The first regional rankings for the DII baseball season have been released. That shines some light on how the Road to Cary is shaking out by giving us our first glimpse of contenders for the 2019 DII baseball championship.
That light is a minuscule sliver, however, with plenty of significant baseball left before now and the selection show on May 12. Let’s take a look at eight teams we feel have the best chance to open play at the USA Baseball National Training Complex on June 1 in Cary, North Carolina.
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Atlantic Region: Millersville
Mercyhurst is very good, but the Lakers have history against them. They made the trip to Cary last year, and the last team to make the final eight two times in a row out of the Atlantic was Kutztown way back in the 2001 and 2002 seasons. Repeat regional champions just don’t seem to work here. So why Millersville?
The Marauders have the top offense in the PSAC, leading the conference in batting average, runs scored, RBI, and total bases. The pitching has been middle-of-the-road statistically, but 2018 PSAC Pitcher of the Year Eli Nabholz has looked much more the part of late. He’s allowed just three earned runs over his last 25.1 innings pitched. If Nabholz is showing anything, it’s that the Marauders have braved the cold of the brutal northeast and are getting hot at the right time.
Central Region: St. Cloud State
The Boll Weevils of Arkansas-Monticello just had an 18-game winning streak and looked like a force to be reckoned with. And come on, how exciting would a final eight be with some Boll Weevils? But Arkansas-Monticello is just one great team in a logjam atop this region.
So, why did we go St. Cloud State?
For one, the Huskies have that 2.84 ERA and 1.12 WHIP that are both top 3 marks in DII baseball. They also have Mitch Mallek (.401, nine home runs, 1.136 OPS) leading an offense that collectively hits .324. The Huskies also have signature wins over Central Missouri and Minnesota State (although they did suffer a recent series loss to defending champion Augustana (SD)). A few wins here, a few losses there and this region can quickly change, but for now, we’re sticking with the Huskies.
East Region: NYIT
The East Region, like the Atlantic, is so hard to project. There hasn’t been a repeat winner since the 2007 and 2008 Franklin Pierce Ravens went to consecutive final eights. With the cold winters and long opening road trips, the East is just getting warmed up, so anyone here could be a surprise team to Cary.
So, why not have some fun and pick a team that may be under the radar a bit.
NYIT has redshirt-freshman EJ Cumbo. He’s leading the ECC with a .436 batting average. They also have junior catcher Ryan Kuskowski, who’s leading the conference in RBI. And don’t forget the pitching duo of Joseph Murphy and DJ Masuck. Murphy leads the ECC with a 1.36 ERA, while Masuck has a conference-best eight wins. See a pattern there? The Bears are clearly not short on star power, which gives them the pieces in place to make a surprise run in May.
Midwest Region: Wayne State (MI)
This may have been the toughest region to pick believe it or not. There is so little that separates Wayne State (MI), Ashland, Quincy, and Illinois Springfield atop this region.
Here's what it came down to. Two of Quincy's leading hitters — Nolan Snyder and Chandler Purcell — have been to the final eight before, helping to lead the Hawks to Grand Prairie, Texas in 2017. Starter Riley Martin was also there, and players like that give Quincy both big-time experience and balance. Where Quincy has been good against the competition in the first regional rankings, Wayne State has been utterly dominant.
The Warriors are 6-1 against teams ranked in their region and have signature wins against West Chester and Augustana (SD), both of whom are regionally ranked and happen to be the last two national champions. They have four big bats in Jacob Finkbeiner, Michal MacLean, Hunter DeLanoy, and Justin Kelly and pitcher Hunter Brown has been a guaranteed win, allowing one run or less in six of his ten starts. This region will be tough but seems like Wayne State's to lose, right now.
South Region: Tampa
If you have followed DII baseball long enough, you know the South Region can present a mini championship experience all by itself. Tampa and Florida Southern alone (who have a season-ending series against each other May 10-11) have combined for 16 national championships while schools like West Florida, Lynn, and Delta State have all hoisted trophies since the calendar flipped to 2000. Basically, anything can happen in the South.
The initial NCAA South Region rankings have been released, with #TampaBaseball holding the top spot. Eight teams from the region will earn a bid to the 2019 NCAA Tournament from May 17-19. #StandAsOne pic.twitter.com/87495LlrOg— Tampa Baseball (@UT_Baseball) April 24, 2019
Delta State’s Big Three — starting pitchers Hunter Riggins, Dalton Minton, and Melvin Frazier — will be difficult in a short tournament, so why did we go Tampa?
The Spartans are arguably the DII baseball team of the 2000s, and Cary has missed them for the past three seasons. The timing seems right for a return. They are balanced, leading the region in home runs with a pitching staff that limits scoring. A recent sweep of North Georgia on the road erased concerns of losing a series at home to regionally-ranked Embry-Riddle but shows just how deep this region is. If we are treated to a Delta State vs. Tampa showdown in the final, it could be the best game of the entire tournament.
South Central Region: Colorado Mesa
The South Central sent the surprise Texas A&M-Kingsville Javelinas to Cary in 2018, their first trip in program history. This year, Angelo State, Colorado Mesa, and Lubbock Christian are serious contenders, and you can never rule out West Texas A&M and its seemingly never-ending arsenal of power arms.
Angelo State is fueled by Josh Elvir, a front-runner for the DII player of the year behind a ridiculous .466 batting average, 15 home runs, and a video game-like 1.585 OPS. He’s the special kind of player that alone could propel the Rams to Cary. But we’re going with Mesa because of the pitching, which is something you rarely hear about a team from the RMAC.
The Mavericks always have the bats, but J.R. McDermott and Garrett Hutson are a formidable duo in the rotation that could cause a lot of trouble in a short tournament. McDermott has been a Mesa staple for years, while Hutson is enjoying a fine transfer season from Abilene Christian. He’s coming off his worst start of the season, so a big rebound game in his next start should give the Mavericks even more confidence in their senior righty.
Southeast Region: North Greenville
Newberry’s turnaround is a great story and North Georgia has shown in the past it can surprise people and make the finals, but this has been the Crusaders region all season, and it shouldn’t change in May.
John Michael Faile, Utah Jones, and Adam Sasser make this offense seem unbeatable by themselves, but North Greenville has the arms as well. Starters Michael Giacone (8-1, 1.99 ERA and 96 strikeouts) and Tucker Burgess (10-2, 2.24 ERA and 86 strikeouts) have handled the competition all season and have made it look pretty easy for the most part. Should it be a bit concerning the Crusaders just lost a series to Mount Olive? Sure, but there’s just too much talent to change our mind right now.
West Region: UC San Diego
Look, Point Loma and Azusa Pacific are very good baseball teams, there’s no denying that at all. But until someone knocks the Tritons off their West Region perch, we’re not picking against them.
Press box view of Aaron Kim’s walk-off grand slam. 0-1 pitch. Oppo 🌮. Bedlam. 7-3 #Tritons! 💪💣⛓ #AKBomb— UC San Diego Baseball (@UCSDbsb) April 21, 2019
AK’s 1st oppo blast since 1st college HR 2/11/18. Team-best 9th of year; 2nd #grandslam. #UCSanDiego’s 4th slam & 4th #walkoff of 2019.#GoTritons 🔱 #RoadToCary @goccaa pic.twitter.com/nYoxWYDese
UC San Diego has been to back-to-back DII baseball championships. The Tritons fought all the way to the finals after losing the first game in a memorable 2017 run before exiting early last year in Cary. This year UC San Diego has reached the No. 1 ranking in the polls and its pitching staff, which has always been a strength, may be better than ever with DII baseball’s second-best ERA and fifth-best WHIP. The West is always a wild one, but UC San Diego has to be the early favorite.