Omaha on the line. The Titans downed the Bruins in the 2007 NCAA Fullerton Super Regional, and knocked off UCLA once again in regional action the next year. In 2010, UCLA won the final two games of the NCAA Los Angeles Super Regional to advance to the CWS. UCLA is looking to make back-to-back appearances in Omaha, while the Titans are vying for their first trip since 2009. Fullerton won two midweek contests against the Bruins by scores of 9-6 and 5-2 earlier this season, and leads the series 63-28-2.
7. How many SEC/ACC teams can survive and advance to Omaha?
The Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference combined for 17 teams in the 64-team bracket. There are eight SEC/ACC teams remaining in the field of 16 -- four from each league -- but only six can possibly advance, because there are two SEC-ACC head-to-head matchups this weekend between North Carolina-South Carolina and Virginia-Mississippi State. A combination of at least four SEC/ACC teams have made the trip to Omaha in each of the past five seasons. The SEC has claimed nine NCAA titles, including three in the past four years (LSU, 2009; South Carolina, 2010-11), while the ACC is looking for its second overall championship and first since 1955.
8. Which NCAA super regional poses the biggest mismatch of styles?
My vote is the Oregon State-Kansas State series as one of the top pitching teams in the nation meets one of the best hitting teams in Division I in Corvallis, Ore., starting Saturday. The Beavers enter the weekend with the second-best ERA in the nation at 2.18 and pace the country with just 6.73 hits allowed per nine innings. Oregon State posted a 1.67 ERA in the NCAA Corvallis Regional, holding foes to just seven runs (five earned) in three games. Will the Beavers be able to squelch a Kansas State offense that is batting .324 on the season, which ranks second in the NCAA? The Wildcats were pretty productive last weekend, scoring 31 runs in three NCAA regional contests while batting .333. OSU is looking to advance to the CWS for the first time since winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and '07, while Kansas State is seeking its first appearance in Omaha.
9. Who are the freshmen making a name for themselves in the postseason?
There are plenty of rookies who have contributed to their teams in the tournament, but a few have definitely stood out. LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, the Louisville Slugger Freshman Player of the Year, continued his tremendous season (.385, 17 2B, 6 HR, 52 RBI, 15 SB) in the Baton Rouge Regional, earning Most Outstanding Player honors after hitting .545 with five runs scored and three RBIs. Fullerton right-hander Thomas Eshelman tossed eight shutout innings with seven strikeouts in a 6-1 victory against Arizona State in its NCAA regional championship game. Eshelman garnered Louisville Slugger Freshman Pitcher of the Year honors after compiling a 12-2 record and 1.58 ERA on the season. He fanned 78 batters in 107.2 innings pitched while allowing just two walks.
10. What’s the deal with the mustaches?
If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, you probably haven’t been watching much college baseball lately. Florida State pitchers Scott Sitz and Gage Smith may be better known for their mustaches than their talents on the mound, although both have been solid this season. Sitz started the trend last year after a challenge from former teammate Robert Benincasa that he couldn’t grow a mustache. The better he pitched, the longer the ‘stache became and the Seminoles finally landed in the CWS, where the mustache had a national television audience. While Sitz was forced to shave his face by sports information personnel for head shots at the beginning of the year, he grew it back in short order. Other teammates tried to grow their own versions, but Smith was the only one who was successful, and now sports a handlebar mustache reminiscent of former major-leaguer Rollie Fingers. The duo has been dubbed the Mustache Mafia, and someone even created a Twitter handle in their honor (@MustacheMafia13). The mustaches will surely be the subject of discussion once again when the Seminoles play host to Indiana beginning Saturday.