DIck Howser Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla. (Host: Florida State)
No. 1 Florida State (43-15, 24-6 in ACC)
50th appearance (35th straight), at-large, ACC regular-season champion
No. 2 Mississippi State (39-22, 16-14 in SEC)
30th appearance (second straight), automatic, SEC tournament champion
No. 3 Samford (39-21, 19-11 in SoCon)
First appearance, automatic, SoCon tournament champion
No. 4 Alabama-Birmingham (32-28, 9-15 in C-USA)
Second appearance (last in 1991), automatic, C-USA tournament champion
Uncertainty about the pitching staff caused Florida State to enter the season ranked 20th, but the Seminoles quickly addressed those concerns and shot to the top of the rankings, spending the last seven weeks of the regular season at No. 1. Freshman lefthander Brandon Leibrandt (6-2, 2.91) slid right into Sean Gilmartin’s vacated role as crafty lefty ace, and fellow freshman Mike Compton (10-2, 2.88) was a rock in the No. 2 starter spot thanks mostly to the nasty movement on his high-80s fastball. Coach Mike Martin and first-year pitching coach Mike Bell did a masterful job putting their arms in position to succeed, using veterans Robert Benincasa (4-1, 1.36, 13 saves), Hunter Scantling (5-1, 3.89) and Brian Busch (5.25) plus sidewinder Gage Smith (3-0, 3.07) in the bullpen. Benincasa has the best arm on the staff, with a 90-94 mph fastball with good sink and an above-average slider, helping the ‘Noles go 36-1 when leading after seven innings. The veteran lineup is relentlessly patient, as usual, ranking second in the nation with 330 walks. Though senior center fielder James Ramsey (.382/.515/.673, 12 HR) has cooled off since being named college baseball’s top hitter of the first half in our Midseason Report, he still might be the most dangerous hitter in the country, with power, discipline (53 walks and 37 strikeouts) and the ability to use all fields, in addition to above-average speed up the line. First baseman Jayce Boyd (.395, 20 2B) has had a breakout season with the bat as a junior, leading perhaps the nation’s best all-around infield. That group also includes gritty upperclassmen Devon Travis, Justin Gonzalez and Sherman Johnson—players who simply have winning hard-wired into their DNA.
Mississippi State began 2012 just outside the preseason Top 25 after losing its entire infield from its 2011 super regional team. The Bulldogs endured a spate of injuries in the first half, staying afloat long enough to get healthy, then catching fire down the stretch. After dropping two of three in a tightly contested series at Florida, the Bulldogs swept Kentucky to wrap up the regular season, then went 5-1 to win the SEC tournament—a run that included two wins against LSU and one apiece against Arkansas, Kentucky and Vandy. MSU has one of the nation’s deepest collections of quality arms, and the staff allowed just seven runs total in its five wins in Hoover. The staff ace is SEC pitcher of the year Chris Stratton (11-1, 2.21), a sure-fire first-round pick on Monday thanks to his plus fastball, plus slider and solid-average curve. He’ll start Friday’s opener against dangerous Samford, leaving sinkerballer Kendall Graveman (4-4, 2.92) to start the second game—and his heavy ball should be a good fit for hitter-friendly Dick Howser Stadium. The bullpen is loaded with power arms from the right side as well as the left, but it is anchored by veteran slider specialist Caleb Reed (2.56, 8 SV) and the man who displaced him as closer, hard-throwing freshman Jonathan Holder (2-0, 0.00, 9 SV, 28-5 K-BB in 27 IP), who has yet to allow a run (earned or otherwise) in 23 appearance. Though Mississippi State has swung the bats better during its recent hot streak, offense is not this team’s forte, and quick-twitch shortstop/catalyst Adam Frazier (.376/.484/.449) is the lone regular hitting above .279. But the scrappy Bulldogs get on base by any means necessary to generate offense, and their 97 hit-by-pitches are seventh-most in the nation.
Samford’s program has made steady progress under coach Casey Dunn, winning a program-record 37 games in 2011 before losing in the SoCon tournament finals. The Bulldogs broke that record in 2012, winning 39 games and bashing its way through the conference tournament unbeaten to reach regionals for the first time in school history. Samford scored 40 runs in those four games and enter the postseason with the best offensive numbers in this regional, ranking 11th nationally in scoring (7.1 runs per game), sixth in homers (62) and ninth in slugging (.465). The centerpiece of the lineup is national home run leader Brandon Miller (.299, 22 HR, 63 RBI), who began his collegiate career as a highly touted catching prospect at Georgia Tech before reinventing himself at Samford. Senior Saxon Butler (.350, 14 HR, 60 RBI) and sophomore Phillip Ervin (.340, 10 HR, 52 RBI) bring more power to the lineup, and Dunn said the Bulldogs are looking forward to answering doubts about the legitimacy of his team’s numbers against quality competition this weekend, starting with a tough assignment against Stratton. Samford will counter with No. 2 starter Charles Basford (9-2, 3.95), because ace and national wins leader Josh Martin (12-1, 2.96) pitched twice in the conference tournament, so he could use the extra rest. Basford has a good sinker/slider attack, while fellow senior Martin can run his fastball up to 94 mph at times. Two-way talent C.K. Irby (5-1, 1.53, 9 SV) anchors a deep bullpen loaded with arms that can reach 90 mph.
Alabama-Birmingham coach Brian Shoop is the first to admit his team doesn’t have the kind of talent the other three teams in this regional boast. The Blazers don’t have a single .300 hitter, and their 4.49 ERA ranks in the middle of the college baseball pack—155th. But UAB is a group of hard-nosed gamers who don’t give in, and ace Michael Busby (5-4, 3.90) fits that description to a T. Busby started his career at Mississippi State before transferring to UAB, where he joined former MSU head coach Ron Polk (a volunteer assistant on Shoop’s staff) and Shoop himself (a former assistant under Polk) as Bulldog expatriates. And speaking of Mississippi State connections, UAB’s leading home run hitter is Patrick Palmeiro (.252, 5 HR), son of former MSU great Rafael. Another son of a big leaguer, Ivan De Jesus (.297/.366/.406, 3 HR), has started to tap into the potential that made him an unsigned sixth-round pick out of high school, though he still needs to cut down on his strikeouts, as Palmeiro does. UAB’s most valuable player might be senior shortstop Keith DePew (.299), a steady defender and field general in addition to being the team’s leading hitter.