Columbia Regional Preview

Columbia Regional

Carolina Stadium, Columbia, S.C. (Host: South Carolina)

No. 1 South Carolina (39-18, 17-12 in SEC)
29th appearance (14th straight), at-large, 2nd place in SEC East

No. 2 Clemson (39-20, 18-12 in ACC)
38th appearance (fifth straight), at-large, 3rd place in ACC Atlantic

No. 3 Liberty (34-27, 13-11 in Big South)
Fourth appearance (last in 2000), automatic, Big South tournament champion
Top 500 Prospects: OF Ryan Cordell (No. 196)

No. 4 Saint Louis (41-19, 17-7 in Atlantic 10)
Seventh appearance (last in 2010), automatic, Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament champion

Tyler Webb

Tyler Webb (Photo by Tom Priddy)

After losing most of the prominent pieces  of its three straight runs to the CWS Finals (Michael Roth, Matt Price, Christian Walker and of course coach Ray Tanner), South Carolina had its ups and downs this spring, but it finds itself hosting  a regional for the fourth straight year, and the ninth time since 2000. The Gamecocks have won each of those last eight home regionals; they have won 24 consecutive NCAA tournament games at home, and they are 28-6 at home this year. So the other teams in this regional have their work cut out for them. This South Carolina team is still loaded with Omaha veterans, led by fearsome slugger L.B. Dantzler (.332/.445/.648, 15 HR, 48 RBI), shortstop Joey Pankake (.315/.385/.498, 10 HR, 38 RB) and catcher Grayson Greiner (.291/.354/.434, 4 HR, 35 RBI). With 47 home runs (19th in the nation), the Gamecocks are more offensive than they were a year ago, when pitching carried them back to the CWS Finals. They still excel at pounding the strike zone, ranking sixth nationally in fewest walks per nine innings (2.39), and third in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.3). South Carolina lacks overpowering velocity in the rotation, but lefthanders Nolan Belcher, Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop all have feel for pitching and excellent changeups. Two more veteran lefties, Tyler Webb (1.24 ERA, 16 saves) and Adam Westmoreland (7-3, 2.81), anchor the bullpen. With all those lefties, no wonder the Gamecocks are a tough matchup for lefthanded-leaning Clemson.

Matthew Crownover (photo by Tom Priddy)

Matthew Crownover (photo by Tom Priddy)

Clemson has struggled mightily against the arch-rival Gamecocks in recent years, going 3-10 against South Carolina since the 2010 College World Series, including four losses in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers get another chance to exorcise that demon by heading back to the Columbia Regional for the second straight year. The young Tigers entered the year with modest expectations, but they put themselves in contention to host a regional down the stretch, going 18-12 in the ACC and competing for the Atlantic Division title until  the final day. The Tigers have an athletic lineup with plenty of speed (110 steals, 15th in the nation), but they lack thump, aside from sophomore catcher Garrett Boulware (.310/.377/.481, 8 HR, 44 RBI). Clemson’s greatest strength is its supply of quality young arms, led by sophomore righty Daniel Gossett (9-4, 2.53) and freshmen Matthew Crownover (7-2, 2.05) and Clate Schmidt (3-4, 5.27). All three have strikeout stuff, as does senior relievers Scott Firth (6-5, 3.23, 4 SV) and Matt Campbell (1-1, 4.82, 7 SV). Crownover missed the ACC tournament with forearm tightness, and obviously Clemson will need him functional to maximize its chances of winning the regional. The Tigers head into the postseason in a funk, having lost their final five games (including an 0-3 showing at the ACC tournament).

Liberty coach Jim Toman spent 18 years as an assistant under Tanner at N.C. State and South Carolina before leaving to take over the Flames in the summer of 2007. This isn’t Toman’s first trip back to Columbia; the Flames opened this season at South Carolina and availed themselves well, losing two one-run games and winning another. Liberty had better regular seasons in previous years under Toman but failed to break through to regionals until this year, when it entered the Big South tournament as the No. 5 seed, lost its tourney opener to Radford, then reeled off five straight wins. The Flames allowed two or fewer runs in four of those wins, shutting down the top two seeds (Coastal Carolina and Campbell) in the final two games. Junior righthander Josh Richardson (2-4, 2.82) has given the rotation a boost down the stretch after spending most of the season in the bullpen, and he beat the Camels in the Big South title game. Liberty has good depth of competitive college arms, but its lone overpowering arm belongs to dynamic sophomore two-way star Ashton Perritt (3-1, 1.39, 8 SV), who can run his fastball into the mid-90s out of the bullpen. He also has six home runs to help lead the offense, and he is one of just two Flames hitting better than .300. The most talented player in the lineup is center fielder Ryan Cordell (.267/.322/.333, 6 HR, 26 SB), who has been inconsistent at the plate but can change games with both his power potential and his speed.

Saint Louis entered the season as one of our top candidates to be “the next Stony Brook,” and the Billikens lived up to that billing by winning the A-10 regular-season title. The top-seeded Billikens lost their conference tournament opener to Xavier but rallied through the losers’ bracket with five straight victories to secure their second trip to regionals in four years. Saint Louis is loaded with experience, as it returned eight of its nine everyday players and 10 pitchers from its 41-win 2012 season. Senior righthander Alex Alemann (6-6, 3.36) and junior righty Clay Smith (8-2, 3.76) weren’t as good this year as they were in 2012, but they still give Saint Louis an uncommonly experienced pair of big-game bulldogs atop the rotation. Alemann’s stuff was down in his last two outings, but he has won a lot of games by locating his 88-90 fastball, good changeup and slider. Smith has average to slightly better fastball velocity, two solid breaking balls, a serviceable changeup and good feel for pitching. Catcher Grant Nelson, second baseman Mike Levine and shortstop Alec Sole make the Billikens strong up the middle; Sole has 22 errors but is capable of making standout plays as well. Offensively, the Billikens can struggle against big velocity, but they can string together hits in a hurry against fringy stuff, and they rank 19th in the nation with a .307 team batting average. Leading hitter Mike Vigliarolo (.347/.381/.536, 8 HR, 40 RBI) is an aggressive, powerful hitter with more athleticism than it first appears. When Alex Kelly (.340/.427/.546, 11 HR, 60 RBI) and Braxton Martinez (.323/.393/.464, 7 HR, 29 RBI) get hot, the Billikens are very dangerous. They’re not afraid to hit-and-run and manufacture offense, and they can also win with the long ball. Saint Louis must be regarded as one of the most dangerous No. 4 seeds in the tournament, with a legitimate shot to win its regional.