College Mailbag: Big Year In Tennessee

Every Monday, Baseball America readers submit great questions in our college baseball weekly chat. This week, one of the questions I did not address grabbed my attention, so I figured I would examine it in a mailbag.

Q:With Vanderbilt at 10-2, Tennessee at 10-0, Memphis at 10-1, and Tennessee Tech at 11-1, does the state of Tennessee have a good shot at four regional teams this year?

Marc, Nashville

BA: The state of Tennessee is off to a great start. Another quality program in the state, Belmont, made some noise this weekend by taking two of three against a very good Mercer club, although the Bruins are just 6-5 overall.

Austin Peay State, which has been the best mid-major program in the state in recent years, is off to a 4-7 start, but expect the Governors to be a factor in the second half as their freshman class gets acclimated. APSU coach Gary McClure believes this freshman class might be the best in school history, but the Govs lost a slew of veterans from last year’s Bloomington Regional runner-up team. They’ll have to lean on newcomers early and often this year—and growing pains are inevitable. But APSU’s leading hitter right now is one of its talented freshmen: Alex Robles (.400/.463/.629), while another, Ridge Smith, is leading the team in RBIs (13).

But Tennessee Tech is the team to beat in the Ohio Valley Conference this year, and the Golden Eagles have feasted upon the suspect pitching of New York Tech and Northwestern over the last two weekends. They have scored eight or more runs in nine straight games—including a stretch of eight straight games in double figures—and they rank second in the nation in scoring (9.8 runs per game). The schedule has been favorable, but Tennessee Tech also opened the season with a quality road series victory at South Alabama, a team that just won a series at Arkansas.

Zach Stephens

Zach Stephens

With five seniors in the everyday lineup, Tennessee Tech stands out for its experience and physicality. Senior outfielder Brandon Thomasson leads the team with five home runs, hitting .364/.440/.841 with 17 RBIs. The team’s most accomplished slugger, senior first baseman Zach Stephens (.239/.410/.391, 2 HR), hasn’t even heated up yet, and this offense will be even more dangerous when he does. Junior shortstop Dylan Bosheers, a standout defender who anchors the infield, is off to a sizzling start with the bat, hitting .460/.500/.620 with 13 RBIs. On the mound, junior-college transfers Chris Chism and John Gora have helped stabilize the staff, which has an intriguing power arm in junior righty David Hess (2-0, 2.00). Tennessee Tech will be an offensive team, but its pitching should be good enough to keep opponents at bay and help the Eagles make a regional.

We wrote about the Volunteers in Weekend Preview on Feb. 21, and the Vols have kept on winning since then. They are one of just two unbeaten teams in Division I (South Carolina is the other), although the sweep of UNLV was the only significant test they have faced. Tennessee swept a pair of overmatched opponents in their other two weekends—Purdue and Quinnipiac, who are a combined 1-13. The Southeastern Conference has 11 legitimate regional contenders—the eight teams who started out the year in our preseason Top 25, plus the two teams that moved into the Top 25 this week (Kentucky and Mississippi), plus Tennessee. It seems like a solid bet that nine of those teams will make regionals, but 10 would be unprecedented, and 11 will not happen. It’s hard to pronounce Tennessee as a regional team before conference play has even begun, but I do love their young talent, and I think they have a realistic chance to finish in the middle of the SEC pack and break into a regional.

More than any of these teams, Memphis is the team that flew under the radar heading into the season, but the Memphis coaching staff felt like its roster was deeper than it had been since 2007, on both sides of the ball. The Tigers do not have a one-two pitching punch that compares to last year’s duo of Sam Moll and Erik Schoenrock, but they do have a reliable senior rotation anchor in righthander Jon Reed, who has good command of an 88-90 fastball and quality slider. He has battled his way to a couple of wins even though he has been hittable, starting the year 2-0, 5.28. Lefty Colin Lee and righty Dylan Toscano give Memphis two more solid pitchability starters, and the bullpen has a nice group of quality arms in closer Bryce Beeler (0.00 ERA, 5 SV), Jacob Moody and Craig Caufield. The lineup is scrappy but not particularly explosive; it has scored enough runs to start the season 10-1, with series wins against Western Michigan, Samford and Southeast Missouri State.The next two weeks feature two more series against similar quality mid-majors (Central Arkansas and Saint Louis). It should be a nonconference series that allows Memphis to build a decent RPI heading into American Athletic Conference play.

Louisville is the best team in the AAC, and Houston looks like a second legit regional team. South Florida is off to a strong start, while UCF and Connecticut should be competitive. It still strikes me as a two-bid league, with South Florida and Memphis battling for a potential third bid.

It is way, way too early to draw any strong conclusions about how many of these teams will wind up in regionals. Vanderbilt is an elite club, of course, and my gut says the Commodores will be joined in the postseason by Tennessee Tech and Tennessee. But I would not be surprised to see Memphis give the team a fourth regional team, and don’t write off Austin Peay’s chances in the OVC. APSU probably won’t have an RPI as robust as it was last year, when it put itself in at-large position, so the OVC will likely be a one-bid league. But I feel good about its representative being a team from the Volunteer State, whether it is Tennessee Tech, Austin Peay or Belmont.