Tointon Family Stadium, Manhattan, Kan. (Host: Kansas State)
No. 1 Kansas State (41-17, 16-8 in Big 12)
Fourth appearance (last in 2011), at-large, Big 12 regular-season champion
Top 500 Prospects: OF Jared King (No. 68)
No. 2 Arkansas (37-20, 18-11 in SEC)
26th appearance (12th straight), at-large, second place in SEC West
Top 500 Prospects: RHP Ryne Stanek (No. 13), RHP Colby Suggs (No. 97), RHP Barrett Astin (No. 126), LHP Randall Fant (No. 468)
No. 3 Bryant (44-16-1, 27-5 in NEC)
First appearance, automatic, Northeast Conference regular-season and tournament champion
No. 4 Wichita State (39-26, 15-6 in MVC)
28th appearance (last in 2009), automatic, Missouri Valley Conference tournament champion
Top 500 Prospects: RHP Brandon Peterson (No. 268)
Kansas State was voted to finish seventh (out of nine teams) in the Big 12’s preseason coaches’ poll, but the Wildcats won six of their eight conference series to capture their first-ever Big 12 title, and their first regular-season championship in any conference since 1933. As a result, they are hosting their first regional, and fans in Manhattan have gotten on board, as all sessions for the regional already have sold out. Kansas State is one of the best offensive teams in the field of 64, ranking second nationally in batting (.323) and ninth in on-base percentage (.405). The Wildcats have good overall team speed and excel at driving the gaps, helping them rank fifth nationally with 28 triples. K-State’s best player, 2012 Big 12 player of the year Jared King, is a switch-hitting outfielder with power, speed, strong defense in center field and the ability to hit for average, though he’s been a bit streaky this spring (.337/.424/.515, 6 HR, 48 RBI, 13 SB). Shortstop Austin Fisher (.356/.429/.513) and second baseman Ross Kivett (.356/.434/.458, 26 SB) are the team’s two best hitters and the defensive glue, fielding .960 and .983, respectively. First baseman Shane Conlon (.345/.436/.520, 7 HR) arrived at K-State as a pitcher, then had Tommy John surgery and has reinvented himself as a key run producer in the middle of the lineup. Starting pitching is Kansas State’s bugaboo; the Wildcats have struggled to get consistent outings from its starters all year, and they’ll need veterans Joe Flattery (4-4, 4.02) and Matt Wivinis (6-2, 4.91) to perform better in the postseason than they did in the regular season in order to make a run. The Wildcats do have a good enough bullpen to mask some of the deficiencies in the rotation, led by 5-foot-10 freshman closer Jake Matthys (8-1, 2.13, 7 SV) and senior two-way player Tanner Witt (3.18 ERA, 7 SV). Matthys lacks overpowering stuff, but he fearlessly attacks hitters with an 86-87 mph fastball and a good slider, locating both pitches wherever he wants (35-8 K-BB in 51 IP).
Arkansas ranked No. 3 in BA’s preseason Top 25 on the strength of its incredible pitching depth, and its arms lived up to their billing, leading the nation with a 1.87 ERA. Of course, that figure is a bit deceptive because the Hogs surrendered 48 unearned runs, fielding just .963. But Arkanas also ranks first in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.78) and fifth in WHIP (1.1). Shaky defense and disappointing offensive production hurt the Hogs, who wound up finishing third in the SEC but missing out on a home regional because of a soft nonconference schedule. They went on the road last year for regionals and supers and still found their way to Omaha, and their pitching firepower gives them a shot to do so again this year. Ryne Stanek (9-2, 1.40) is a lock first-round pick with a 92-96 mph fastball, a power slider at 84-87, an improving changeup and a downer curve. Fellow junior righty Barrett Astin (5-1, 1.92) eats up hitters with his darting 88-92 mph fastball, a good 80-84 slider and a high-70s curve. The Hogs also have an abundance of lefthanded pitching (Randall Fant, Jalen Beeks, Trent Daniel), a valuable sinkerballer for the middle innings (Brandon Moore) and two electric power arms from the right side at the back of the bullpen (Chris Oliver, Colby Suggs). Defensively, third base has been the biggest trouble spot, as Brian Anderson and Jacob Mahan have both struggled there. Anderson is more comfortable in left field, and he has emerged as the team’s most dangerous offensive player, hitting .338/.448/.510 with four homers, 12 doubles and 33 RBIs. No other Razorback is hitting .300, and only one other Razorback has hit four home runs (Tyler Spoon). The Hogs are athletic, but they don’t steal many bases. This team is capable of scoring more runs if Anderson, Spoon, Joe Serrano and Dominic Ficociello can get hot in the postseason, but the Hogs are also good enough on the mound to win 2-1 games all the way to Omaha.
In the three years since it joined the Northeast Conference, Bryant has finished atop the regular-season standings twice, going 25-7 to win the NEC by five games in 2010, then going 24-8 to win the league by three games last year. But the Bulldogs were not eligible for the postseason while completing their transition to Division I, so they had to put their NCAA tournament ambitions on hold—until this year. They made the most of their opportunity, going 27-5 to win the regular-season title by four games, then rallying through the losers’ bracket with four straight wins to take the NEC tournament. This might be Bryant’s first regional, but head coach Steve Owens knows his way around these settings, leading Le Moyne to three regionals last decade. And this Bryant team is battle-tested, having played Oregon State tight in a four-game series back in Week Two, then taking one of three games at Ohio State two weeks later. Owens describes his lineup as a scrappy, patient bunch that works counts and drives the gaps. The lineup has a dangerous centerpiece in senior outfielder Kevin Brown (.368/.505/.550, 6 HR, 46 RBI), and leadoff man Jordan Mountford (.320/.417/.503, 3 HR, 22 RBI) has occasional pop, but the Bulldogs are not a home run-hitting team. This is a veteran team with steady defenders all around the diamond, led by senior shortstop Dan Muscatello, and Bryant ranks 29th nationally with a .975 fielding percentage. But Bryant’s biggest strength is its deep, experienced pitching staff, which ranks 10th in the nation with a 2.63 ERA. The Bulldogs have six or eight pitchers who can run their fastball up to 90 or above, led by ace senior righthander Peter Kelich (7-4, 2.53) and power sinkerballer Kevin McAvoy (7-2, 3.42). Another senior righty, Salvatore Lisanti (1.27 ERA, 10 SV), can bump 90 and locate a pair of quality secondary offerings, making him the anchor of a strong bullpen.
Wichita State finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference during the regular season, then lost its MVC tournament opener before rallying for five straight wins to capture its 18th Valley tournament title. The Shockers have a physical, mature core in fourth-year junior right fielder Garrett Bayliff (.389/.442/.436), fifth-year senior DH Johnny Coy (.270/.320/.363) and sophomore first baseman Casey Gillaspie (.300/.447/.507, 10 HR, 42 RBI). The younger brother of former WSU star Conor Gillaspie, Casey is the centerpiece of the lineup, a powerful slugger with an extremely patient approach (60 BB, 34 K). The Shockers have solid team speed and athleticism that translates to the defensive part of the game, as they rank 18th in the nation with a .977 fielding percentage. That quality defense allows Wichita’s pitching staff to focus on throwing strikes and pitching to contact, which is good because the Shockers lack swing-and-miss stuff. Ace righty Cale Elam (7-4, 2.60) is a low three-quarters sinkerballer with an 84-87 fastball and feel for a slider and changeup. Redshirt sophomore lefty Kris Gardner (3-6, 3.45) threw a seven-hit shutout in the MVC tourney against Indiana State, but he also has below-average velocity and little margin for error if his location is off. The bullpen has a pair of reliable stoppers in junior righty Brandon Peterson (3-1, 1.15, 10 SV) and junior lefty Albert Minnis (3-2, 2.75). Peterson has the best arm on the staff, sitting in the low 90s, touching 95, and getting strikeouts with a tight slider. Minnis’ deception makes his 87-89 fastball play up, and he has good feel for his high-70s slider. The Shockers have played the Wildcats twice this season in a home-and-home midweek series and lost both games.