Baton Rouge Regional Preview

Baton Rouge Regional
Alex Box Stadium, Baton Rouge, La. (Host: Louisiana State)

No. 1 Louisiana State (52-9, 23-7 in SEC)
26th appearance (second straight), automatic, SEC tournament champion, No. 4 national seed
Top 500 Prospects: RHP Ryan Eades (No. 37), 2B JaCoby Jones (No. 75), 1B Mason Katz (No. 231), RHP Nick Rumbelow (No. 424), C Ty Ross (No. 474)

No. 2 Louisiana-Lafayette (41-18, 19-11 in Sun Belt)
13th appearance (last in 2010), at-large, tied for third place in Sun Belt Conference
Top 500 Prospects: C Michael Strentz (No. 320)

No. 3 Sam Houston State (37-20, 20-7 in Southland)
Eighth appearance (second straight), at-large, Southland Conference regular-season champion
Top 500 Prospects: LHP Cody Dickson (No. 157), LHP Caleb Smith (No. 263)

No. 4 Jackson State (34-20, 19-5 in SWAC)
Fifth appearance (last in 2000), automatic, SWAC regular-season and tournament champion

Aaron Nola (photo by Andrew Woolley)

Aaron Nola (photo by Andrew Woolley)

Louisiana State won more regular-season games (48) than it ever had before in its illustrious history, winning the SEC West by 4.5 games, then going 4-1 in Hoover to win the SEC tournament, capped by a thrilling extra-innings win against Vanderbilt. The Tigers are as complete as any team in college baseball, ranking third in the nation in ERA (2.48), second in fielding percentage (.981) and 14th in batting (.308). They have one of the nation’s best rotations, headlined by sophomore righty Aaron Nola (10-0, 1.94, 105-14 K-BB in 102 IP), who pounds the zone with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a plus changeup and an improved breaking ball. Ryan Eades (8-1, 2.69) also has electric stuff, and low-slot lefty Cody Glenn (7-2, 2.41) has been a rock-solid No. 3 despite less velocity. (Thursday evening, Glenn was surprisingly removed from the team roster for violating a team rule.) Closer Chris Cotton (4-1, 1.38, 15 SV, 41-2 K-BB in 39 IP) dominates by spotting his 86-88 heater, his excellent changeup and adequate breaking ball. The Tigers have a nice supporting cast in the bullpen, led by hard-throwing righties Joey Bourgeois and Nick Rumbelow. LSU coach Paul Mainieri has said this LSU club is the best defensive college baseball team he’s ever seen, with standout defenders all over the diamond. Freshman shortstop Alex Bregman (.378/.424/.555, 5 HR, 49 RBI) has been reliable and sometimes spectacular at shortstop while also leading the Tigers in hitting. Mason Katz (.377/.465/.641, 14 HR, 64 RBI) hit most of his home runs early and has had a quiet second half, but he’s still an accomplished run producer and an excellent defensive first baseman. Raph Rhymes (.335/.405/.458) has flown under the radar a bit as a senior but remains one of the country’s best pure hitters. The Tigers are extremely athletic and fast in the outfield and at second base, where talented JaCoby Jones also has swung a hot bat. Good luck finding a hole on this team.

Austin Robichaux

Austin Robichaux

Louisiana-Lafayette finished in the Sun Belt Conference basement a year ago, as injuries and inexperience proved too much to overcome. But the physical maturation of ULL’s young players, combined with the addition of some key junior-college transfers, has transformed the Cajuns into one of the most formidable offensive teams in college baseball. The Ragin’ Cajuns lead the nation in home runs (72) and slugging (.513), rank third in batting (.323), fourth in doubles (137) and sixth in scoring (7.7 runs per game). Three junior-college transfers have made a huge difference. Right fielder Dex Kjerstad (.398/.441/.631, 12 HR, 43 RBI) struggled early and then caught fire, and he provides pop and on-base ability out of the leadoff spot. Center fielder Seth Harrison (.340/.420/.568, 9 HR, 45 RBI) has been a force in the middle of the lineup despite playing through a knee injury that could require surgery after the season. And DH Caleb Adams (.341/.432/.642, 14 HR, 51 RBI) is the leading home run hitter on a team where six players have hit at least seven long balls. Freshman Blake Trahan (.335/.424/.447) has provided more offense than expected while also playing a strong shortstop, fielding .951 and making spectacular plays at times. The Cajuns aren’t great on the mound, but they do have a legitimate ace in 6-foot-6 sophomore righty Austin Robichaux (8-2, 3.20), who can touch 92 and has improved his curveball and changeup. And the Cajuns have plenty of trust in closer Matt Hicks (3-1, 4.65, 10 SV), a strike-thrower with good life on his sinker and a solid slider. The Cajuns probably won’t throw any shutouts in this regional, but if their bats get hot, they are capable of slugging their way through.

Sam Houston State made noise in the Houston Regional last year, eliminating host Rice before falling to Arkansas in the regional final. The Bearkats returned many key pieces from that club and repeated as Southland Conference regular-season champions, earning an at-large bid for the second straight year. SHSU figures to go as far as its pair of power lefthanders carry it. Both Cody Dickson (9-5, 4.33, 87-49 K-BB in 89 IP) and Caleb Smith (7-5, 3.23, 68-56 K-BB in 86 IP) have had control issues at times this year, but when their command is on, they are very good. Dickson can reach 94-95 with his fastball and flashes an above-average curveball and average changeup. Smith works at 88-92, owns a power slider in the low 80s and a plus changeup with serious sink when it’s on. Sam Houston State gives hitters a much different look in the late innings, relying on a pair of low three-quarters sinker/slider guys—lefthander Alan Scott (1-0, 68) and righty Jason Simms (2-1, 2.98, nine saves). Both have funk and deception, and both work down in the zone and get plenty of ground balls. All of those pitchers have benefited from a defense that has solidified after some shuffling, with Ryan O’Hearn landing in right field, Jessie Plumlee landing at first and Ryan Farney at second. The other key adjustment the Bearkats made was inserting Plumlee (.313/.429/.405) in the leadoff spot, where he has provided a real spark. That slid Colt Atwood (.306/.361/.328) down to the No. 2 hole, where his bat control makes him a perfect fit. The Bearkats have some thump in the middle courtesy of Anthony Azar, Luke Plucheck and Hayden Simerly, who have combined to hit 22 home runs. Azar (.309/.380/.490, 5 HR, 45 RBI) is the centerpiece of the lineup, while the team’s leading hitter—Kevin Miller (.338/.392/.404)—is a skilled but unorthodox cleanup man behind him.

Jackson State established itself as the team to beat in the Southwestern Athletic Conference early on and finished with the best league record by four and a half games (19-5). The top-seeded Tigers went 4-0 to sweep through the SWAC tournament. Alexander Juday (9 IP, 9 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 K) went the distance in the clincher. After starting the year as the setup man, Juday has been Jackson State’s workhorse on the mound, going 7-4, 3.14 in a team-high 112 innings. He also threw eight innings in Jackson State’s tournament opener against Texas Southern, allowing just an unearned run on four hits. Speed is Jackson State’s calling card—the Tigers rank ninth in the nation with 125 stolen bases. Six different Tigers have recorded double-digit steals this year, and the team’s speed could give opponents headaches in this regional. Leading hitter Charles Tilery (.344/.468/.425, 25-for-30 in stolen base attempts) and Aneko Knowles (26-for-33) are the biggest threats to run on a team that has succeeded on 80 percent of its stolen-base attempts this year. But the Tigers lag well behind the rest of this field defensively, fielding just .955 (261st in the nation). And they rank 192nd in the nation with a 4.77 staff ERA, making them a huge underdog in a regional that includes two elite offenses in LSU and ULL.