Baseball America

Conference Tournament Previews

In Tuesday’s Stock Report, we broke down what is at stake in conference tournaments in leagues where multiple teams have chances to earn at-large bids. Over the course of the season, we’ve written about nearly every team that is playing in a power-conference tournament this week. Now let’s take a look at what to watch for in the conference tournaments where only the champion is likely to advance to regionals. We’re omitting the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences, where Texas Christian and Fresno State have been nationally ranked for most of the season and head into conference tournaments as heavy favorites.

America East

Tournament host and defending champion Stony Brook is the America East juggernaut, one of the strongest favorites in any conference tournament. The Seawolves ride an 11-game winning streak into the AEC tournament. They went 22-2 to win their first-ever regular-season crown by four games, and they finished 41-10 overall. But those figures only scratch the surface of Stony Brook’s dominance. The Seawolves swept the conference’s four postseason awards, as slugger William Carmona (.360/.393/.597 with six homers and 40 RBIs) was named player of the year, ace Nick Tropeano (11-1, 1.91 with 107 strikeouts and 21 walks in 85 innings) won pitcher of the year, fellow righthander Brandon McNitt (7-2, 1.73) earned freshman of the year honors, and Matt Senk captured his first coach of the year award. Eleven Seawolves garnered all-conference honors, including eight first-teamers.

No. 2 seed Maine has the best chance to play spoiler, thanks in large part to two of the league’s best power arms in sophomores Jeffrey Gibbs (6-5, 3.90) and Stephen Perakslis (5-4, 3.92). Justin Leisenheimer (.333 with seven homers) leads an offense that scored runs by the bushel at times during Maine’s torrid finishing stretch, which included wins in 13 of its last 14 games.

For more on Stony Brook, see our March 30 mailbag.

Atlantic 10

Perennial league power Charlotte went 17-7 to win the regular-season title for the second straight year, but in 2010 it was upset by fifth-seeded Saint Louis in the championship of the A-10 tourney. The 49ers are the favorites again this year, and their stellar pitching staff (which ranks fourth in the nation with a 2.48 ERA, nearly a run and a half better than any other team in the A-10) looks strong enough to avoid an upset this time around. Charlotte lacks big-time power arms, but starters Tyler Barnette (8-1, 1.98), Andrew Smith (8-4, 1.99), Corey Roberts (7-3, 3.18) and Joe Yermal (5-2, 1.92) all pound the strike zone and keep hitters off balance with varied repertoires. The pitching staff has solid depth, too, giving Charlotte a chance to run through the loser’s bracket if it stumbles. Charlotte’s offense relies on execution, athleticism and speed (it ranks 12th nationally with 105 stolen bases). Coach Loren Hibbs called his team “offensively challenged” midway through the season, but the 49ers still rank second in the A-10 in batting (.299) and scoring (6.8 runs per game).

Rhode Island, which finished just a game behind Charlotte, is constructed similarly around pitching and speed. The pitching staff is anchored by a trio of battle-tested fourth- or fifth-year players in Stephen Peterson (6-3, 2.91), Ken Graveline (6-4, 3.80) and Chris Pickering (4-3, 4.10). And URI has three players with 20 or more stolen bases; the team ranks fourth in the nation in steals per game (2.18).

For more on the Rams and 49ers, see the Under The Radar section from the March 25 Weekend Preview

Big Ten

Last year in this space, we referred to the Big Ten as “the most volatile conference in the country all season,” and that has been the case in 2011 as well. Michigan State maintained tenuous control of the tightly bunched league for most of the season until Illinois won its final five games to tie the Spartans atop the standings (15-9). The scrappy Illini stand out most for their team speed (a league-best 1.74 stolen bases per game, 20th in the nation), but even though they enter the tournament as the top seed, it’s hard to consider them the favorite with a 5.09 team ERA that ranks second-to-last in the conference. Michigan State, which captured a share of the regular-season title for the first time since 1979, is a more balanced club, with a pitching staff anchored by proven veterans Tony Bucciferro (8-2, 3.22) and Big Ten pitcher of the year Kurt Wunderlich (9-2, 3.36). The Spartans’ offense that ranks third in the nation in batting (.322), led by sparkplug Brandon Eckerle (.386, tops in the league) and sweet-swinging first baseman Jeff Holm (.379 with nine homers), the conference player of the year. Eckerle, Holm and Torsten Boss (.369) finished first, second and third in the league in batting.

Consider Michigan State the team to beat, but after a topsy-turvy regular season, this tournament is fairly wide open. No. 3 seed Purdue, which ranks ninth in the nation in scoring (7.4 runs per game), has the firepower to slug its way through the event. The Boilermakers have eight players who started at least 24 games and posted averages better than .300, led by Kevin Plawecki (.355) and Cameron Perkins (.351 with eight homers and 53 RBIs). And don’t forget about preseason favorite and defending champion Minnesota, which played just 44 games in the wake of the Metrodome collapse. The Gophers have the league’s best bullpen, anchored by senior Scott Matyas (6-2, 1.93 with 10 saves), plus a solid weekend rotation fronted by the one-two punch of T.J. Oakes (5-5, 3.45) and Phil Isaksson (3-5, 3.14).

For more on Michigan State, see the Scouting Report section from the April 1 Weekend Preview.

Big East

A year after it won 48 games and hosted a regional, Connecticut entered 2011 as a preseason top 10 team, and it recovered from a slow start in nonconference play to dominate the Big East, winning the regular-season crown by 3 1/2 games over St. John’s. Preseason All-Americans and likely top-half-of-the-first-round picks George Springer (.379/.480/.685 with 12 homers, 72 RBIs and 29 stolen bases) and Matt Barnes (11-3 with a 1.11 ERA that ranks second in the nation) lived up to the hype, winning conference player and pitcher of the year honors, respectively. But UConn is far from a two-man team; most of the core of last year’s regionals club remains intact, led by seniors Mike Nemeth (.335 with 43 RBIs) and Greg Nappo (9-2, 2.97). Another of the team’s big stars, shortstop Nick Ahmed (.322 with 20 steals), has been sidelined after suffering a collapsed lung, and freshman Tom Verdi has filled in ably at shortstop for the last 23 games, fielding at a solid .951 clip. UConn is balanced and experienced, and the heavy favorite to with the conference tournament—and it has a strong chance to earn an at-large bid if it gets upset.

St. John’s is the only other team in the league with a realistic at-large shot, but it needs a deep run in the Big East tourney to bolster its No. 54 RPI. The Red Storm was a preseason Top 25 club itself, and it features a solid offense led by one of the nation’s best all-around shortstops in Joe Panik (.396/.506/.650 with nine homers, 53 RBIs and 17 steals) plus an RBI machine who captured first-team All-America honors as a freshman last year in Jeremy Baltz (.309 with six homers and 52 RBIs). Kyle Hansen (8-5, 2.56) leads a solid but not overpowering pitching staff.

For more on UConn, check out our Golden Spikes Spotlight on Matt Barnes from Week Four and this blog post from the Big East-Big Ten Challenge in February. For more on St. John’s, subscribers can read this feature on Joe Panik from March.

Big South

This tournament got underway with a pair of elimination games Tuesday, which saw Gardner-Webb drub High Point 14-4 and Radford send VMI packing 3-1. But the tournament figures to come down to top-seeded Coastal Carolina and No. 2 Liberty. The Chanticleers have ruled the Big South with an iron fist for years now, and they overcame a sluggish start to win their fifth consecutive regular-season crown by two games over the Flames. Coastal coach Gary Gilmore says this year’s club has the deepest, most versatile bullpen he’s had in recent years, complementing a boffo starting rotation of Anthony Meo (8-3, 2.42), Josh Conway (7-1, 2.43) and Matt Rein (8-2, 1.38). Meo threw a no-hitter in Coastal’s opener Wednesday morning.

The characteristically athletic, aggressive offense is built around mainstays Tommy La Stella (.407 with 11 homers and 60 RBIs), Scott Woodward (.317 with 29 steals in 32 tries) and Daniel Bowman (.276 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs). Liberty’s strength is its one-two pitching punch of Keegan Linza (9-3, 2.23) and Steven Evans (6-3, 2.96).

For more on Coastal Carolina, see the Streakin‘ section of the May 13 Weekend Preview.

Colonial Athletic Association

Like the Big Ten, the CAA was a tightly bunched dog fight for most of the season, before James Madison separated itself in the final two weeks to win the league by two games over Old Dominion. JMU must be considered the team to beat in the CAA thanks to one of the nation’s most explosive, powerful offenses. Senior catcher Jake Lowery leads the nation with 81 RBIs while ranking second with 22 homers and hitting .348/.441/.806. Senior shortstop David Herbek (.368/.449/.697 with 14 homers and 67 RBIs) gives the lineup a second stud, helping the Dukes lead the nation in scoring (9.2 runs per game) and slugging (.531), rank ninth in batting (.319) and doubles (127), and fourth in triples (27) and home runs (76). The pitching staff lags way behind, posting a 5.98 ERA that ranks second-to-last in the conference, but the Dukes have the heavy artillery to bash their way through the conference tournament.

ODU is a worthy challenger; the Monarchs have some firepower of their own with the one-two punch of Joshua Wright (.376/.467/.713 with 12 homers, 44 RBIs and 18 steals) and Chris Baker (.302/.355/.528 with nine homers and 58 RBIs), and the pitching staff has its own quality duo in Ben Tomchick (7-4, 3.28) and Kyle Hald (8-2, 3.51). ODU also has a proven closer in Adam Wisniewski (3.12 ERA, 14 saves).

For more on JMU, check out our Week 12 Golden Spikes Spotlight on Lowery. For more on ODU, see the Streakin‘ section of the Feb. 25 Weekend Preview.

Horizon

Wright State and Illinois-Chicago have taken turns winning the Horizon’s regular-season and conference championships in recent years, as one of the two clubs has won the league’s automatic bid in five of the last six years. This year was more of the same: The Raiders and Flames each went 16-7 in league play to share the regular-season crown. Wright State earned the top seed, and we’re dubbing it the slight favorite by virtue of its potent offense, which ranks second in the nation in batting (.322), 12th in slugging (.463) and 23rd in scoring (seven runs per game). Eight Raiders earned all-conference honors, led by player of the year Jake Hibberd (.415/.456/.627 with nine homers and 54 RBIs) and newcomer of the year Corey Davis (.310/.392/.546 with eight homers). UIC ranks in the middle of the Horizon pack in most offensive and pitching categories, but the Flames simply know how to win. They are built around a quality core of seniors, led by slugging third baseman Jason Ganek (.308 with seven homers), second baseman Matt Serna (.367) and the ultra-versatile Andy Leonard (.293).

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

Manhattan is the clear-cut class of the MAAC in 2011. The Jaspers raced out to a 16-0 start to league play en route to a 22-2 record, good enough to win the regular season title by 4 1/2 games over Rider (the defending tournament champion). Manhattan’s offense is carried by a core of four quality seniors: Chad Salem (.341/.424/.604 with nine homers and 50 RBIs), Mike McCann (.371/.450/.575 with six homers), Austin Sheffield (.305/.429/.422 with three homers) and quintessential pest Mark Onorati (.350/.452/.578 with six homers and 15 steals). The pitching staff is stocked with strike-throwers and has a reliable anchor in sophomore righty John Soldinger (9-2, 2.37).

For more on the Jaspers, see the Streakin‘ section of the April 22 Weekend Preview.

Mid-American

Kent State has made six trips to regionals in the last decade, and the Golden Flashes head to the MAC tournament as the strong favorite after going 21-5 in league play to win the regular-season title by 3 1/2 games over Miami (Ohio). The defending champion Flashes have a very capable, experienced lineup led by senior Ben Klafczynski (.376/.457/.619 with 10 homers and 48 RBIs) and junior Travis Shaw (.306/.403/.574 with 13 homers and 47 RBIs), but there’s no question the strength of the team is its pitching staff. Under the direction of highly respected pitching coach Mike Birkbeck, Kent State’s staff ranks eighth nationally in ERA (2.62) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.6) and 15th in fewest hits allowed per nine (7.85). Lefthander Andrew Chafin (6-1, 2.14 with 91 strikeouts and 19 walks in 71 innings) has the biggest arm and highest profile on the staff, with a chance to be drafted in the sandwich or late first round this June. But fellow starters Kyle Hallock (9-4, 1.63), David Starn (7-2, 2.07) and Ryan Mace (5-1, 2.26) have been just as effective, setting up the Flashes to make a run through the conference tournament.

For more on Kent State, see the Marquee Mound Showdown section of the Feb. 18 Weekend Preview and the Week Six Golden Spikes Spotlight on Andrew Chafin.

Missouri Valley

This double-elimination tournament got underway Tuesday with three games (the Creighton-Bradley game was postponed). Two higher-seeded teams won, as Wichita State beat Evansville 2-1 and Missouri State beat Southern Illinois 6-4. There was also an upset, as No. 6 seed Indiana State knocked off No. 3 and defending champion Illinois State 5-2. But host and regular-season champion Creighton is the team to beat thanks to its winning pitching-and-defense formula. As usual, the Bluejays rank among the nation’s top 10 in fielding percentage (.979), and the pitching staff has posted a solid 3.44 ERA, third-best in the conference. Ace Ty Blach (10-1, 2.41) and closer Kurt Spomer (2.13 ERA, 10 saves) bookend a staff full of strike-throwers, and Jonas Dufek (9-1, 2.32 with 105 strikeouts and 24 walks in 93 innings) has been able to dominate as the No. 2 starter thanks in large part to a swing-and-miss slider. The lineup has a dangerous centerpiece in senior outfielder Trever Adams (.399/.459/.709 with 14 homers and 53 RBIs).

For more on Creighton and Wichita State, see the Meaningful Matchup section of the May 6 Weekend Preview.

Ohio Valley

Austin Peay State clinched the OVC’s regular-season title with a week still to play in the regular season, and the Governors enter the conference tournament as the team to beat. Austin Peay is a balanced club with a steady pitching staff anchored by Jeremy Dobbs (8-2, 3.66), but the strength of the team is its offense, which leads the conference and ranks 22nd nationally in scoring (7.1 runs per game). This is a young team that relies on a host of talented underclassmen, led by freshman Jordan Hankins (the team’s leading hitter at .378) and sophomore John Hogan (.319 with 12 homers and 58 RBIs), but it also has a pair of key upperclassmen in third baseman Greg Bachman (.333 with seven homers) and speed merchant Michael Blanchard (.331 with 25 steals). Defending champion Jacksonville State faded a bit after a strong start to the season, but the third-seeded Gamecocks are dangerous thanks to their athletic lineup and one of the conference’s top pitching staffs, anchored by the one-two punch of Aaron Elias (7-3, 3.73) and Jordan Beistline (6-1, 3.83).

For more on Austin Peay, see the Week 13 Three Strikes. For more on Jacksonville State, see the Streakin‘ section of the April 15 Weekend Preview.

Summit

The Summit’s regular-season was a two-horse race between Oral Roberts (which went 21-7 to win the title by a game) and South Dakota State, and the conference tournament figures to come down to those two teams, as well. A year ago, the Jackrabbits actually entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed before losing to ORU in the tournament championship, sending the Golden Eagles to regionals for the 13th consecutive year. The two clubs are opposites of each other in many ways: South Dakota State owns the conference’s most potent offense, ranking 25th in the nation in scoring (seven runs per game) and 16th in batting (.313), while ORU’s strength is its pitching and defense. Led by ace Alex Gonzalez (7-5, 2.77) and a deep, versatile bullpen, the Golden Eagles lead the league in ERA (3.54) by a full run over the next team (SDSU), and they also lead the Summit in fielding percentage (.969). ORU’s offense is not explosive but is plenty capable, led by veterans Nick Baligod (.353 with five homers), Chris Elder (.327 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs) and Brandon King (.320 with eight homers and 45 RBIs). South Dakota State’s lineup presents no easy outs and has two senior stalwarts in Joel Blake (.386 with 14 doubles and 43 RBIs) and Jesse Sawyer (.275 with 12 homers and 42 RBIs).

For more on the Jackrabbits, see the Under The Radar section of the May 13 Weekend Preview.

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