The Road to Cary is complete. It took a little while for the rain-soaked South Region to figure it out, but the final eight teams are ready to square off in the 2018 DII Baseball Championship.
With play set to begin Saturday, May, 26 at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, North Carolina, let’s take a look at the last team’s standing in the DII baseball season.
The team to beat:
UC San Diego
Seed: No. 3 | Record: 42-15 | Region: West
The Tritons were in Grand Prairie, Texas, last year and made an incredible run. After losing on the first day, UC San Diego rumbled off win after win behind a high-scoring offense and outstanding pitching. While there are some new faces, plenty remain.
Troy Cruz and Adrian Orozco are out of the rotation, but they joined their head coach Eric Newman as assistant coaches this season, their veteran presence still looming large in the dugout. Preston Mott leads this staff now with an 8-1 record and 2.86 ERA averaging more than a strikeout per inning.
Offensively, last year’s superstar slugger Jack Larsen is in pro ball, but Zander Clarke has done just fine in replacing him. Clarke is hitting a team-best .394, with 18 home runs and 85 RBI. Plenty of big-hitting names return to the finals like Tyler Durna and Alex Eliopulos as well as the seemingly always super clutch Michael Palos. This team can hit for average and power up on you, and combined with solid pitching, the Tritons can put up runs in a hurry. Add in their experience as the only team returning from last year's field and the battle they endured through the Wild West Region and you have a real contender here.
Teams to watch:
Seed: No. 1 | Record: 42-9-1 | Region: South
The team that advances to Cary from the South is always one of the favorites to take it all. But it is often a double-edged sword, having to play your best baseball against some of the nation's best teams just to escape your own region. Pair that with a long regional tournament that ended Wednesday night thanks to daily rainstorms and the Mocs have their work cut out.
The Mocs are the top seed in Cary and deservedly so. They have nine national championships in program history, the last coming in 2005, and more losses in the championship series (four) than most teams have appearances in the tournament. This team has been on a run from Day 1 of 2018 looking poised to make it to Cary from the onset, and after a thrilling 8-7 victory over a stacked Tampa team in the regional finals, they are rolling.
This team has plenty of talent top to bottom, but Logan Browning is one of the most exciting players in the nation. A true two-way threat, Browning found his way onto the midseason Golden Spikes Award watch list. He led the Mocs with a .442/.523/.667 slash line while belting 11 doubles and four home runs. On the bump, he is 9-2 with the big save in the regional championship, posting a 3.11 ERA and a 9.33 strikeout-per-nine rate.
Seed: No. 7 | Record: 36-13 | Region: Atlantic
The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference has sent two teams to the past two finals series, with Millersville finishing as national runners-up in 2016 and West Chester taking home the title last year. With the pitching staff the Lakers have, it could very well be the third year in a row.
Chris Vallimont is a beast atop the rotation. He's 10-2 on the year with a 1.94 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 74.1 innings. Matt Minnick is coming off an outing in which he tossed 10 innings, a valuable arm for the postseason. Tyler Garbee is on fire of late, a perfect 6-0 on the season with a 2.26 ERA and more than a strikeout-per-inning. Mercyhurst doesn't have a standout hitter atop the DII baseball leaderboards, but first baseman Daniel Elliott is one to watch. He's hitting .345 with a team-best 10 home runs and 51 RBI. Like all teams from the PSAC, the Lakers grind out wins and hope they have a few more left.
Looking for number three:
Seed: No. 8 | Record: 36-21 | Region: Midwest
You could argue that the Screaming Eagles are a sleeper in Cary. Afterall, they were the last at-large bid and the seventh-seed in the Midwest bracket. But this is the fifth time Tracy Archuleta has guided Southern Indiana to Cary, and he'll have this team prepared as if they never left.
Southern Indiana will be looking for the school's third title and first since 2014. Opposing pitchers will have to try to find a way to cool down Drake McNamara who is on a 12-game hitting streak, eight of which have been multi-hit performances. He leads the team in average (.390), home runs (17) and RBI (79), but this entire lineup can hit with a combined .319 average. The Screaming Eagles strength is at the plate as only one pitcher has a sub-4.00 ERA. Kyle Griffin can be the X-factor here; his 3.50 ERA and 97 strikeouts are best amongst the staff.
The beasts of the East:
Southern New Hampshire
Seed: No. 4 | Record: 39-15 | Region: East
Quick, name the last time a team from the current East Region won the DII Baseball Championship. The answer is simple: never.
St. Thomas Aquinas gave it a run last year with one of the best hitting teams in Grand Prairie and a dangerous bullpen. The Spartans had plenty of that hitting intact, but Shane McDonald wanted nothing to do with it. He pitched a complete game, one-hit shutout, striking out 15 Spartans in propelling the Penmen back to Cary for the first time since 2012.
Pitching will be the key if Southern New Hampshire wants to make some noise in the tournament. Its 3.00 ERA is fourth in DII baseball and its 10.4 strikeouts-per-nine is third-best. McDonald leads the way with a ridiculous 13.08-per-nine.
Heading into the tournament, we called Augustana (SD) and Columbus State sleeper picks to come out of their respective regions. Both teams did just that and are now in Cary, and both teams should be put on watch.
Seed: No. 2 | Record: 45-13 | Region: Southeast
Coach Greg Appleton already has a national championship to his name. But that was all the way back in 2002, and he and the Cougars would love to bring the trophy back to Georgia. Austin Pharr (.345, 17 home runs, 55 RBI) leads this offense, going 5-for-15 in the last three games of the postseason, including a two-home run performance against North Greenville to propel the Cougars onward to Belmont Abbey. On the bump, Kolton Ingram (12-3, 2.23 ERA, 135 strikeouts) continues to impress, tossing seven innings of shutout ball against Belmont Abbey to advance. Columbus State has weapons and is rolling. It could be its turn to surprise in Cary.
Seed: No. 5 | Record: 48-9 | Region: Central
The Vikings have their share of bats, but pitching is the key to their run this postseason. Offensively, this team plays some small ball, second in DII baseball with 159 stolen bases. Riley Johnson leads the way, hitting .385 with a .448 on-base percentage and 33 stolen bases, but he is just one of five Vikings with plus-.300 average, 40-plus runs scored and double-digit stolen bases. This pitching staff is one of the best in the nation, leading DII baseball with a 1.13 WHIP and 14 shutouts while placing third in ERA (2.85) and sixth in strikeouts-per-nine (10.2). Jacob Blank, the 2017 DII Pitcher of the Year, has tossed more innings than any Viking, yet remains undefeated at 8-0 with a 1.98 ERA and 88 strikeouts.
Seed: No. 6 | Record: 41-15 | Region: South Central
If you saw the Javelinas as the team heading to Cary out of this region, congratulations. You just may be the smartest DII baseball scholar out there. This region was stacked with teams like Colorado Mesa and West Texas A&M, but lo and behold, it is the Javelinas that are still dancing to Cary for the first time in program history.
Lee May Gonzalez started and won the historic Region-winner over Colorado Mesa to improve to 6-2 on the year with a 3.63 ERA. Dallas Stefano (.349, eight home runs, 55 RBI) blasted a home run and Manny Loredo (.353, six home runs, 38 RBI) launched a double to increase his team-best batting average. The Javelinas' stats may not jump off the page, but they're here, and that makes them dangerous.