Hawkins Field, Nashville (Host: Vanderbilt)
Vanderbilt looked like it was on course for a national seed after taking two of three at Florida in early May, but the Commodores closed the season by losing a home series to South Carolina and then getting bounced early in the SEC tournament, costing themselves a spot in the top eight. Nonetheless, Vandy landed its third regional hosting spot in the last four years. Pitching continues to be at the heart of Vanderbilt’s success, as the ’Dores are 16th in the nation in ERA at 2.73. Ace junior Tyler Beede (7-7, 3.49) has held down the Friday night role and shows a first-round arsenal when he’s on, with a low to mid-90s fastball, a dominant changeup and a hard curveball. However, Beede’s had an inconsistent year, and one of the turning points in Vandy’s season was the insertion of sophomore righty Carson Fulmer (5-1, 1.31) into the rotation in late April. Fulmer has an explosive fastball-curveball-changeup combination, beginning the season as the closer (10 saves), then winning each of his first five starts after the move to the rotation. Even without Fulmer, Vandy has a quality bullpen headed by a couple of junior righthanders in deceptive sidewinder Brian Miller (1-1, 1.97, 5 SV) and the power-armed Adam Ravenelle (3-1, 1.35), who pitches at 92-93 with a power slider. Offensively, what the ’Dores lack in power—just 21 homers as a team—they make up for in speed and athleticism. Vandy hitters pepper the gaps and run relentlessly, leading the SEC in doubles (122) and ranking second in steals (93). Speedy leadoff man Dansby Swanson (.336/.414/.487, 21 2B) is the spark plug, while middle-of-the-order anchors Zander Wiel (.274/.381/.447, 5 HR) and Bryan Reynolds (.323/.383/.478, 4 HR) both hit well down the stretch. Junior Vince Conde (.306/.407/.423, 4 HR, 43 RBI; .982 fielding percentage) has become one of the best all-around shortstops in college baseball, joining Swanson in an elite double-play tandem.
Oregon’s season can be looked at a couple different ways. On one hand, the Ducks, the No. 11 team in the preseason—right behind Vanderbilt—lost all five weekend series they played against tournament teams, making them 0-for-10 in series against regionals teams in the last two years. On the other, most teams wouldn’t get this far while dealing with the loss of two-thirds of their weekend rotation to Tommy John surgery, posting 42 wins overall and 18 in the tough Pac-12. That’s what Oregon did after Cole Irvin went down in the preseason and then Matt Krook, who’d posted a 1.88 ERA in eight starts, was lost in early April. Friday night starter Tommy Thorpe (10-4, 2.20) was outstanding down the stretch, winning six of his last seven starts, and the Ducks have gotten vital contributions from redshirt senior Jeff Gold (10-2, 3.14). Gold has thrived since moving into the weekend rotation early in the year, leaning on his secondary stuff to go with a fastball in the upper 80s. In the bullpen, Jake Reed (3-1, 2.08, 13 SV) successfully handled a move to closer after two seasons in the rotation, allowing him to cut loose his big arm, while sophomore lefty Garrett Cleavinger (3-1, 2.76) is the workhorse setup man and has shown he can miss bats with his 89-91 mph fastball and slow curveball. Fans know what to expect from a George Horton-coached offense, and the Ducks are duly among the national leaders in sac bunts (third with 81) and hit-by-pitches (14th with 94). However, they’ve also found themselves a legitimate bopper in junior catcher Shaun Chase (.281/.357/.625, 12 HR). Chase didn’t really assume the full-time catching duties until late March, yet he still won the Pac-12 home run title after blasting seven homers in the month of May. The rest of the Ducks lineup won’t inspire as much fear, as they have just two other regulars, Mitchell Tolman (.315/.441/.458) and Tyler Baumgartner (.287/.368/.422), hitting over .260.
This regional reunites Clemson coach Jack Leggett with long-time assistant Tim Corbin. The two took the Tigers to four College World Series together before Corbin headed for Vanderbilt in 2002. If Clemson and Vandy get to play each other this weekend, it’ll be the first time the two coaches have faced off. Like Oregon, the Tigers struggled with quality opponents, winning only one series against a regional team (Maryland). They did score a dramatic walk-off win against Miami in the ACC tournament, helping them get on the right side of the bubble. Given the coaching ties, it’s probably no coincidence that Clemson’s offense is patterned similarly to Vandy’s, being predicated on driving the gaps and making things happen on the bases. Like Vandy, Clemson ranks in the top 20 in the country in both doubles (111) and steals (89). Shortstop Tyler Krieger (.330/.405/.434, 2 HR) is the Tigers’ cornerstone, a superb athlete who’s made a big leap forward offensively as a sophomore, though defensive struggles (.873 fielding percentage) have pushed him to DH down the stretch, with less athletic but steadier Jay Baum taking over at short. Krieger and second baseman Steve Wilkerson (.318/.386/.495, 5 HR) are both switch-hitters, giving the Tigers an ability to create late-game matchup problems around grinding leadoff man Tyler Slaton (.277/.389/.379, 39 walks), a lefty, and righthanded-hitting Garrett Boulware (.303/.382/.422, 4 HR), who has more power potential than his modest output shows. However, Clemson’s hopes of doing any damage in this regional depend heavily on its one-two punch on the mound of lefty Matthew Crownover (8-5, 2.26) and righty Daniel Gossett (7-1, 1.78). Gossett is the better prospect, topping out at 95 mph with a sometimes plus curveball, but changeup artist Crownover has held down the Friday night role in the second half, going at least seven innings in nine straight starts. Those innings are critical since the Tigers bullpen has few reliable options outside of closer Matt Campbell (4-0, 0.87, 8 SV). However, there’s an even bigger red flag for the Tigers besides that bullpen—their .963 fielding percentage, which ranks 205th in the country. A shaky defense is not a good thing to have against the speed and skill of Vanderbilt and Oregon.
Xavier lost eight of its last 10 regular-season games and went into the Big East tournament as the No. 4 seed, losing again to regular-season champ Creighton in its opener. The Musketeers reversed their momentum in a hurry, however, coming through the losers’ bracket and upsetting Creighton in the title game behind a three-hit shutout from freshman Trent Astle. Although Xavier’s pitching carried it through the conference tournament, overall the Musketeers look like the most offense-oriented team in the regional. Of the four teams in Nashville, Xavier has the highest average (.283) and team slugging percentage (.390), along with the most homers (33), while its 4.32 ERA is easily the worst. Junior DH Derek Hasenbeck (.307/.386/.427, 6 HR) leads the way, showing pop and a disciplined approach—he’s drawn nearly as many walks (29) as he has strikeouts (31). Senior outfielder Mitch Elliott missed most of the season with a leg injury but came on strong in the Big East tournament, hitting .444 to earn most outstanding player honors. The Musketeers aren’t especially deep on the mound, but they do have an ace in redshirt senior righthander Vinny Nittoli (6-3, 1.98), an All-Big East pick with command of a nice fastball-slider mix. Nittoli also plays outfield on days he doesn’t pitch and is another of the team’s power threats, hitting .273/.338/.438 with four homers.