Strike One: Punch Those Tickets
Bucknell and Bethune-Cookman won automatic bids to the NCAA tournament by winning their respective conference tournaments this weekend. The Bison and the Wildcats join Dartmouth, Cal State Fullerton and San Diego as teams that have already punched their tickets to regionals.
We wrote about both Bucknell and B-CU in Weekend Preview last week. In Under The Radar, we highlighted Bucknell's red-hot junior first baseman, Doug Shribman, who had a huge series against Army last weekend to propel the Bison to the best-of-three championship series. Shribman came up huge once again this weekend against Holy Cross. After the teams split the first two games, Shribman blasted two more home runs (extending his Patriot League record to 20) and drove in six in Bucknell's 12-7 win in the decisive game. Bucknell also got another homer from Andrew Brouse—his 17th of the season.
"Power has certainly a huge part of (our success)," Bucknell coach Gene DePew said on Thursday. "We've been successful when we've been able to hit some home runs, we've had that going for us. We started off real strong with that through the early part of the season down in Florida, then we tailed off a little bit with that in the middle of the year. Unfortunately through the heart of the Patriot League season we struggled, but we're finding our stride again."
Bethune-Cookman, of course, never lost its stride. After completing an 18-0 run through the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season, B-CU ran unbeaten through the conference tournament this weekend, blasting Maryland-Eastern Shore 15-5 in the opener, then winning back-to-back games against North Carolina A&T, 7-3 and 7-4. Bethune coach Mervyl Melendez said last week that this is the most poweful team he's ever had, and power proved critical again this weekend. Outfielder D.J. Leonard, the tournament's most outstanding player, hit a three-run homer Saturday to highlight B-CU's six-run rally in the seventh inning, capping a frantic comeback. Melendez and starting pitcher Ali Simpson were ejected in that game after Simpson hit an N.C. A&T batter, and Simpson was suspended for three games after the MEAC ruled that the beaning was intentional. Melendez sat out Sunday's championship game, but afterward he lauded his team's toughness. The Wildcats have come from behind to win 12 games this season, including Saturday's.
"The comebacks by this team and play of this team all year was special," Melendez said. "We talked last year and all this year about winning games and coming from behind. And like Florida's team last year (20 comeback victories), this team has the never quit attitude and we have a lot of baseball to play and to prepare for the regionals. I am very proud of these guys. They are a real team."
Strike Two: Back On Their Heels
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—With runners on second and third and the potential go-ahead run at the plate in the form of pinch-hitter Matt Blow, North Carolina righthander Colin Bates fired one last bullet—a fastball on the outside corner for a called third strike. It was Bates' seventh strikeout over his six scoreless innings of relief Friday, and it preserved UNC's 5-3 win against No. 12 Virginia Tech. Bates yanked his glove off his left hand and hurled it toward the third-base line, as teammates mobbed him around the mound.
"That was all I had, man," Bates said. "It maybe could be my last time pitching here, and I didn't forget that, especially once it was over."
North Carolina has had plenty of celebrations like that over the last four years, but most of them have come after Memorial Day. But right now, the Tar Heels are not talking about a fifth straight trip to the College World Series. They just want to make a regional, so they'll at least have a chance at getting back to Omaha.
UNC's players and coaches knew they needed to make some noise against the Hokies to have a chance. The Tar Heels completed a sweep of Virginia Tech on Saturday, but still they missed out on the ACC tournament, as Boston College finished with an identical 14-16 conference record and won the tie-breaker by virtue of a better record against the top teams in the league. North Carolina's struggles against the elite teams in its conference have a lot to do with its current plight: UNC was swept by the top three teams in the league (Virginia, Georgia Tech and Miami). Just last weekend, it was swept at Virginia.
"It hadn't happened (before this year)," said Bates, a fourth-year junior, of getting swept. "I had never experienced that, and I didn't know what it was like. It's a credit to what Coach (Mike Fox) has done here the last few years. But all we can do is make adjustments as we go. We don't know how to best deal with getting swept . . . Last weekend was going to be a test of how we responded and came back after that, and we've shown some character this weekend."
It's easy to play the "what-if" game. What if North Carolina hadn't blown late leads Friday and Sunday against Florida State in March, and again the next weekend against Georgia Tech? What if the Tar Heels had been just a little luckier in close games (they are 5-5 in one-run games, 4-6 in two-run games)? A break here or there, and UNC would not be on the bubble at all. But those questions are irrelevant now.
"Our players have known that we've been right there. With a couple plays here or there, we wouldn't be in this mess that we're in," UNC coach Mike Fox said. "So I think that's helped our team, knowing that we're not a bad team. And they kept believing that, so that's been a good thing.
"I know the committee has a tough task. They don't look at how teams lost, they just look at wins and losses, I'm sure. I wish they'd dig a little deeper, but that might not help us. You know? 'Dang, these guys have lost a lot of close games. Well, they shouldn't have lost them, so they're not in.' "
Still, the Tar Heels stand a pretty good chance of being in a regional anyway. They rank 19th in the Ratings Percentage Index, according to WarrenNolan.com. They finished fairly strong, with three series wins in the last four weeks, including huge series at Clemson and home against Virginia Tech. And other bubble teams (like Tennessee, Kentucky, Kansas and Texas Tech) had awful final weekends, seemingly opening up an extra spot or two for ACC bubble dwellers UNC and N.C. State.
Maybe those extra at-large spots will be gobbled up by mid-majors favorites who fail to win their conference tournaments. More likely, UNC will find its way into a regional. Either way, North Carolina is unaccustomed to having its postseason fate hanging in the balance. It simply has not been a typical year in Chapel Hill—at least, not typical by recent standards.
"In some ways, it's almost been more satisfying in watching this team grow," senior shortstop Ryan Graepel said. "We're such a young team, and we feel like we're playing our best baseball at this point in the season. We're extremely excited about that, and we really think the committee should take that into account when they're thinking about bubble teams."
Strike Three: Golden Spikes Spotlight on Chris Duffy
Chris Duffy was a solid player over the first three years of his Central Florida career. An unsigned ninth-round pick out of high school in 2006, he hit in the .280s each season, and had 30-something RBIs each year. He hit eight home runs as a freshman and sophomore, then six as a junior. That gave him 22 career long balls in 505 at-bats heading into this season.
Duffy nearly matched that total in just 206 at-bats as a senior.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound outfielder capped off an incredible season with one last monstrous weekend in UCF's series win at Tulane, going 7-for-14 with three home runs, two doubles and 10 RBIs. His two-homer game Saturday gave him a school-record 21 on the season and moved him into a tie atop the school's all-time homer list with 43. He finished with an eye-popping line of .447/.539/.850 with 81 RBIs and 18 doubles to go along with all the long balls.
"There's no question that the year Chris has had has been one of the best years of anybody in college baseball this year," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "Chris has had a very good career here for four years, and he has continually gotten better. The credit belongs to two people: It belongs to Chris and it belongs to our hitting coach, Cliff Godwin. The progress Chris has made has been a direct product of the relationship they have had."
At the end of Duffy's junior season, he met with the coaching staff and made a decision to do whatever it took to put together a great senior year. He worked with Godwin on trying to "slow everything down," as Rooney put it, and to develop a quieter approach, particularly with his feet in the batter's box.
"The biggest thing this year has been his pitch recognition," Rooney said. "Chris has always had power and had the ability to use the whole field and be a complete hitter, but this year he showed it consistently from start to finish. He's learned to lay off the pitches he can't hit and drive the pitches that he can.
"Obviously because of his power numbers, a lot of guys would not pitch him inside, they would go soft away, and he would drive those. A lot of guys had shifts on him to the pull side, and he would keep his hands back and drive the changeup to the opposite field. So he really was a complete hitter this year."