Three Strikes: May 18

Strike One: Stock Report

With one week to go before the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced, many questions have been answered, but others remain. Here’s a look at how the races for national seeds, host sites and the final at-large bids are shaping up.

National Seeds

SAFE BETS: Texas, UC Irvine, Louisiana State, Arizona State, North Carolina, Cal State Fullerton

STOCK RISING: Clemson, Mississippi, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma

STOCK FALLING: Georgia Tech, Rice

• Rice and Georgia Tech could have all but wrapped up national seeds with series wins this weekend, but instead the Owls dropped two of three at Alabama-Birmingham, and the Yellow Jackets lost two of three at Duke. Rice dropped to second place in Conference USA but might still be able to salvage a national seed with a CUSA tournament title. Clemson surged past Tech for the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament and has won the head-to-head series against the Jackets. The Tigers finished a game behind Florida State in the ACC and lost the head-to-head series against the Seminoles, but that’s probably not enough to make up for Clemson’s edge in the Ratings Percentage Index (the Tigers rank seventh, according to warrennolan.com, while the Seminoles rank 15th) and strength of schedule (the Tigers rank eighth according to warrennolan.com, while the Seminoles rank 39th). Whichever of those three teams fares best in the ACC tournament figures to have the inside track at a national seed.

• Mississippi and Florida are likely vying for the eighth national seed. The Rebels won the head-to-head series and finished a game better in the SEC standings, but Florida won the SEC’s Eastern Division and has a slight RPI edge (Florida ranks sixth, Ole Miss ranks 12th). Again, the conference tournament will likely be the decider.

• Oklahoma is the darkhorse. The Sooners swept Texas A&M to finish second in the Big 12 and reach 40 wins. A strong showing in the conference tournament could vault OU to a national seed, though its RPI (17th) is working against it.

Hosts

SAFE BETS: The 13 teams listed in the national seeds discussion

STOCK RISING: South Carolina, Texas Christian, Louisville, Ohio State, East Carolina

STOCK FALLING: Alabama, Kansas State

OUT OF THE MIX: Texas A&M, Georgia, Arkansas, Virginia, Miami, Minnesota

• South Carolina finished the season hot, winning its final three series, including sweeps of Vanderbilt and Georgia. The strong finish boosted the Gamecocks to 22nd in the RPI. At 37-19 overall and 17-13 in the SEC, South Carolina likely has the hosting resume to match its huge financial bid and sparkling new ballpark. With LSU, Ole Miss and Florida locks to host and the SEC unlikely to get five hosts, Alabama is the odd team out, barring a very deep run in the conference tournament. The Crimson Tide picked the wrong time to drop a series to Auburn.

• One team from the Midwest seems nearly certain to host, either as a No. 1 seed or a No. 2. Ohio State finished strong, sweeping Iowa to win the Big Ten by a half-game over Minnesota, and the Buckeyes have good facilities. But give the edge to Louisville, which is 6-1 against teams from the Big Ten this year (including two wins against the Buckeyes in the last two weeks) and swept South Florida this weekend to win the Big East regular-season title. The Cardinals also garnered rave reviews after hosting a Super Regional against Oklahoma State in 2007; facilities, geography and credentials all work in their favor.

• Subpar facilities combined with Ohio State’s surge to the Big Ten title and Louisville’s strong finish render Minnesota’s hosting chances remote.

• Kansas State lost its final two weekend series and likely squandered its chance to host. Texas A&M watched its chances evaporate in the last two weeks, going 1-5 against Texas and Oklahoma. TCU stands to benefit as perhaps the hottest team in that geographic footprint. The Horned Frogs cruised to a regular-season title in the much-improved Mountain West Conference, and they rank 10th in the RPI, giving them the inside track over fellow conference champion East Carolina (19th in the RPI) for the last hosting spot. In fact, East Carolina’s road to hosting would likely have to come at South Carolina’s expense. The Pirates need a good week in the CUSA tournament coupled with a poor showing by the Gamecocks. Winning the CUSA regular-season title is a nice accomplishment, but in a very down year for the conference, it won’t outweigh South Carolina’s strong finish in the loaded SEC.

Bubble Teams

SAFE BETS: Kansas, Washington State

STOCK RISING: Duke, Western Carolina, The Citadel, Tulane, Stanford

STOCK FALLING: Boston College, College of Charleston, Illinois, Vanderbilt, Hawaii, South Florida, Indiana State, Southeastern Louisiana, Troy, Florida International, UCLA

OUT OF THE MIX: Baylor, UC Santa Barbara, Loyola Marymount

LONGSHOTS HOLDING STEADY: San Diego, UC Riverside, New Mexico, Brigham Young, Southern Mississippi

• Kansas all but punched its ticket to regionals with a huge series win against rival Kansas State. The Jayhawks are now 36-19 overall, 14-12 in conference and 13-11 against the top 25. They have also boosted their RPI (44th) into solid at-large territory.

• Washington State looks safe after winning a series at Oregon State to move to 16-8 in the Pac-10, two games ahead of third-place Washington and UCLA. The Cougars can breath easy if they can win two of their last four games to reach 30 wins; they have one left at Gonzaga, followed by three at home against the Huskies. Stanford and UCLA are still alive, but the Bruins must win out to have a shot; if they beat UC Irvine this week and sweep Arizona State, they’re likely to force their way into regionals at 30-26 overall and 17-10 in conference play. Obviously, that’s a longshot, at best. Stanford has played better lately, winning its last three series against Washington State, New Mexico and Southern California. The Cardinal still rank just 62nd in the RPI, but if they win their final series against Oregon State, it will be tough to keep them out. If that happens, the Beavers might well fall right out of the NCAA tournament hunt, since they will have lost five of their last six series.

• In the ACC, Duke looks like a more worthy at-large candidate than Boston College, though the RPI doesn’t show it (the Eagles rank 32nd, while the Blue Devils rank 72nd). Duke won the head-to-head series against BC and also has won series against national seed contenders North Carolina and Georgia Tech. Working against the Devils are bad series losses to Maryland and Wake Forest, plus midweek losses to Davidson, Liberty, UNC Greensboro and High Point. But their body of work is still more impressive than BC’s. The Eagles are hanging their hats on one good series win at Florida State. They did not win another series against a regional contender and have lost their last four series overall. There is a chance both teams could get in, but if only one gets in, it should be Duke.

• Western Carolina swept Davidson to finish 19-10 in the Southern Conference, and the Catamounts have a regional-caliber RPI (47th). They also won the head-to-head series against fellow bubble dweller The Citadel, but that is their only series win all season against a regional contender, thanks to Southern California’s late-season fade. The Citadel, meanwhile, swept College of Charleston this weekend to finish a half-game ahead of WCU in the standings. The Bulldogs also have quality series wins against Georgia Southern and Elon, making them more worthy of an at-large bid than the Catamounts. But they rank 77th in the RPI, so they must hope the committee looks beyond the surface. CofC also ranks higher in the RPI (52nd) but has just one quality series win this year, against Western Carolina. The Cougars are 0-9 against Elon, Georgia Southern and The Citadel, so the automatic bid is likely their only path to regionals. One way or the other, the SoCon should be a three-bid league, with Elon and Georgia Southern the only locks. If a wild card team should win the conference tournament, it will come at the expense of Western Carolina and The Citadel.

• Stick a fork in Baylor’s regional chances after the Bears were swept at Nebraska this weekend to finish 10-16 in the Big 12. A strong RPI (34th) won’t be nearly enough to make up for a 2-11 finish. UCLA and UC Santa Barbara also saw their dim regional hopes all but extinguished by losing series this weekend.

• Vanderbilt, South Florida and Indiana State all suffered major setbacks this weekend, as all three were swept. The Commodores have the strongest RPI (39th) in that group, but a 12-17 showing in the SEC isn’t pretty. They’ve got to make some noise in the conference tournament. Illinois and Hawaii also took hits this weekend, as the Illini dropped a series at Purdue, and the Rainbows split four with Utah Valley. Both teams move from solid at-large footing to shaky ground.

• At 29-25 overall and 11-10 in the West Coast Conference, San Diego doesn’t look like a regional team on the surface. But the Toreros are 7-10 against top 50 RPI teams (better than many other bubble teams), highlighted by a 2-1 record against UC Irvine, with the second win coming last week. The committee also could give them points for playing through an avalanche of injuries and expecting key players Kyle Blair, Kevin Muno and Steven Chatwood to return in time for a potential postseason run. It’s still probably a longshot, but plenty of far healthier bubble teams stumbled mightily down the stretch, which might open the door for USD to sneak in.

• With so many power conference bubble teams faltering, the Sun Belt should have a good chance to earn three bids. But only Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky have taken advantage of the vacuum. Both Troy and Florida International blew golden opportunities this weekend, losing road series to South Alabama and Florida Atlantic, respectively. Troy is hanging its hat on a series win against MTSU, while the Panthers can boast series wins against WKU, Troy, South Florida and Jacksonville. If one of those teams gets in, it should be FIU, but both could be shut out of regionals.

• Southeastern Louisiana has a solid RPI (53rd) and a 2-1 record against fellow bubble team Tulane, but the Lions took a big hit this weekend, losing their final regular-season series at Northwestern State. The Southland looks like a one-bid league, unless regular-season champ Texas State fails to win the conference tournament. The Bobcats are safe as an at-large team.

• Speaking of Tulane, the Green Wave won its final six weekend series to finish third in Conference USA at 13-11. Tulane still isn’t in great shape RPI-wise (69th), but its strong finish and good standing in the conference should be enough to net an at-large bid, barring an 0-2 performance in the conference tournament.

• Could the Mountain West take advantage of the power vacuum and send three teams to regionals? TCU is the only lock, and San Diego State is in pretty good position despite a 1-4 series record against TCU, New Mexico and BYU thanks to five total wins against San Diego and Kansas and a solid RPI (45th). The Lobos went 37-18 (15-8 in the MWC) to finish second in the league, and they won series against the Cougars and Aztecs, plus two increasingly less-impressive midweek games against Texas A&M. But New Mexico squandered chances to bolster its case down the stretch, going 1-6 in nonconference road games against mediocre power conference foes Arizona, Stanford and Nebraska. UNM ranks 88th in the RPI and needs a deep run in the MWC tournament to have a chance. BYU is in slightly better shape in the RPI (67th) but is just 28-22 overall. The Cougars do have solid nonconference series wins against Western Carolina and St. John’s, but they are 0-6 against Oregon State, Kansas State and Washington State. Like UNM, the Cougars need to make a run in the conference tournament. Right now, two bids looks like the safest bet for the MWC, though it probably deserves three.

Strike Two: Favorites Punch Tickets

Two preseason favorites won their conference tournaments this weekend to earn automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. Perennial Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference juggernaut Bethune-Cookman cruised to its fourth straight conference title and 10th in the last 11 years, while Army swept Lafayette to win its third Patriot League title in the last six seasons.

The Wildcats were never pushed in the MEAC tourney, winning three games by a combined score of 43-13. The final two wins came against North Carolina A&T. Sophomore DH Ryan Durrence (2-for-5, 5 RBI, 2B, HR) powered B-C’s offense in the clincher. Ace righthander Hiram Burgos sparked the Wildcats to start the weekend, throwing five shutout, two-hit innings in the opener against Norfolk State. A week earlier, Burgos struck out eight over six scoreless frames in a 1-0 win against Miami. The Wildcats won that series in Coral Gables, serving notice that they will be a characteristically dangerous No. 4 seed in regionals.

"We have been playing well the last 2-3 weeks, and this is the team I envisioned earlier in the year—we saw that team (Sunday) and this weekend," Bethune-Cookman coach Mervyl Melendez said. "We need to continue to peak, continue to swing the bats like we’ve been and continue to pitch well. We will savor  the moment, enjoy the victory. I am proud of everything we have done as a team. I am very satisfied and happy winning the MEAC again."

Army, which tied Bucknell for the Patriot’s regular-season crown, took a best-of-three series last weekend against Holy Cross to reach the championship series this weekend against Lafayette. The Black Knights got great pitching and timely hitting to sweep Saturday’s doubleheader, winning the first game 6-2 and the nightcap 8-1. Junior lefthander Matt Fouch (8 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 5 BB, 8 K) shut down the Leopards in the opener, and sophomore righty Ben Koenigsfield (8 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K) was just as good in the clincher.

"Obviously, our pitching was outstanding today," Army coach Joe Sottolano said after the game. "Matt Fouch and Ben Koenigsfeld were very sharp. They gave us a lot of confidence and took pressure off our offense. Matt threw his best pitches in key situations and that allowed us to extend our lead and maintain control of the ball game. Both of those guys showed great mental toughness today, and that’s what you’re going to get out of those two individuals. They located well and controlled the tempo of the game against a quality offensive club.”

The turning point for Army came in the fifth inning of Game One, when center fielder Andy Ernesto yanked a three-run home run down the right-field line, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 Army lead. The Black Knights would not trail again the rest of the day.

Finishing strong is nothing new for Army, which had made a habit out of peaking late. The Black Knights actually got off to a 1-5 start in Patriot League play, losing three of four at Bucknell and the first two games against Holy Cross before turning things around.

“We certainly don’t like to start out 1-5, but it seems like we have a track record of playing our best baseball as the season progresses," Sottolano said. "We had some key wins early in the season that were critical for this team’s confidence. It showed our players the level at which they could compete. Once we became more consistent as a team, we knew what we were capable of. I feel that really helped us through this tournament."

Army and Bethune-Cookman join Dartmouth, UC Irvine and Arizona State as teams that have already clinched their automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. With a week to play in the Big West and Pac-10 regular seasons, the Anteaters and Sun Devils have both wrapped up conference titles (neither league plays a conference tournament).

Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Chris Dominguez

For three years, Louisville third baseman Chris Dominguez has been one of the nation’s most feared power hitters. Launching mammoth home runs has become routine for the 6-foot-4, 240-pound behemoth, who ranks second in Louisville history with 57 long balls in just three seasons. He’s been terrorizing opposing pitchers so long it’s easy to overlook just how much better he’s gotten over the course of his standout collegiate career.

A quick glance at the stats might reinforce the notion that Dominguez is the same player he was a year ago: His .365 batting average, 21 homers and 75 RBIs exactly match his numbers from 2008. Of course, he’s equaled those numbers in just 52 games and now has the entire postseason to add to his totals. Dominguez also has boosted his on-base percentage from .427 to .456, and his slugging percentage from .687 to .715. Just as importantly, he has already drawn 25 walks, two more than he took in 62 games a year ago.

Scouts have never questioned Dominguez’s power, which rates as well-above-average. But they have often wondered about his pure hitting ability, and those concerns caused him to fall to the fifth round of the draft after his standout redshirt sophomore year in 2008.

"I think he’s one of the most over-evaluated kids in the country, and unfortunately I think some clubs are missing out," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "I’m biased because he’s mine, but I look at the makeup, the character and work ethic—those things are all are off the chart. And he does something most people can’t do: He hits the long ball. The hardest thing in all of sports is to hit the home runs, and this kid has mastered it now year after year after year. I don’t know how he’s not at the top of people’s draft boards. And it’s not like he’s hitting .270. He’s hitting .370 now for the last two years. I’m so happy for him now, because obviously there was a lot of pressure on him and a lot of hype."

Along with hype comes extra attention from opposing pitchers, and Dominguez has done a fine job taking advantage when he gets something to hit. He did that this weekend against South Florida, collecting four hits, four RBIs and two homers in a doubleheader sweep Saturday that made the Cardinals the Big East regular-season champions.

Like most great sluggers, Dominguez also makes everyone around him better. Outfielder Phil Wunderlich (.365/.439/.668 with 15 homers and 66 RBIs), first baseman Andrew Clark (.348/.487/.557 with eight homers and 46 RBIs) and second baseman Adam Duvall (.359/.453/.596 with 10 homers and 47 RBIs) have all produced big seasons, and it can’t hurt that pitchers are often more likely to attack them rather than have to deal with Dominguez.

"Everybody saw what Manny (Ramirez) did for the Dodgers’ lineup, and what great hitters do for lineups," McDonnell said. "Chris takes a lot of pressure off a lot of kids. He affects our offense so many ways. Clark has flourished, Wunderlich has flourished, and it’s why we’ve been able to score so many runs in the past month."

It’s also a big reason the Cardinals are in position to host a regional and make a run at their second College World Series appearance in the last three years. Dominguez shined on that stage as a freshman, hitting three gargantuan home runs in Louisville’s first two games, and the older, improved Dominguez could deliver a memorable encore should the Cardinals get back to Omaha.

College | #Three Strikes

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