No. 1 Kentucky (42-15)
Third appearance, at-large, tied for Southeastern regular season
No. 2 College of Charleston (43-15)
Third appearance, automatic, won Southern tournament
No. 3 Notre Dame (45-15-1)
21st appearance, automatic, won Big East regular season and tournament
No. 4 Ball State (37-20)
Third appearance, automatic, won Mid-American tournament
Kentucky plays host to a regional for the first time in school history as it makes just its third NCAA appearance. The Wildcats became the first team to go from worst to first in the SEC, setting school records for wins and conference wins along the way. It’s all about on-base percentage for Kentucky. It led the SEC in walks taken (316) while allowing the fewest as a pitching staff (131). Runners on base mean a lot for a team that enters regionals with more home runs than any team in the field (96), led by SEC of the year Ryan Strieby (.344-20-77) along with Sean Coughlin (17 homers), John Shelby (17) and Collin Cowgill (16). The pitching staff doesn’t overpower opponents; it just keeps the ball in the park and lets the defense work behind it.
Elon knocked the College of Charleston off its throne atop the SoCon, but the Cougars still beat the Phoenix three times in four games, including a 12-1 drubbing in the league tournament. This Charleston team doesn’t have the pop the last two editions have featured, but it still ranked among the nation’s top 20 in batting at .327. Transfers Larry Cobb (.365) and Alex Garadbedian (.360) led the assault, with Cobb, Philip Coker and Oliver Marmol all topping 20 steals. What the Cougars lost in power, they made up for in dominance on the mound. SoCon pitcher of the year Nick Chigges (10-1 and a 1.44 ERA that ranked third nationally) led a staff that ranked third nationally with a 2.92 ERA and struck out more than eight batters per nine innings.
For all the merits of Kentucky and Charleston on the mound, Notre Dame owns the best pitching staff in this regional. Junior righthanders Jeff Samardzija (8-2, 4.32) and Jeff Manship (9-2, 3.09 with 103 strikeouts) are top three-rounds talents with power stuff. Tom Thornton (7-2, 3.68) plays the role of crafty senior lefthander, and fourth starter Wade Korpi owns the best numbers on the team at 7-2, 2.00 with a 94-27 K-BB ratio in 76 innings after winning two starts in Notre Dame’s fifth straight Big East tournament championship. Those arms helped Notre Dame win 23 straight games in the middle of the year, and help compensate for an offense that’s pedestrian after leadoff man Craig Cooper, the Big East’s all-time leading hitter who batted .427 with nine homers, 19 doubles and 77 runs (tops among all players in the NCAA tournament) as a senior.
This marks the first NCAA appearance for Ball State since 1969, which won its first Mid-American tournament. The Cardinals did so without getting a home run from senior first baseman Brad Miller, whose 75 RBIs ranked fifth nationally and 21 homers ranked sixth and helped his team lead the conference with 60 home runs. Sophomore lefthander Ben Snyder (whose brother Brad was an Indians first-rounder as an outfielder in 2003) throws four pitches for strikes. His 7-5, 4.71 numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’d give Kentucky a scare if he replicated the 10-strikeout, two-walk, complete-game effort with which he opened the MAC tournament.