PK Park, Eugene, Ore. (Host: Oregon)
No. 1 Oregon (42-17, 19-11 in Pac-12)
Fourth appearance (last in 2010), at-large, third place in Pac-12
No. 5 national seed
No. 2 Cal State Fullerton (35-19, 17-7 in Big West)
34th appearance (21st straight), automatic, Big West champion
No. 3 Indiana State (41-17, 14-7 in MVC)
Eighth appearance (last in 1995), at-large, Missouri Valley regular-season champion
No. 4 Austin Peay State (38-22, 19-7 in OVC)
Fifth appearance (second straight), automatic, Ohio Valley regular-season and tournament champion
Oregon is one of college baseball’s great stories this year, so it’s fitting that the Ducks host a regional with one of the field’s most compelling storylines: coach George Horton’s potential showdown against his former team, Cal State Fullerton—coached by his former assistant, Rick Vanderhook. In its fourth season since reinstatement after a nearly three-decade absence, Oregon entered the spring with little fanfare after missing regionals during a disappointing 2011 campaign and losing three key arms (most notably lefthander Christian Jones) to season-ending injuries before the season even began. But Horton has gotten the most out of a staff that isn’t blessed with front-line flame-throwers or special depth. The best arm on the staff belongs to closer Jimmie Sherfy (4-2, 2.29, 17 saves, 84 strikeouts in 55 innings), who pitches in the 90s and has a wipeout breaking ball; the Ducks aren’t afraid to call upon him in big moments and extend him. The rest of the staff excels at pounding the strike zone and pitching to contact, led by senior bulldog Alex Keudell (10-4, 2.12). Oregon has one of college baseball’s steadiest defenses (.980) and a FieldTurf surface that slows balls down, so pitching to contact is an effective strategy for the Ducks. Shortstop J.J. Altobelli (.972) and second baseman Aaron Payne (.974) form a slick, reliable middle-infield duo, anchoring the defense. Oregon is significantly improved on offense, but it still is hitting just .266 (216th in the nation) and scoring just 4.6 runs per game (229th). The Ducks are committed to the bunting game, and it will be fun to watch Horton and Vanderhook throw various bunt defenses at each other if the two teams face off.
Cal State Fullerton is a mirror image of Oregon in many ways. Like the Ducks, Fullerton lacks overpowering arms except for its closer—Michael Lorenzen, who pitches in the mid-90s, though he doesn’t shorten a game the way Sherfy does because the Titans very rarely extend him beyond an inning. Like Oregon, the Titans have a veteran bulldog atop the rotation in Dylan Floro (10-3, 2.52) and young starters behind him (freshmen Grahamm Wiest and Kenny Mathews) who pound the strike zone. In fact, no team pounds the zone better than the Titans, who average just 1.88 walks per nine innings, fewest in college baseball. Their style of play is a perfect fit for PK Park, because they play very good defense (.975 fielding percentage) and generate offense through small ball rather than the long ball (just nine home runs). Lorenzen is one of the most dynamic players in this regional, thanks to his stellar defense in center field (where his cannon arm is a real asset) and ability to drive the gaps at the plate. Ageless Carlos Lopez (.327 with 18 doubles) is the best pure hitter on the team, and 5-foot-6 Richy Pedroza (.332) leads a parade of undersized pests that work counts and put the ball in play. The Titans are very athletic and deep, and Vanderhook has done a good job pushing the right lineup combinations to get the most out of a roster that lacks physicality.
Indiana State also has a Fullerton connection on its coaching staff: volunteer assistant Ronnie Prettyman went to three straight College World Series and won a national title as a player for Horton and Vanderhook in 2004. Indiana State, like Oregon, is one of the season’s great surprises: The Sycamores were voted fifth in the Valley’s preseason coaches poll but reached the 40-win plateau for the first time since 1992 and captured the MVC regular-season title outright for the first time since joining the league in 1977. Indiana State has a lineup loaded with upperclassmen who are both physically and mentally mature. Its pitching staff features four quality starters who work deep into ballgames to keep strain off the bullpen, and the defense is very reliable, fielding at a .975 clip. The Sycamores are just a good, balanced club, with a .290 batting average, solid power (35 home runs), a little speed (48 steals), and a 3.18 staff ERA. Ace Dakota Bacus (7-4, 2.37) is cut from the same cloth as Keudell and Floro, but he’ll show even more velocity, sitting 89-90 and bumping 92-93. He also has a hard slider and solid changeup, and he’ll present a major challenge for the Titans in the opener. The Sycamores have three more trustworthy starters behind him in 6-foot-5 lefthander Sean Manaea (5-2, 3.50) and righties Ryan Torgerson (8-3, 3.03) and Kyle Rupe (6-1, 2.63). Manaea’s calling card is the movement on his fastball, making him rather similar to Fullerton’s Mathews. The lineup is anchored by junior catcher Jeremy Lucas (.350/.445/.550 with nine homers and 52 RBIs), one of the best all-around players in this regional thanks to his bat as well as his ability to handle the pitching staff and control the running game. Rob Ort and Jon Hedges provide more maturity and physicality in the heart of the lineup, and fleet-footed freshman Landon Curry (.320, 15 SB) is the catalyst.
Austin Peay State is one of the most dangerous No. 4 seeds in the tournament, as it proved a year ago, when it reached the finals of the Atlanta Regional before falling to Mississippi State. The Governors have eight regulars back from that team, led by dynamic middle infielders Reed Harper (.331/.389/.446) and Jordan Hankins (.332/.443/.536, 37-13 BB-K), plus slugging third baseman Greg Bachman (.339, 16 HR, 67 RBI). The Govs are the most powerful team in this regional by a mile, ranking ninth in the nation with 60 home runs, but PK Park suppresses long balls, so APSU will have to win in other ways. The Govs excel at working counts and getting on base, ranking third nationally with 296 walks, but the pitching staffs in this regional are known for throwing strikes. Austin Peay has quality veteran hitters throughout the lineup, and it has decent speed as well, led by outfielders Cody Hudson (21 SB) and Michael Blanchard (15 SB). APSU has the weakest pitching staff in this regional, but it does have a very capable ace in lefthander Zach Toney (5-3, 2.89), who works in the 89-92 range and has developed an out pitch in his dramatically improved slider. Junior-college transfers Casey Delgado and Ryan Quick also have arm strength from the right side, and submarining closer Tyler Rogers (4-3, 2.05, 11 saves) drives hitters crazy with his knuckle-dragging arm slot and sweeping slider.