M.L. Tigue Moore Field, Lafayette, La. (Host: Louisiana-Lafayette)
No. 1 Louisiana-Lafayette (53-7, 26-4 in Sun Belt) Roster | Statistics
14th appearance (second straight), automatic, first place in Sun Belt Conference regular season and Sun Belt Conference tournament champion
Top 200 Prospects: OF Caleb Adams (194)
No. 3 San Diego State (42-19, 17-13 in Mountain West) Roster | Statistics
11th appearance (second straight), automatic, third place in Mountain West regular season, Mountain West tournament champion
Top 200 Prospects: RHP Michael Cederoth (46), OF Greg Allen (169)
No. 4 Jackson State (31-23, 9-15 in SWAC East) Roster | Statistics
Sixth appearance (second straight), automatic, fourth place in SWAC East regular season, SWAC tournament champion
Top 200 Prospects: None
Louisiana-Lafayette utterly dominated the Sun Belt Conference this spring and enters the postseason ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America Top 25 for the first time ever, with 53 wins under its belt (eight more than any other team in the country). Not only did the Cajuns win 88 percent of their games this spring, they did so in overpowering fashion, leading the nation in scoring margin (+4.1 runs per game). ULL’s explosive offense ranks in the nation’s top five in batting, scoring, doubles, triples, home runs, slugging percentage, stolen bases, sacrifice flies, and on-base percentage. It even ranks 25th in sacrifice bunts and sixth in hit-by-pitches, evidence that Louisiana-Lafayette can beat opponents with speed and small ball just as easily as via the long ball. Caleb Adams (.386/.504/.711, 11 HR), Jace Conrad (.367/.444/.568, 7 HR, 55 RBI, 21 SB) and Seth Harrison (.317/.373/.549, 9 HR, 58 RBI, 15 SB) have the gaudiest numbers on a team full of video-game statistics, but this team is not just a bunch of free-swinging mashers. The Cajuns are extremely athletic all around the diamond and exceptional defensively up the middle, with a potential 2015 first-round pick at shortstop (Blake Trahan) and other seasoned standouts at second (Conrad), center field (Harrison) and catcher (Michael Strentz). As a result, ULL’s .978 fielding percentage ranks 10th in the nation. The Cajuns also have a quality duo of junior righthanders atop the rotation in wily ace Austin Robichaux (7-2, 3.01) and juco transfer Carson Baranik (10-1, 3.30), who both throw strikes with solid—and occasionally plus—stuff. LHP Cody Boutte (8-0, 2.75) emerged as a third quality starter midway through the season, pitching at 88-89 with a quality breaking ball and changeup. The bullpen had some hiccups down the stretch, but flame-thrower Reagan Bazar (4-0, 2.32, 6 SV) and gritty senior lefty Ryan Wilson (5-0, 1.69, 7 SV) have been generally reliable.
Mississippi State reached the CWS Finals last year using a novel approach to its pitching staff, and the same formula has helped the Bulldogs come on strong down the stretch this year. Last year, Kendall Graveman was the only MSU starter who consistently worked deep into a game; the bullpen routinely took over in the second or third inning of other games. This year, funky low-slot lefty Ross Mitchell (8-4, 2.10) is the lone workhorse starting option, but once again the deep bullpen is up to the task of shouldering a heavy burden. LHP Jacob Lindgren (6-1, 0.88, 93-21 SO-BB in 51 IP) has simply electric stuff, with a fastball that touches 94 and a slider that rates as plus-plus when it’s really on. Preseason All-America closer Jonathan Holder (6-1, 2.38, 7 SV, 59-9 SO-BB in 45 IP) is the other key piece; he hasn’t as dominant this spring as in years past, but he is still a proven big-game bulldog with a true out pitch in his downer curveball. The lineup is less potent this year without All-American Hunter Renfroe and catalyst Adam Frazier, but Seth Heck (.304 batting average, .983 fielding percentage) filled Frazier’s shoes at shortstop to stabilize the defense, and athletic freshman catcher Gavin Collins (.325/.381/.415) is a budding star who led the team in hitting in SEC play. Gritty second baseman Brett Pirtle (.341/.421/.413) emerged as the team’s best hitter this spring, but the Bulldogs lack punch; Wes Rea leads the team in homers with four, and no Bulldog has more than eight doubles. Still, the bullpen and defense (.981 fielding percentage, sixth in the nation) are elite, and the lineup has enough proven winners with Omaha experience to make Mississippi State very dangerous.
San Diego State has spent most of the season without head coach Tony Gwynn in the dugout, as the Hall of Famer deals with undisclosed health issues. Veteran assistants Mark Martinez and John Pawlowski (in his first year on staff after serving as head coach at Auburn and College of Charleston) have steered the ship with a steady hand, helping SDSU post its best winning percentage (.689) since 1990. After finishing third in the Mountain West in the regular season, the Aztecs repeated as MWC tournament champions by winning three games in two days, capped by back-to-back wins against top-seeded UNLV. Tournament MVP Brad Haynal had two hits Sunday to finish 14-for-24 with four doubles and nine runs scored on the week. A physical fourth-year junior catcher, Haynal (.313/.366/.571, 12 HR) has hit nearly half of SDSU’s 25 home runs this spring, giving leading hitter Ty France (.358/.452/.504, 5 HR, 45 RBI) invaluable lineup protection. Speedy switch-hitter Greg Allen (.310/.392/.391, 25 SB) sets the tone atop the lineup and is one of the nation’s best defensive center fielders. Veteran 2B Tim Zier (.325/.387/.399) has the bat-handling skills to be an ideal No. 2 hole hitter, and he teams with slick-fielding SS Evan Potter and Allen to make the Aztecs outstanding defensively up the middle. The rotation is anchored by undersized bulldog Bubba Derby (8-3, 2.69), a former closer whose fastball command and swing-and-miss curveball are major assets. With Derby in the rotation, flame-thrower Michael Cederoth (6-2, 2.28, 20 SV) has found a home at the back of the bullpen, where his mid-to-upper-90s fastball and wipeout power slider make him very effective despite his spotty control. The rest of the staff is unimposing, but junior lefty Mike Robards (5-4, 4.59) is a good competitor who has been a workhorse in the rotation.
Jackson State repeated as SWAC champion for the first time since 1994-95, knocking off top-seeded Alabama State 9-8 in the title game. Both teams were 3-0 in the tournament entering the title game, where Alabama State was a strong favorite after going 21-3 in the SWAC in the regular season (while JSU went 9-15). Alabama State went 5-1 against Jackson State in the regular season, but the Tigers won the game that mattered most. Tournament MVP Desmond Russell earned the win with five innings of work and also went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI at the plate; he threw a complete game in the tournament opener, allowing just one unearned run. Russell is Jackson State’s most indispensable player, going 9-4, 3.50 with eight complete games and two saves in 16 appearances (12 starts), while also hitting .289/.379/.398 as the starting right fielder and No. 2-hole hitter. The centerpiece of the lineup is first baseman Tilur Smith (.344/.443/.538, 16 2B), and third baseman Melvin Rodriguez (.310/.440/.439, 3 HR, 45 RBI) is another quality run producer who gives Smith some lineup protection. JSU excels at playing small ball, ranking fifth in the nation in hit-by-pitches and eighth in sacrifice bunts. But to win a regional in a very offensive setting against one explosive offensive team (ULL) and another above-average offensive team (SDSU), the Tigers are going to have to get hot with the bats, because they don’t have the kind of front-line arms necessary to shut down the Cajuns, as Mississippi State might.