Reckling Park, Houston (Host: Rice)
No. 1 Rice (41-18, 23-7 in Conference USA) Roster | Statistics
20th appearance (20th straight), automatic, Conference USA regular-season champion and tournament champion
Top 200 Prospects: RHP Zech Lemond (83), C/1b Skyler Ewing (183)
Rice is hosting a regional for the 11th time in the past 14 years. The Owls had a strong RPI (No. 7) and strength of schedule (No. 8) and won the C-USA regular-season and tournament titles, marking the 19th straight year they have won a regular-season or conference tournament title spanning three conferences. Rice won 41 games despite ace righthander Jordan Stephens to Tommy John surgery and missing righthander Zech Lemond for about a month with elbow inflammation. Lefthander Blake Fox stepped up in the absence of Stephens and Lemond and went 12-0, 1.38. Fox is unbeaten (17-0) in his two years on campus. Longtime coach Wayne Graham said Fox works at 85-87 mph, mixes in his slider and curveball and a good changeup, and moves his fastball around the zone to keep hitters off balance. In the bullpen, sophomore righty Matt Ditman replaced Lemond as stopper and recorded nine saves and struck out 77 in 68 IP. His fastball reaches 91 with plenty of movement, and his curveball is a true out pitch. Rice’s offense came into its own as the season progressed, led by senior third baseman Shane Hoelscher (.332/.395/.430), junior first baseman Skyler Ewing (.330/.398/.496), senior left fielder Michael Aquino (.323/.358/.500) and junior catcher John Clay Reeves (.316/.369/.443). The Owls are also an elite defensive team, ranking ninth in the nation with a .979 fielding percentage, led by steady shortstop Ford Stainback (.978).
Texas is better than it was last year, in just about every measurable way, and thanks to that, 75-year-old Augie Garrido and the Longhorns are back in the tournament for the first time since 2011. Veterans Nathan Thornhill and Mark Payton were drafted as juniors last year, but Garrido said both players elected to come back to help the program get turned around. Payton hit .319/.457/.446 with a team-best 35 RBIs and has reached base safely in 95 consecutive games, the longest streak in Big 12 history. Thornhill has good command of a quality three-pitch mix, helping him go 6-2, 1.51 as the Sunday starter. Another upperclassman, junior Dillon Peters, is a bulldog with three solid-average pitches, and he returned strong from May surgery to relieve a salivary gland, finishing 7-3, 2.13. But Garrido said freshmen Zane Gurwitz, Tres Barrera and Kacy Clemens were just as important to the fabric, earning their way into starting jobs based on their solid defense at third base, catcher and first base, respectively. Another freshman, righthander Morgan Cooper (4-2, 3.14), has made a huge difference in the bullpen, alongside John Curtiss (2.51, 8 SV), who embraced the closer role after returning from Tommy John surgery. As usual, pitching is Texas’ strength; its 2.45 ERA ranks 10th in the nation. The defense is very sound, and the offense is far from explosive but is much more competent than it was last year. The Longhorns lead the nation with 87 sacrifice bunts, a good illustration that they are getting runners on base and effectively executing Garrido’s team-first, small ball-oriented style of play.
Texas A&M was one of the final four teams to make the field, the selection committee revealed. The Aggies will face off against their former Big 12 rivals, the Longhorns, on Friday in the marquee matchup of the first round. The teams have met 363 times, but this will be the first time in the NCAA tournament. The Aggies’ strength is a lineup that has no real let-up, top to bottom. They are are led on offense by true freshman Nick Banks (.348/.409/.461) and junior Cole Lankford (.333/.359/.429), a pair of gifted pure hitters. Junior college transfer Logan Nottebrok provides power (8 homers in 118 at-bats), and athletic switch-hitting third baseman Blake Allemand (.392 OBP) has enjoyed a breakout junior season. On the pitching side, junior righthander Daniel Mengden (4-8, 3.55) is the ace of the staff and has battled through a back injury this spring. When he’s right, he has command of his 88-94 mph fastball, and his 83-85 slider is tight as well. Another key has been the emergence of several arms in the A&M bullpen. Switching Parker Ray into the rotation and putting Tyler Stubblefield back in the pen added another quality lefthanded option to a group that already has plenty, such as Matt Kent, Ty Schlottmann and A.J. Minter, who was hitting 97 this season.
Following its exit from Colonial Athletic Association, George Mason finished in third place in its first season in the Atlantic 10 Conference and won the A-10 tournament to clinch an automatic NCAA bid. Tournament Most Outstanding Player Luke Willis went 10-for-15 during Mason’s 4-0 run to the championship, sending it to regionals for the first time since 2009. The Patriots have 12 seniors, so one of their strengths is a deep and experienced lineup. Senior Blaise Fernandez (.297/.364/.475) led the team in slugging, while Coastal Carolina transfer Willis sparked the team with 21 steals. Second baseman Chris Cook, a four-year starter, returned from an injury redshirt to hit .293/.465/.445. On the mound, another redshirt senior, Anthony Montefusco, went 9-3, 1.96. Montefusco was a freshman all-conference two-way player before having elbow surgery during his sophomore season. Montefusco has success with his fastball at 88-92 and an excellent changeup. He throws from a three-quarters slot and has great feel for his breaking pitches.