Dudy Noble Field, Starkville, Miss. (Host: Mississippi State)
No. 1 Mississippi State (43-17, 16-14 in SEC)
31st appearance (third straight), at-large, third place in SEC West
Top 500 Prospects: RF Hunter Renfroe (No. 11), SS Adam Frazier (No. 144), RHP Evan Mitchell (No. 411), RHP Kendall Graveman (No. 470)
No. 2 South Alabama (42-18, 20-10 in Sun Belt)
25th appearance (last in 2006), at-large, Sun Belt Conference regular-season co-champion
Top 500 Prospects: 1B/LHP Jordan Patterson (No. 331)
No. 3 Mercer (43-16, 20-7 in A-Sun)
Second appearance (last in 2010), at-large, Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season champion
No. 4 Central Arkansas (39-20, 12-15 in Southland)
First appearance, automatic, Southland Conference tournament champion
Mississippi State ranked No. 5 in BA’s preseason Top 25 and got off to a 17-0 start against a home-baked nonconference schedule, before losing a home series to Central Arkansas, its first postseason opponent. That started a stretch of four straight series losses for the Bulldogs, who dropped six series overall but salvaged a home regional with a huge series win against South Carolina and a strong 3-1 showing in the SEC tournament. Perhaps the most encouraging development for MSU in Hoover was slugger Hunter Renfroe’s 3-for-5 performance in a loss against Vandy, snapping a 4-for-41 slump that dropped Renfroe’s season line to .352/.445/.652. When he is locked in, Renfroe is one of college baseball’s most fearsome hitters, as his 15 homers (many of them moonshots) and 54 RBIs attest. Aside from hulking first baseman Wes Rea (.282/.380/.455, 6 HR, 32 RBI), the rest of the MSU lineup lacks punch, combining for just seven more home runs. But Mississippi State has a deep, athletic, experienced lineup that works counts (261 walks, 18th in the nation), gets on base (.389 OBP, 28th) and battles through at-bats. Dynamic shortstop Adam Frazier (.352/.399/.461) sets the tone atop the lineup and in the infield, where his sure hands and good instincts are assets. The Bulldogs are a very good defensive team (.975 fielding percentage), which helps groundball pitchers like veteran sinkerballer Kendall Graveman (5-5, 3.04). The rest of the rotation has been erratic, as lefthanders Luis Pollorena (6-3, 4.30) and Jacob Lindgren (4-3, 4.18) have struggled down the stretch. But Mississippi State has the bullpen depth to cover its deficiencies in the rotation, as funky low-slot lefty Ross Mitchell (11-0, 1.51) has been a dynamo in a long relief role, and sidearm lefty Chad Girodo (6-1, 1.10) and aggressive righties Ben Bracewell (1-1, 1.61) and Myles Gentry (4-0, 3.18) have been outstanding. And of course, the Bulldogs have perhaps college baseball’s best closer in ultra-competitive righty Jonathan Holder (2-0, 1.00, 16 SV, 79-11 K-BB in 45 IP), whose aggressiveness, command and deception make his 88-92 fastball and downer curve that much more effective.
South Alabama has staged one of college baseball’s best turnarounds under second-year head coach Mark Calvi, going from 23-34 last year to 42-18 this year, tying Troy for the Sun Belt regular-season title and snapping a seven-year NCAA tournament drought. South Alabama’s biggest strength is its multi-faceted offense, which ranks 21st in the nation in scoring (6.9 runs per game) and 29th in batting (.302). The Jaguars have tough outs up and down the lineup and some thump in the middle courtesy of 1B Dustin Dalken (.329/.407/.543, 8 HR, 39 RBI) and outfielder Nick Zaharion (.289/.333/.507, 7 HR, 45 RBI), who missed time in the first half with a sprained elbow but returned to provide a big lift. But the centerpiece of the lineup is Sun Belt Conference player of the year Jordan Patterson (.360/.493/.536, 4 HR, 49 RBI), whose flat swing produces consistent, hard contact. Patterson has also been a useful lefthanded arm in the bullpen, though he hasn’t pitched down the stretch. The bullpen gives USA a bid edge against most opponents in the late innings (though not against Mississippi State). Kyle Bartsch (3-0, 2.52, 12 SV) gives USA a power-armed lefty at the back of the ‘pen with an 89-92 fastball and a good curveball. Righty Dylan Stamey (5-2, 2.23) can dominate hitters mostly with his deceptive 90-94 mph fastball, which has helped him compile a 60-9 strikeout-walk mark in 36 innings. Hunter Soleymani, Cecil Tripp, Brandon Boyle and James Traylor form a nice supporting cast. The weekend rotation, composed of three former junior-college players, lacks big velocity, but Jarron Cito (4-3, 5.65), Matt Bell (6-1, 3.52) and Jacob Noble (5-3, 3.70) all work in the mid-to-upper-80s and keep hitters off balance with their secondary stuff. They typically pitch into the middle innings and keep the game close before handing off to the excellent bullpen.
Mercer has won 38 or more games in four straight seasons (the first A-Sun team to do so since Stetson from 2000-03), and its 43 wins this season are a school record. The Bears put together a solid No. 2 seed resume but were upset in the conference tournament and barely got into a regional, as committee chairman Dennis Farrell said they were the last team into the field of 64. But Mercer is an exceptional offensive team and an elite defensive unit, leading the nation with a .982 fielding percentage. No Bear has committed more than five errors this season; good luck finding a double-play combination more reliable than shortstop Evan Boyd (.980) and second baseman Michael Massi (.988). Offensively, Mercer has just one player with double-digit home runs (Nick Backlund has 13, and also leads the team with 21 doubles and 65 RBIs), but the Bears still rank sixth in the nation with 56 long balls, a testament to the depth of their lineup. Derrick Workman (.345/.450/.578, 9 HR, 48 RBI) provides more physicality and athleticism in the middle of the lineup, while A-Sun player of the year Chesny Young (.394/.453/.524, 61 RBI) is a prototypical No. 2 hitter who can hit behind runners, handle the bat and put balls in play. He leads the nation with 100 hits. And two junior-college transfers have emerged as key pieces in the lineup. Center fielder/leadoff man Sasha LaGarde (.306/.422/.437, 7 HR, 15 SB) has a varied skill set, bringing speed, bunting ability, good defense and pop. Massi (.275/.381/.354, 19 SB) brings even more speed and a patient approach. Brandon Barker (7-1, 2.35) and D.J. Johnson (6-2, 2.80) give the Bears a pair of competitive strike-throwers in the rotation. Barker’s calling card is his outstanding command of his 86-88 fastball, as well as his sink and run on the pitch. Johnson is an undersized, athletic righty who pounds the zone with a four-pitch mix. Senior sidewinder David Teasley (8-2, 5.57), the all-time Division I appearances leader (160), and sophomore righty Dmitri Kourtis (5-2, 3.21, 9 SV) provide twin anchors in the bullpen. Kourtis varies his arm angles to keep hitters off balance with his mid-to-upper-80s fastball and three solid secondary pitches.
Central Arkansas exploded onto the national scene in March, when it won back-to-back series at Mississippi State and Southern Miss. The Bears went on to post their first winning season since reclassifying as a Division I program in 2007, but they struggled in Southland Conference play, going 12-15. After losing its Southland tournament opener to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, UCA won five straight games, capped by a pair of wins Saturday against Oral Roberts and Southeastern Louisiana, 11-3 and 4-0. Central Arkansas coach Allen Gum often says there is “nothing fancy” about his team—it’s just a blue-collar bunch that plays solid fundamental baseball. The Bears are well stocked with savvy veterans. The top six hitters in the batting order—Forrestt Allday, Jonathan Davis, Ethan Harris, Blake Marchal, Michael Marietta and Scott Zimmerle—are upperclassmen, and they are also UCA’s six leading hitters. Allday (.383/.518/.495, 3 HR, 35 RBI, 15 SB), a senior right fielder and leadoff man, is the team’s best prospect and best hitter. He sets the tone with his dogged approach at the plate, drawing 49 walks and striking out just 18 times. Gum considers his team’s greatest strength to be its sound defense (.971 fielding percentage), which isn’t flashy but usually makes the routine plays. On the mound, starters Caleb McClanahan (10-5, 2.17), Bryce Biggerstaff (5-4, 2.91) and Jeffrey Enloe (7-5, 3.28) all pitch in the mid- to upper 80s and thrive by pitching to contact, trusting the defense to make plays behind them. The bullpen is built around a pair of rock-solid senior righties in Ethan McKinzie (3-2, 2.11, 5 SV, 43 IP) and Clint Green (4-2, 3.25, 44 IP).