McKethan Stadium, Gainesville, Fla. (Host: Florida)
No. 1 Florida (42-18, 18-12 in SEC)
28th appearance (fifth straight), at-large, second place in SEC East
No. 1 national seed
No. 2 Georgia Tech (36-24, 12-18 in ACC)
28th appearance (fifth straight), automatic, ACC tournament champion
No. 3 College of Charleston (37-20, 21-9 in SoCon)
Fifth appearance (last in 2010), at-large, SoCon regular-season co-champion
No. 4 Bethune-Cookman (34-25, 18-5 in MEAC)
13th appearance (seventh straight), automatic, MEAC tournament champion
Florida entered 2012 as the clear favorite to win the national championship, ranking No. 1 in the preseason Top 25 for the second straight year. The Gators weathered some injuries and midseason doldrums, and they enter the NCAA tournament right where they were supposed to be: atop the national rankings. Florida’s power is a major separator; headlined by Mike Zunino (16 HR) and Preston Tucker (14 HR), the Gators lead the nation with 67 home runs. They are also an elite defensive team (.978 fielding percentage, 16th in the nation) with marquee players at the two most demanding defensive positions—Zunino behind the plate and Nolan Fontana at shortstop. Hudson Randall (7-2, 2.91) pitched his best down the stretch, re-affirming his status as one of the nation’s best aces, and lefty Brian Johnson (7-4, 3.67) also seems to be peaking at the right time. Even if fellow preseason All-American Karsten Whitson (3-0, 3.41) doesn’t rediscover his freshman year form in the postseason, the Gators have a fourth starting option with electric stuff in Jonathon Crawford (5-2, 3.34). And the bullpen—anchored by lefty Steven Rodriguez and righties Austin Maddox and Greg Larson—might be the best in college baseball. The Gators remain a strong bet to get back to the CWS Finals—and win it this time.
Georgia Tech garnered a preseason No. 12 ranking thanks in large part to its talented lineup, which enters regionals as one of the nation’s hottest offenses. Injuries hit the Yellow Jackets hard during the regular season, especially on the mound, where four key arms—Matt Grimes, Luke Bard, Devin Stanton and DeAndre Smelter—were limited to a combined 53 innings. But Buck Farmer (8-3, 3.43) is a reliable bulldog atop the rotation, and the Jackets seem to have found answers behind him in freshman righty Cole Pitts (6-4, 4.36) and senior lefty Jake Davies, who threw six innings of two-hit, shutout ball against Clemson in the ACC tourney. Like Davies, righty Alex Cruz (7-3, 2.00) lacks overpowering stuff, but he has emerged as the bullpen anchor thanks to his excellent changeup and feel for pitching. The improved pitching, coupled with a red-hot offense, helped the Jackets cruise unbeaten through the ACC tournament to earn a No. 2 seed, after starting the week on the bubble thanks to a 12-18 conference record. Davies (13 HR) and Daniel Palka (12 HR) lead an offense that can nearly match the Gators’ power, and Brandon Thomas (.352/.478/.541) has tapped into his exciting five-tool potential as a junior. Tech is loaded with veterans who were there for the team’s third straight exit during a home regional last year, but this year one gets the sense the Yellow Jackets are playing with house money. Perhaps heading into regionals on the road as an underdog will help them stay loose, confident and dangerous.
College of Charleston gives this regional a third team that can hit the ball out of the park with frequency. The Cougars rank fifth in the nation with 63 home runs, led by Brandon Murray (12 HR), Daniel Aldrich (10 HR) and senior center fielder Marty Gantt (.375/.485/.612, 10 HR, 44 RBI), the SoCon player of the year. Gantt, who also has 25 stolen bases and more walks (43) than strikeouts (32), rivals Brandon Thomas and Nolan Fontana as the most dynamic all-around players in this regional. But CofC is more than just a home run-hitting outfit this year; its pitching staff ranks 32nd in the nation in ERA (3.21) and 17th in strikeouts per nine innings (8.1). The staff has a pair of power-armed bookends who can run their fastballs into the mid-90s in SoCon pitcher of the year Christian Powell (9-3, 2.39) and closer David Peterson (3.43 ERA, 10 saves). CofC faltered a bit down the stretch, losing series to Clemson and UNC Asheville and going 0-2 in the conference tournament to finish with a 6-7 record in its last 13 games. The Cougars have the least momentum of any team in this regional, but they say momentum is as good as your next day’s starting pitcher, and Powell is a good one.
After going 99-5 (.952) in MEAC play over the previous six seasons, Bethune-Cookman didn’t dominate the conference this year, going 18-5 to finish in second place behind Delaware State. But first-year head coach Jason Beverlin picked up where former coach Mervyl Melendez left off in the conference tourney—with a championship, the seventh straight for the Wildcats. A big key to Bethune-Cookman’s season has been junior David Lee’s emergence as a run producer in the middle of the lineup, helping to ease the loss of sluggers Peter O’Brien, Ryan Durrence and D.J. Leonard from last year’s team. Lee, who hit .163/.333/.204 in 49 at-bats last year, leads the team with 42 RBIs this year while hitting .311/.428/.437. But B-CU is by far the least offensive team in this regional, and to have a chance to make some noise it will need to manufacture offense with its speed (it ranks 12th nationally with 102 stolen bases). Bethune-Cookman’s pitching has been very solid all season, and it came through again in the conference tournament. Righthander Rayan Gonzalez (9-1, 1.96) has developed into an ace as a senior thanks to a deceptive fastball with natural cut and a sharp breaking ball. He delivered eight shutout innings against Maryland-Eastern Shore to get the Wildcats to the championship round against Delaware State, and he gives them a fighting chance against mighty Florida.