Hi Corbett Field, Tucscon, Ariz. (Host: Arizona)
No. 1 Arizona (38-17, 20-10 in Pac-12)
33rd appearance (third straight), at-large, tied for first in Pac-12
No. 2 New Mexico State (35-22, 11-7 in WAC)
Third appearance (last in 2003), at-large, WAC regular-season co-champion
No. 3 Louisville (39-20, 18-9 in Big East)
Sixth appearance (last in 2010), at-large, Big East regular-season co-champion
No. 4 Missouri (32-26, 10-14 in Big 12)
22nd appearance (last in 2009), automatic, Big 12 tournament champion
Arizona was one of the nation’s most consistent teams this spring, losing just two weekend series (against national seeds UCLA and Oregon). The Wildcats are perfectly constructed to take advantage of the spacious dimensions at their new home park, Hi Corbett Field, a former big league spring training facility (where they have drawn record crowds this season). The Wildcats have a deep, athletic lineup filled with talented gap hitters with good speed, helping them rank fifth in the nation in batting (.325), fourth in triples per game (.053), 21st in slugging (.441) and ninth in scoring (7.1 runs per game). Johnny Field, Robert Refsnyder, Alex Mejia, Seth Mejias-Brean, Bobby Brown and Joey Rickard are all experienced, dangerous line-drive hitters. Mejia, the Pac-12 player of the year, is also a flashy playmaker at shortstop, anchoring the rangy (but occasionally erratic) defense. The Wildcats lack depth on the mound, but they have one of the nation’s best big-game pitchers in Kurt Heyer (11-2, 2.03), who has been the staff ace since early in his freshman year thanks to his fearlessness and above-average command of an 86-89 fastball and good slider. Sinkerballer Konner Wade (7-3, 4.88) was an all-star and a top prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer but has had an up-and-down spring. He struggled down the stretch and must regain his form in order for the Wildcats to make a deep postseason run. Coach Andy Lopez usually builds his teams around shut-down bullpens, but this year’s bullpen has been inconsistent and lacks a true stopper.
New Mexico State is one team that definitely won’t be intimidated by a trip to Tucson; the Aggies swept a two-game midweek series at Arizona back in March. Those wins, along with three against Wake Forest and three agains New Mexico, helped the Aggies build an at-large-caliber RPI and break into the BA Top 25 for the first time ever midway through the season. New Mexico State also played four total road games at Baylor and Rice, though it went 0-4 in those contests. The Aggies annually boast some of the nation’s gaudiest offensive numbers, partly because of the friendly hitting conditions in Las Cruces, but also because coach Rocky Ward and his staff really know how to teach hitting. The Aggies always drive pitchers crazy with their patience, and this year they lead the nation with 342 walks. They also rank second in scoring (8.2 runs per game), fifth in doubles (130), 12th in slugging (.457), 15th in batting (.308) and 21st in homers (47). Leadoff man Tanner Waite sets the tone—he leads college baseball with 69 walks. Ward said Waite and No. 2 hitter Bryan Karraker (37 walks) are just hard-nosed “grit guys” who battle through every at-bat. Second baseman Parker Hipp (.350/.485/.458, 54 walks), shortstop Zach Voight (.301/.388/.485, 8 HR, 54 RBI) and catcher Zac Fisher (.366/.442/.525, 6 HR, 58 RBI) form a very productive 3-4-5. And there’s no let-up in the bottom half of the lineup, either. But an improved pitching staff has been the biggest difference for the Aggies, who posted sub-7.00 ERA just twice in Ward’s first nine seasons but have a 5.50 team ERA this year. The staff is filled with solid college arms who can miss bats with good breaking balls, led by ace lefthander Ryan Beck (5-6, 4.22, 94 K in 92 IP). The bullpen is anchored by Scott Coffman (3.79 ERA, 8 SV), who tops out at 84 mph but eats up righthanded hitters with a late-breaking, deceptive slider.
Louisville entered the season ranking in the Top 25 and largely lived up to that billing, finishing tied atop the Big East with St. John’s and earning an at-large spot in regionals. A deep stable of power arms was supposed to be Louisville’s calling card, and it has been. The staff ace is junior righty Justin Amlung (8-4, 2.36), who attacks the strike zone with a 90-93 mph fastball and a swing-and-miss 80-82 slider. Hulking righty Jeff Thompson (9-3, 3.91) can miss bats with his lively fastball as well as his power slider, and freshman righty Jared Ruxer (8-2, 2.88) pounds the zone with an 88-92 mph fastball and gets plenty of fly balls, making him a good fit for spacious Hi Corbett. Louisville’s deep bullpen is anchored by senior Derek Self (3.64 ERA, 7 SV), a fierce competitor with a fastball that bumps 93-94 and a hard 88 mph cutter that is very difficult to hit. Junior righty Matt Koch (3.90, 4 SV) has an even bigger arm, capable of reaching 94-96 mph regularly, but he has been less consistent. Scoring runs was a major challenge for the Cardinals last year, but last year’s overmatched freshmen have evolved into confident, dangerous sophomores, led by blazing center fielder Adam Engel (35 steals in 37 tries), fellow outfielder Jeff Gardner and versatile hitting machine Ty Young (the team’s leading hitter at .349/.476/.548 with six homers). Senior Stewart Ijames (12 HR, 60 RBI) provides some punch and leadership.
Missouri had a streaky season, posting five losing skids of three games or longer but also posting separate winning streaks of 10, five and five games. The last five-game winning streak included a 4-0 run to the Big 12 tournament title, which propelled the Tigers back to regionals for the first time since 2009, the last year in their run of six straight regionals. The offense did the heavy lifting in the conference tournament, averaging 7.5 runs per game—nearly two runs per game more than Missouri’s season average (5.7 runs per game, 106th in the nation). Missouri’s offensive numbers are vanilla; the only category it ranks inside the nation’s top 100 is walks (96th). But in outfielders Blake Brown (10 HR) and Dane Opel (11 HR), the Tigers do have a pair of talented power hitters who have learned to make better use of their raw tools as juniors. Brown has some of the most exciting tools in the Big 12, with plus speed, plus raw power, solid arm strength and good defense center field—but he still strikes out too often. Opel also has big power and a strong arm in right. Scrappy leadoff man Eric Garcia has arm strength and smooth actions at short, and catcher Ben Turner (.293, 12 2B) has had a solid year in the middle of the lineup and with his receiving behind the plate, though he has thrown out just 20 percent of basestealers. The pitching staff is anchored by quick-armed lefty Rob Zastryzny (5-5, 3.84), a dogged competitor with solid command of a fastball that bumps the low 90s. No. 2 starter Blake Holovach (7-4, 4.60) also has firm stuff from the left side. Considering Missouri won games last week against Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, it must be considered a dangerous No. 4 seed, capable of pulling off an upset or two in Tucson. But it seems unlikely that the Tigers have the pitching depth to win a regional in an offensive setting, headlined by two of the nation’s premier offenses.