STRIKE ONE: True To His Word
Maryland-Eastern Shore advanced to the final of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament before falling to Bethune-Cookman, which earned the league's automatic bid for the seventh time in eight years. UMES finished the year 17-34-1, which isn't impressive until considering that the program had totaled 14 wins over the previous three seasons.
"An outstanding year," coach Bobby Rodriguez said. "We have a lot to be proud of, these kids worked hard–I owe it all to my seven seniors who led the team by example. It was a great season for the Hawks."
Rodriguez, a former Mexican League batting champion and former coach at low Class A Delmarva, took over at UMES for the 2004 season, inheriting a team that went 5-33 the previous year. His first team won just three times, but in a 2005 preseason survey, Rodriguez predicted his second team would be twice as good. The Fighting Hawks came through with a 6-41 campaign. UMES doubled its wins total for a second straight year in 2006, with Rodriguez accomplishing his goal of leading the program back to respectability.
"You have to take your hat off to UMES," Bethune-Cookman coach Mervyl Melendez said. "I mean, no one thought they would make it to the championship game, but they kept on fighting throughout the tournament. I mean, even in this game they never gave up."
STRIKE TWO: Sinking In Starkville
At face value, Mississippi State's 35-21 record and a Ratings Percentage Index figure among the 35 best in the nation make a compelling case for inclusion in the NCAA tournament. Remember that Mississippi State was 21-1, 4-1 and ranked No. 1 in the nation on March 29. Since that time, it has gone 14-20 and lost seven of its eight SEC series, going 8-16 in league games. A ninth-place finish in the SEC means it won't have another chance to enhance its resume, and the SEC could fall shy of the nine bids it has received the last two years. This could be a very interesting decision for the NCAA Division I baseball committee. Mississippi State athletics director Larry Templeton is serving in his first year as its chairman, and while he won't be involved in the discussions on his school, we wonder how his general presence might impact the ultimate decision.
Meanwhile, North Carolina State (35-19, 16-13) and Wake Forest (33-20, 16-13) must be wary in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league whose RPI and expansion to 12 teams seemed likely to produce eight bids. NC State has lost nine of its last 13 games, and Wake has dropped seven of 10. Both open the ACC tournament against teams that swept them during the regular season, North Carolina and Clemson. A two-and-out tacked on the end of either of their seasons could spell a premature end.
STRIKE THREE: Pokes Finish Fast
Oklahoma State (39-15) won 17 of its last 19 games, scoring series victories against Oklahoma and Nebraska along the way to leap over both clubs in the Big 12 Conference standings and finish second at 18-9. That's the best finish for Oklahoma State since the conference formed in 1996, and more impressive in light an 18-11, 3-6 start that included two conference sweeps. It finished the year 21-4, earning six straight conference series wins, and now sits in a great position to play NCAA tournament games at home for the first time since 1997.
• Michigan could emerge as a dark-horse regional host as a No. 2 seed if it can add a Big 10 tournament title to its regular season trophy. The Wolverines (38-18, 23-9) won the league by two games and will play host to the tournament, where they would pass the 40-wins plateau with a victory. Michigan probably needs Big East champ Notre Dame (41-14, 21-5) to slip up in its tournament. But if both scenarios play out, the teams would feature similar overall records, similar RPI figures and Michigan would own a trump card thanks to a 3-1 win against Notre Dame last Tuesday.
• Three teams remain in the hunt to follow Coastal Carolina's 2005 club as a No. 1 seed from a mid-major conference. Winthrop (42-14) holds the best position with a Top 20 RPI, though it might have hurt its chances by dropping a series to Virginia Military over the weekend that cost it the Big South regular season championship. (Birmingham-Southern won it by one game.) Elon sits on the cusp of the RPI Top 20 with a 42-14 record. It won the Southern Conference by a game over College of Charleston (39-15), which dropped a series to The Citadel to end its two-year run atop the conference. Any member of this group that hopes to follow Coastal likely will need to win its conference tournament to grab the RPI boost that comes with it.