U.S. Steel Yard, Gary, Ind. (Host: Purdue)
No. 1 Purdue (44-12, 17-7 in Big Ten)
Second appearance (last in 1987), automatic, Big Ten regular-season and tournament champion
No. 2 Kentucky (43-16, 18-12 in SEC)
Fifth appearance (last in 2008), at-large, tied for second place in SEC East
No. 3 Kent State (41-17, 24-3 in MAC)
12th appearance (fourth straight), automatic, Mid-American regular-season and tournament champion
No. 4 Valparaiso (35-23, 22-8 in Horizon)
Sixth appearance (last in 1968), automatic, Horizon regular-season and tournament champion
Purdue already has enjoyed its most successful season ever, ending its 103-year Big Ten regular-season title drought and following it up with an unbeaten run through the conference tournament to make regionals for just the second time ever, and the first time since 1987. The Boilermakers went 44-12 despite playing just 16 games at home; they went 20-8 on the road and 11-1 at neutral sites, proving their mettle at places like East Carolina, Auburn, Wichita State and UCLA (where they won one out of three in a competitive series). U.S. Steel Yard, home of the independent Gary Railcats, has shorter dimensions to left field, which seems to play into the advantage of Purdue’s two righthanded sluggers, Kevin Plawecki (.365/.455/.578, 7 HR, 45 RBI) and Cameron Perkins (.358/.406/.541, 9 HR, 58 RBI). Spark-plug second baseman Eric Charles (.364/.432/.431) and junior outfielder Stephen Talbott (.347/.379/.461) also hit from the right side, making Purdue a tough matchup for a team like Kentucky, which leans exclusively upon lefties in its starting rotation. Charles will miss the opener while serving a one-game suspension for a hard slide that ignited a benches-clearing incident in the Big Ten title game against Indiana. Purdue also has some balance in its lineup, as patient leadoff man Tyler Spillner and senior Barrett Serrato provide lefthanded threats. The pitching staff isn’t overpowering, but righties Joe Haase (10-1, 3.41) and Lance Breedlove (8-5, 2.82) form a competitive, strike-throwing duo with good movement on their modest fastballs. The Boilermakers also have a stellar one-two bullpen punch in funky, versatile lefty Blake Mascarello (8-1, 1.72) and power-armed righty Nick Wittgren (3-0, 1.89, 10 SV).
Kentucky dominated a very soft nonconference schedule during its 22-0 start, but it proved it was for real by opening SEC play with a sweep of South Carolina. The Wildcats went on to win road series at Georgia and Arkansas plus big home series against Ole Miss and LSU, but it wasn’t enough to land them a No. 1 seed in regionals, as the committee punished them for their nonconference slate. Still, Kentucky is battle tested and talented, even though it stumbled down the stretch, losing nine of its last 16 games and falling into an offensive funk. Dynamic center fielder Austin Cousino (.318/.405/.519, 9 HR, 19 2B, 13 SB), the SEC freshman of the year, sets the tone atop the lineup, and it’s no coincidence that the team has slumped as Cousino has (he’s just 6-for-36 in his last 10 games). His return to form is critical for Kentucky. Fellow freshman A.J. Reed has found a home in the rotation while also providing lefthanded pop in the middle of the lineup, causing the Wildcats to slide former ace Taylor Rogers into the bullpen, where he was lights-out in two appearances in the SEC tournament. Starters Jerad Grundy and Corey Littrell plus relievers Alex Phillips and Sam Mahar also help keep this staff very well stocked with quality lefties. But there are also three good righthanders in the deep bullpen: closer Trevor Gott (2.57, 9 SV), Tim Peterson and Chandler Shepherd. And with five key lefthanded hitters in the starting lineup, Kentucky faces a significant challenge in Kent State ace lefthander David Starn in the opener. But Luke Maile, Thomas McCarthy, Michael Williams and Zac Zellers give UK a group of physically mature veterans from the right side, as well.
Kent State is led by a group of core seniors making their fourth straight trip to regionals. Two of them occupy key up-the-middle positions. Catcher David Lyon (.288, 10 HR) provides pop in the lineup (and hit a memorable grand slam against Taylor Jungmann in Kent State’s upset of Texas in last year’s regionals), handles the pitching staff very well and controls the running game (throwing out 41 percent of basestealers). Shortstop Jimmy Rider (.361/.434/.532, 5 HR, 49 RBI) is a catalyst for the offense who also anchors the infield with rock-solid defense (five errors, .982 fielding percentage). A third senior, lefthander David Starn (10-3, 1.77), is one of the most accomplished pitchers in MAC history; he carves up hitters thanks to pinpoint command of a mid-80s fastball, excellent changeup and slider. The Golden Flashes have a pair of power-armed starters behind him in Ryan Bores (whose bread in butter is an 89-92 mph sinker) and Tyler Skulina (who sits 89-93 and has touched 96 this spring, to go with devastating power slider). Veteran Casey Wilson, hard-throwing freshman lefty Brian Clark and power-armed righty Josh Pierce form a talented trio in the bullpen. Kent State has balance in the lineup and on the mound, it has far and away the most postseason experience in this regional (no players from the other three teams have ever played in a regional). The Flashes pushed Texas to the brink in the Austin Regional last year, losing in the regional final.
After starting the season 4-13 and 8-18, Valparaiso caught fire in the second half, winning 27 of its last 32 games to capture its first Horizon League regular-season title and tie a school record for wins (35). The program has made great strides since Tracy Woodson took over as head coach in 2007, and this year’s veteran club succeeded in ending a 44-year NCAA tournament drought. Valpo doesn’t put up gaudy numbers offensively, but it grinds out at-bats up and down the lineup and excels at manufacturing runs via small ball (ranking second in the nation with 83 sacrifice bunts). Lanky freshman shortstop Spencer Mahoney (.355/.466/.439) has made a huge impact, fielding at a solid .933 clip and leading the team in hitting. On the mound, the Crusaders have a trio of reliable starters in strike-thrower Kyle Wormington (6-6, 3.28), changeup artist Tyler Deetjen (8-2, 3.22) and sinkerballer Kevin Wild (6-3, 2.91). Sidearmer Jarad Miller had 17 saves two years ago before missing 2011 with Tommy John surgery; he bounced back to go 5-2, 2.06 with eight saves this year, anchoring the bullpen. Valpo is a confident, very well coached team, but it must be considered a major underdog in this loaded regional. But keep in mind that Valpo is playing close to home and even hosted the 2010 Horizon League tournament at U.S. Steel Yard in 2010.