Commentary

Favorites get through regional round (mostly) unscathed

Originally Published: June 3, 2008
By Will Kimmey | Special to ESPN.com

After the first weekend of the NCAA baseball tournament, many questions were answered -- and many more were raised. Will Kimmey answers the five biggest questions heading into the super regional round.

Where are the underdogs?

At home, for the most part, as 13 No. 1 seeds -- including all eight national seeds -- and two No. 2s advanced to the super regionals. Nine No. 1 seeds were eliminated in the regionals in 2007, including five of the eight national seeds. Four No. 1 seeds fell on Friday this year, but Florida State, Georgia and Stanford all came back through the losers' bracket to claim regional crowns while thanking the NCAA for the double-elimination format. Even some of the "upsets" shouldn't qualify as such.

[+] EnlargeWichita State
AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Matt StrasenDon't call it an upset: Wichita State was no underdog.

Wichita State stood a great chance of winning at Oklahoma State as a No. 2 seed when the brackets came out, but that opportunity improved when Cowboys ace left-hander Andrew Oliver (7-2, 2.20) was ruled ineligible before play began for undisclosed reasons. That forced OSU, the best team in the Big 12 this season, to start full-time catcher Luis Flores on the mound against Wichita State in an elimination game. While Flores worked as both a pitcher and hitter before transferring from Houston prior to his junior year, he had thrown just four innings all season before making that start.

North Carolina State, though a No. 1 seed, looked liked a trendy upset pick given its pitching-and-defense style in a regional featuring three homer-happy opponents. But the Wolfpack prevailed to prove that great pitching beats good hitting thanks to great starts by Jake Buchanan, Clayton Shunick and Eric Surkamp, and a bullpen that allowed only one hit over 11 scoreless innings while working without suspended closer Jimmy Gilheeney.

No. 1 Long Beach State failed to rally back from its opening-game upset against No. 4 Fresno State, and the Dirtbags now have failed to win the past three regionals they've played host to at Blair Field.

But there was one notable upset, right?

Fresno State joined the 2006 Missouri club as the second No. 4 seed to win a regional since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1999. As if that feat weren't impressive enough, consider that Fresno State emerged with the regional victory despite entering the tournament without ace Tanner Scheppers (8-2, 2.93), a junior right-hander who was likely to become one of the first 10 picks in this week's draft before a stress fracture in his shoulder ended the WAC Pitcher of the Year's season in mid-May. The Bulldogs still got great pitching efforts from starters Justin Wilson and Clayton Allison, who allowed two earned runs in 16 combined innings. Reliever Holden Sprague, filling Scheppers' rotation spot, started the regional final and held San Diego to one run over 5 1/3 innings.

San Diego must be wondering what it can do to avoid Fresno State in the postseason. The Bulldogs have proven to be the Toreros' kryptonite recently, dealing them five NCAA regional losses over the past three years. Fresno State beat San Diego twice in three games at the Long Beach regional this year, shocked No. 8 national seed USD in a 4 vs. 1 matchup a year ago, and beat them twice in a 2006 regional at Cal State Fullerton.

After advancing out of a pitching-heavy regional, the Bulldogs now travel to face Arizona State, which has reached double figures in scoring 32 times in 59 games, going 2-for-3 in that pursuit in sweeping through the Tempe Regional. Junior third baseman Brett Wallace (.414-20-81) won the Pac-10 triple crown for the second straight year to lead an offense that ranked among the nation's top 10 in average, runs, slugging and walks. It topped the Pac-10 in each of those categories and led it in homers and steals as well. Pitching depth and up-the-middle defense could be concerns for the Sun Devils, but they've bashed away those problems with more runs thus far.

Wasn't Miami's road to Omaha supposed to be tough?

The selection committee stuck No. 1 overall seed Miami with two teams featuring deep, talented pitching staffs in Missouri and Mississippi while No. 4 seed Bethune-Cookman threw national ERA leader Hiram Burgos against Miami in the opener. Miami's opponents had the score tied midway through each of the first two games before a Hurricanes team we all knew possessed offensive firepower, a great bullpen and a highlight-reel defense showed it also owned plenty of grit.

[+] EnlargeMiami
AP Photo/David AdameRyan Jackson and the Canes have a rough road to Omaha.

Missouri came back from a 5-0 deficit to tie Miami with two runs in the top of the eighth inning Saturday, and umpires ruled Mizzou left fielder Aaron Senne caught a Dennis Raben fly ball that replays clearly showed was bobbled and hit the ground to start the bottom of the inning. Miami could have gotten down on itself there and crumbled, but instead responded with a walk and consecutive singles against power-armed closer Kyle Gibson to retake the lead. If that wasn't enough, sophomore shortstop Ryan Jackson, a superb defender who entered the weekend with two home runs all year, slugged two on the weekend to make an offense that now has 94 homers even scarier.

Miami's path to Rosenblatt Stadium doesn't get any easier. It next faces Arizona, which won the Ann Arbor Regional on the road thanks to a bullpen in which Ryan Perry, Daniel Schlereth and Jason Stoffel all pitch in the mid-90s. Major league bullpens would be pleased to have the endgame options Wildcats coach Andy Lopez does, and he used it to great effect over the weekend. That three-headed fire-breathing dragon of a relief corps worked a combined nine innings in Ann Arbor, allowing a run on seven hits while ringing up 13 strikeouts.

Can LSU send out Alex Box Stadium with a trip to Omaha?

LSU has captured five College World Series titles in its great history, but no LSU or SEC team can match the 23-game win streak this Tigers team has put together. LSU has demolished plenty of teams in 70-year-old Alex Box Stadium during its great history, including going 6-1 in super regional games there, but the venerable ballpark itself will get demolished after playing host to UC Irvine this weekend. LSU has returned to its Gorilla Ball roots during the streak, bashing 65 doubles and 42 homers while outscoring opponents 219-101 thanks to twin mashers Blake Dean (.351, 19 homers) and Matt Clark (25 homers, the most for an LSU player since Brad Cresse in 2000). Each player hit three homers in a three-game regional sweep in which LSU scored in double figures in every game.

LSU
AP Photo/Butch DillDJ LeMahieu and LSU are looking for their final wins at Alex Box Stadium.

UC Irvine won the Lincoln Regional as a No. 2 seed by book-ending wins against Oral Roberts around a victory over host Nebraska. The Anteaters stand in stark contrast to the slugging Tigers with just 35 homers on the season and only one player (Francis Larson) with more than four home runs overall. Oh, but Irvine can pitch a little. Its 2.88 team ERA ranks among the top five nationally on the strength of 10 shutouts on the season. That figure includes five straight scoreless games near the beginning of the season and another one Sunday in the regional clincher thanks to a career-high 13 strikeouts from sophomore Bryce Stowell. Junior right-hander Scott Gorgen (11-3, 2.31) helped lead Irvine to Omaha a year ago, when it won a regional at Texas and a super regional at Wichita State. That experience from a year ago, along with an offense that puts constant pressure on opposing defenses by stealing bases (98 this season) and using the bunt as an attack mechanism, means the 'Eaters aren't going to be scared to play in front of the 10,000 raucous fans in Baton Rouge. It also gives the club a great shot to shut down the Box on a sour note.

What was the biggest surprise of the regional round?

No. 4 seed Lipscomb upended Georgia in its first tournament appearance, but this award has to go to Bucknell. The fourth-seeded Bison dealt host Florida State its first loss in a home regional opener since 1992. More impressive was senior right-hander Mathew Wilson, who held a lineup that led the nation in batting average to just six hits over nine innings to deal FSU its first shutout the year. Sure, Florida State responded by scoring 17, 24, 17 and 16 runs in its next four games with five home runs from soon-to-be first-round pick Buster Posey -- including a 24-9 revenge beat-down of Bucknell in the rematch. But those outbursts just served to put into perspective just how special Bucknell's first NCAA tournament victory was.

Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at wkimmey@gmail.com.