Columbia (S.C.) Regional Capsule

Columbia (S.C.) Regional Capsule
Sarge Frye Field, Columbia, S.C.

No. 1 South Carolina (42-18)
23rd appearance, at-large, Southeastern

No. 2 North Carolina State (37-21)
22nd appearance, at-large, Atlantic Coast

No. 3 Charlotte (47-10)
Third appearance, automatic, won Atlantic-10 regular season and tournament

No. 4 Wofford (30-31)
First appearance, automatic, won Southern tournament

South Carolina coach Ray Tanner has a chance to take on his former employer and alma mater–North Carolina State–in the Columbia regional. That matchup would be a clash of two different styles, as South Carolina is very much an offensive team while N.C. State’s strength is on the mound. This regional pits the two leading-home run-hitting teams in the nation against each other, but the Gamecocks come in second to Wofford. South Carolina’s fearsome lineup features three infielders who have hit 18 home runs this season–first baseman Justin Smoak, second baseman Travis Jones and third baseman James Darnell. Pitching is the question; junior righthander Harris Honeycutt had never lost a decision before dropping five straight in the second half of the year, but he’s bounced back over the last two weeks. Lefty Arik Hempy returned from Tommy John surgery and looked like the bona fide staff ace while Honeycutt was scuffling, but Hempy has hit a skid lately. Blake Cooper has been mostly solid in the second half, and righthander Mike Cisco has come on strong over the last few weeks–he could push his way into a start this weekend.

North Carolina State will be without the services of one-time ace Andrew Brackman, who was left off the 25-man roster because of mild inflammation in his right elbow. The Wolfpack is deep enough on the mound to do just fine without the big fellow, as lefthander Eric Surkamp (4-4, 3.18) has been the true ace for most of the season anyway. Jeff Stallings has pitched well in the second half, but freshman lefty Jimmy Gillheeney (5-3, 5.98) has been up and down. The bullpen is a major strength, led by lights-out closer Eryk McConnell (1.19 ERA, 11 saves) and four relievers with at least 14 appearances and 3.60 or lower ERAs. The offense won’t blow anybody away, but veterans like on-base machine Ryan Pond (.475 OBP), clutch senior catcher Caleb Mangum and hot sophomore outfielder Marcus Jones have been around the block and tend to elevate their games in big spots.

The Wolfpack will get all it can handle in its opener from Charlotte ace Adam Mills. The 49ers’ 2.31 ERA leads the nation by a good margin, and a good reason for that is the ridiculous, eye-popping season of national ERA leader Mills (1.06). The senior righthander has set a school record with 13 wins to go along with 136 strikeouts (third in the nation) and 26 walks in 136 innings. He has impeccable command of a four-pitch mix and racks up strikeouts with his good slider. Of course, you need more than one good player to go 47-10 and break into the national rankings, and Charlotte’s rotation behind Mills is solid, with Spencer Steedley (8-1, 2.56) and Zach Rosenbaum (9-1, 2.97). Junior outfielder Brad McElroy (.412/.479/.668 with 10 homers and 65 RBIs) paces the offense.

Wofford is the feel-good story of 2007. Right after coach Steve Traylor announced his retirement effective the end of the season, the Terriers ripped off five straight SoCon tournament wins to claim the title–as a No. 9 seed. Wofford is a powerful SEC-style offense that will test its mettle against a powerful SEC team in a homer-friendly SEC park. The Terriers lead the nation with 106 home runs, two more than South Carolina, and junior third baseman Brandon Waring is tied for the national lead with 27. Converted outfielder Ben Austin has gone 11-5, 4.03 in his first year as a pitcher, and he’ll get his stiffest test yet from the Gamecocks.