Davenport Field, Charlottesville, Va. (Host: Virginia)
No. 1 Virginia (38-17-1, 18-12 in ACC)
12th appearance (ninth straight), at-large, second place in ACC Coastal
No. 2 Oklahoma (38-22, 13-10 in Big 12)
34th appearance (fifth straight), at-large, fourth place in Big 12
No. 3 Appalachian State (39-16, 21-9 in SoCon)
Fourth appearance (last in 1986), at-large, SoCon regular-season co-champion
No. 4 Army (41-13, 18-2 in Patriot)
Fifth appearance (last in 2009), automatic, Patriot League regular-season and tournament champion
Virginia lost its top four pitchers—who accounted for about 70 percent of its innings pitched—from last year’s Omaha team, and the Cavaliers got off to a slow start with a young team this spring, going 11-8-1 out of the gate. But since that point, Virginia has gone 26-9, surging into regional hosting position. Talented freshmen like Derek Fisher (.309 with seven homers and 50 RBIs), Nate Irving, Branden Cogswell and Brandon Downes have matured into solid contributors, complementing the veteran core of Stephen Bruno (.362, 6 HR, 48 RBI), Chris Taylor (.271, 5 HR, 44 RBI), Keith Werman (.273) and Colin Harrington (.312) to form a lineup that surprisingly ranks 13th in the nation in scoring (seven runs per game). As usual, UVa. excels at shooting the spacious gaps at Davenport Field, helping explain its 32 triples (third-most in the country). They also manufacture offense by any means necessary, ranking fourth in the country in sacrifice bunts, 11th in sac flies and 12th in hit-by-pitches. The biggest concern about UVa. is its starting pitching after ace Branden Kline (6-3, 3.68). Artie Lewicki (4-2, 3.33) can run his fastball into the low 90s and has developed solid secondary stuff to complement it, but the Cavs lack an effective third starter, as Scott Silverstein (2-5, 4.48) hasn’t pitched beyond the fourth inning since March 30. The key to Virginia’s postseason run might be whether senior righty Shane Halley (9-1, 1.71) can complete his recovery from a strained oblique in time to shoulder a significant load, potentially as a third starter. Halley returned to the mound in practice this week, which is an encouraging sign.
Unlike the Cavs, Oklahoma is loaded with holdovers from its 2010 team, which went to Charlottesville and won an exciting super regional. UVa. fans have probably had nightmares about Cody Reine since then, and other key players with experience from that team include leading hitter Max White (who has hit .356 and transformed himself into a good center fielder), sparkplug Erik Ross (who leads the team with 16 steals), and middle infielders Caleb Bushyhead and Jack Mayfield. But newcomers have made a very big difference during the Sooners’ stretch-run surge (which included a 5-0 record against No. 4 national seed Baylor). Third baseman Garrett Carey gives OU a gifted defensive third baseman who should be able to handle all the bunts he is likely to see in this regional. Freshman DH Hunter Lockwood (11 HR) brings some thump to the lineup. And junior-college transfers Jonathan Gray, Steven Okert and Damien Magnifico have the three biggest arms in this regional, by a long shot. Throw in polished lefthanders Jordan John (8-6, 2.30) and Dillon Overton (5-3, 3.24), and Oklahoma’s top five arms rate as the strongest in this regional.
Appalachian State can’t rival Oklahoma’s pure arm strength, but its depth of quality pitchers is comparable. The Mountaineers returned all three weekend starters and two of their top three bullpen arms from last season, and they announced their presence on the national scene by winning a series at LSU in the second week of the season. Rather than a fluke, that weekend proved to be a springboard for the Mountaineers, who won the SoCon regular-season title to earn an at-large bid, ending a 26-year NCAA tournament drought. Senior righthanders Ryan Arrowood (10-0, 4.03) and Seth Grant (6-3, 3.33) are rock-solid veteran starters with three or four quality pitches, including fastballs that bump the low 90s. And lefthander Rob Marcello (6-4, 5.19) mixes speeds and locations to keep hitters off balance; his arrival from a junior college this year allowed ASU to move Nathan Hyatt (3.46 ERA, 15 saves) into the closer role, where he has thrived thanks to an electric 92-95 mph fastball, though his slider and command are works in progress. The lineup is dangerous as well, with seven experienced upperclassmen, anchored by slugging senior Daniel Kassouf (.345, 17 HR, 60 RBI). The Mountaineers also are aggressive on the basepaths, rankings 17th nationally with 93 steals. Hector Crespo (30 steals in 32 tries) and Will Callaway (23-for-27) are disruptive catalysts.
Army won 36 or more games three times under coach Joe Sottolano (including in 2009, when it reached the finals of the Austin Regional), and the Black Knights finally broke through to reach the 40-win plateau for the first time this year. Army built its team around athleticism and speed (it ranks seventh in the country with 2.02 steals per game), but the lineup still has a pair of physically mature, dangerous veterans in seniors Kevin McKague (.389/.487/.553, 5 HR) and J.T. Watkins (.318/.391/.490, 5 HR). A third senior, second baseman Zach Price (.324/.427/.386, 20 SB), makes the lineup go from the leadoff spot. The Black Knights are relentless up and down their lineup, they play good defense, and they really pitch. Sinkerballer Chris Rowley (11-0, 1.97) has serious movement on his 85-87 sinker, and he induces ground ball after ground ball for Army’s steady infield to gobble up. He also has a solid slider and very good changeup, and he has a real chance to beat the Cavs in the opener. Sottolano describes No. 2 starter Logan Lee (8-2, 3.28) as “a craftsman” who pounds the zone with a mid-80s fastball and keeps hitters off balance. Gunnar Carroll (2.45, 8 SV) and Manny Fernandez (4-1, 2.22) have emerged as a quality one-two bullpen punch with the power-armed McKague limited to just 12 innings by injury this year. It all adds up to make Army a dangerous No. 4 seed, capable of making some noise this weekend.