Baton Rouge Regional
Alex Box Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. (Host: Louisiana State)
No. 1 Louisiana State (43-16, 19-11 in SEC)
25th appearance (last in 2010), at-large, SEC regular-season champion
No. 7 national seed
No. 2 Oregon State (38-18, 18-12 in Pac-12)
13th appearance (fourth straight), at-large, tied for fourth in Pac-12
No. 3 Belmont (39-22, 17-10 in A-Sun)
Second appearance (second straight), automatic, Atlantic Sun regular-season and tournament champion
No. 4 Louisiana-Monroe (31-28, 15-15 in Sun Belt)
Fifth appearance (last in 2000), automatic, Sun Belt tournament champion
A year after missing the SEC tournament and getting snubbed for a regional berth, Louisiana State rode one of the nation’s premier pitching staffs to the SEC regular-season title this spring. LSU will start freshman Aaron Nola (6-4, 3.93) in the opener, and coach Paul Mainieri has expressed absolute faith in Nola’s poise in big spots. He’ll pound the strike zone (73-6 K-BB mark in 76 innings) and let hitters put the ball in play, but he also has swing-and-miss stuff—a great combination. That means ace Kevin Gausman (10-1, 2.84, 125-24 K-BB in 108 IP) will take the mound Saturday, and he has the stuff to dominate anybody. His 94-98 mph fastball, plus changeup and improving slider make him a lock top-10 overall pick on Monday. Fellow sophomore righty Ryan Eades (5-2, 3.36) also has a plus fastball and filthy power curve, but he hasn’t been as consistent down the stretch, and his ability to turn in quality outings will be key for LSU to win a national championship. The bullpen is deep and balanced, with quality options from the left side (Chris Cotton and Brett Bonvillain) and the right side (closer Nick Goody, who works at 90-93 with a very good power breaking ball, plus Joey Bourgeois, Nick Rumbelow and Kurt McCune). The Tigers are competitive up and down the lineup, though Mason Katz (.335, 11 HR) is the only real home run threat. The nation’s leading hitter, Raph Rhymes (.459/.513/.555, 50 RBI) teams with Katz to form a stellar heart of the order. LSU is extremely strong up the middle, with rock-solid veterans at catcher (Ty Ross) and shortstop (Austin Nola), leading a defense that fields at a .980 clip (fourth in the nation).
Oregon State’s young team gelled down the stretch, winning six of its final seven series, including sets against UCLA, Stanford and a season-ending sweep of Oregon. Of course, all of those marquee series wins were at home, where the Beavers are 18-6. They are more vulnerable on the road (15-11), and how their young players respond in pressure situations in front of 10,000 raucous Cajuns could determine their fortunes this weekend. The Beavers are blessed with two power lefthanders in their weekend rotation in sophomore Ben Wetzler (7-2, 3.39) and freshman Jace Fry (5-3, 2.48), though neither showed plus velocity last week against Oregon. They also have two quick-armed righthanded starters in Dan Child (6-3, 2.75) and Taylor Starr (5-2, 3.80). The plan is for Fry to start the opener against Belmont and Child (who works in the 90-94 range) to start Saturday, but the Beavers have the depth to make a run through the loser’s bracket if necessary. Closer Tony Bryant (5-2, 4.03) and lefthanded stopper Matt Boyd (4-0, 3.71) have had up-and-down seasons, but sophomore righty Scott Schultz (2.92, 2 SV) has blossomed into a key bullpen anchor thanks to a 90-92 mph fastball that runs, cuts or sinks, and a solid slider/changeup combination. The OSU lineup is more powerful than it has been in years, thanks in large part to the addition of Pac-12 freshman of the year Michael Conforto (.343/.435/.603, 13 HR, 71 RBI). Veterans Ryan Dunn (7 HR) and Danny Hayes (5 HR) also bring some pop. OSU’s breakout star is shortstop Tyler Smith, who leads the team in hitting (.350) and is fielding at a steady .953 clip. The Beavers are characteristically strong on defense (.977 as a team) and characteristically pesky up and down the lineup. They’ll test opposing third basemen with plenty of bunts (they rank seventh nationally with 78 sacrifice bunts on the season).
Belmont made its first trip to regionals in 2011 and showed well, reaching the regional final against Vanderbilt. The Bruins lost the heart of the order from that team (departed Nate Woods, Derek Hamblen and Tim Egerton combined to hit 37 of the team’s 64 home runs in 2011), but its strong pitching remained intact, and the arms led Belmont’s climb to the A-Sun regular-season title in 2012. The Bruins rank 22nd in the nation with a 3.11 ERA; they succeed by minimizing free passes (just 2.6 per game, 17th-best in the country) and letting their strong defense (.975 fielding percentage, 27th in the nation) do its job. Belmont’s one-two pitching punch of lefthander Chase Brookshire (6-4, 3.33) and righty Matt Hamann (9-2, 2.81) epitomize that approach, excelling at pounding the zone and pitching to contact. Brookshire has proven he can handle a regional atmosphere; he allowed just one run in eight innings to propel the Bruins to their first NCAA tournament win last year against Oklahoma State. Belmont’s bats also played a big role in the team’s run through the loser’s bracket at the conference tournament, scoring 26 runs in its final three games. The Bruins rely less on power this year than they did a year ago, but they still have plenty of team speed, led by senior second baseman Zac Mitchell (.361/.493/.542, 20 SB), the team’s leading hitter. A couple of upperclassman corner infielders protect Mitchell in the lineup and add some physicality to the heart of the order: first baseman Judah Akers (.339/.380/.468) and third baseman Matt Beaty (.259, 7 HR, 46 RBI).
Louisiana-Monroe made some noise early in the season, winning a series against eventual Southland Conference champion Sam Houston State and on the road at Tennessee, and going 5-0 against Conference USA foes Tulane (twice), Memphis (twice) and Southern Miss in the first month of the season. But the Warhawks stumbled to a 2-8 start in conference play before regrouping in the second half and going on to win their first-ever Sun Belt tournament championship. In Randy Zeigler (5-6, 3.65, 108 strikeouts in 106 innings), ULM has an experienced ace lefthander who could keep the game close against LSU thanks to the run on his 87-90 fastball and his ability to mix in his slider and changeup effectively. No. 2 starter Cale Wine (6-4, 3.93) is a classic sinker/slider pitcher who induces loads of ground balls. Closer Wil Browning (8-3, 3.36, 6 SV), a Tommy John surgery survivor like Zeigler, has good deception from a low three-quarters slot. The offense is headlined by Joey Rapp (.325/.422/.534, 9 HR, 51 RBI), a powerful senior first baseman. The Warhawks rely upon fellow seniors Les Aulds, Jeremy Sy and Caleb Clowers to set the table.