PK Park, Eugene, Ore. (Host: Oregon)
No. 1 Oregon (45-14, 22-8 in Pac-12)
Fifth appearance (second straight), at-large, second place in Pacific-12 Conference, No. 8 national seed
Top 500 Prospects: 1B Ryon Healy (No. 86), RHP Jimmie Sherfy (No. 94), OF Brett Thomas (No. 318), SS J.J. Altobelli (No. 459)
No. 2 Rice (41-17, 15-9 in C-USA)
19th appearance (18th straight), automatic, C-USA regular-season and tournament champion
Top 500 Prospects: RHP Austin Kubitza (No. 122), OF Michael Ratterree (No. 373), RHP John Simms (No. 377)
No. 3 San Francisco (34-22, 15-9 in WCC)
Third appearance (last in 2011), at-large, tied for second place in West Coast Conference
Top 500 Prospects: RHP Alex Balog (No. 32)
No. 4 South Dakota State (35-22, 16-10 in Summit)
First appearance, automatic, Summit League tournament champion
Oregon returned the bulk of last year’s super regional team and earned a national seed with a steady season against a very difficult schedule, which included four series against regional hosts (all of which the Ducks lost, although they did not get swept). As usual, Oregon’s forte is run prevention--they rank 17th in the nation in ERA (2.79) and fifth in fielding percentage (.981). Pitchability lefties Tommy Thorpe (7-4, 2.22) and Cole Irvin (11-3, 2.61) both locate mid-to-upper-80s fastballs and good secondary stuff. So. RHP Jake Reed (6-5, 3.24) has excellent movement on his 89-92 sinker and a slider that can be devastating when it is on. The deep bullpen has quality setup options from the left side (Christian Jones, Garrett Cleavinger) and the right (Darrell Hunter), plus an electric closer in Jimmie Sherfy (2-0, 1.67, 20 SV, 52-13 K-BB in 38 IP), who can overpower hitters with a 92-95 mph fastball and a wipeout power slider. Defensively, no Duck has committed more than six errors, and the infield has a premier double-play tandem in Aaron Payne and J.J. Altobelli, the latter of whom might be college baseball’s best defensive shortstop. The Ducks have a classic West Coast offense, leading the nation with 92 sacrifice bunts. Their ability to execute small ball and battle for every at-bat puts nonstop pressure on opposing defenses. Ryon Healy (.324/.400/.548, 10 HR, 50 RBI) and Brett Thomas (.328/.417/.433) form a physical, formidable duo in the middle of the lineup, and freshman Mitchell Tolman (.327/.406/.420) has emerged as another key run producer.
Rice flew under the the radar for much of the season, but when the dust cleared the Owls were sitting in their customary perch atop Conference USA. They carry a nine-game winning streak into the postseason, allowing just 13 runs during that span. Like Oregon, Rice’s strength is pitching and defense--it ranks 11th nationally with a 2.74 ERA and 46th with a .973 fielding percentage, as well as sixth with 64 double plays. The Owls lean heavily on their three starters plus closer Zech Lemond (5-1, 1.19, 14 SV), who dominates with an 88-92 mph fastball, a sharp downer curve at 78-79 and an 81-82 changeup with good tumble. Austin Kubitza (8-4, 2.03) ranks second in the nation with 11.52 strikeouts per nine innings thanks to the extreme life on his 85-89 mph fastball and his wipeout 79-83 slider. John Simms (8-3, 2.36) also has excellent life on his 87-93 mph fastball and features a solid slider, decent curveball and splitter. Jordan Stephens (7-4, 2.70) can reach 90 mph with his fastball and features a pair of quality breaking balls. The defense is superb up the middle, with a rock-solid double play tandem in Ford Stainback and Christian Stringer, a lightning-quick center fielder in Leon Byrd, and a stalwart catcher in Geoff Perrott, who has thrown out 48 percent of basestealers. Byrd, Stringer and Michael Ratterree also have more walks than strikeouts, and the Owls do a good job of working counts throughout the lineup. Ratterree (9 HR) and Michael Aquino (.323/.372/.525, 8 HR, 42 RBI) provide most of the team’s pop. Rice is a modest offensive team, ranking 122nd in the nation in scoring (5.3 runs per game), but its lineup is experienced and competitive, like Oregon’s. And like the Ducks, Rice plays small ball very well, as evidenced by its 76 sacrifice bunts (fifth in the nation).
San Francisco opened its season by getting swept in three games by Cal Poly, then going on the road for 16 straight games against the likes of UC Santa Barbara, Arizona, Missouri, Oregon State and Gonzaga. The battle-tested Dons also won road series at TCU and San Diego en route to racking up 20 road wins on the season, fourth-most in the nation. San Francisco is another pitching-and-defense club that grinds it out offensively. Junior righthander Alex Balog (3-3, 3.69) might go in the first round because of 92-96 fastball, power slider at 81-84, solid 78-80 curve and promising changeup, but he’s not the staff ace. That would be Sr. RHP Haden Hinkle (9-1, 1.83), whose 83-88 fastball plays up because of his funky, deceptive delivery and his ability to keep hitters off balance by locating three offspeed pitches. No. 3 starter Christian Cecilio (3-3, 4.11) is a low-slot lefty whose fastball reaches 89 and plays up because of his angle; he also has a very good breaking ball and feel for a changeup, and he’s not afraid to pitch inside against righthanded hitters. Sidearmer Adam Cimber (6-3, 3.81, 9 SV) gives the bullpen a dependable senior anchor with a lively 87-88 fastball, a good slider and changeup. Former ace Abe Bobb (5-5, 3.79) has found himself in a swing role after struggling a bit with his command this year, but he is a fierce competitor with loads of experience and good run on his average fastball. Defensively, the Dons are very solid in the infield and exceptional in the outfield, where CF Justin Maffei and RF Bradley Zimmer both have above-average range and arm strength. Zimmer (.335/.456/.543, 7 HR, 36 RBI, 18 SB), the younger brother of former USF ace and first-round pick Kyle Zimmer, is a five-tool talent who could be a first-rounder himself next year. He gets good lineup protection from physical first baseman Zachary Turner (.335/.379/.516, 8 HR, 62 RBI), an accomplished run producer with a knack for timely hitting. Typical of a Nino Giarratano-coached team, the Dons don’t give away at-bats and never believe they are out of a game.
South Dakota State went 37-20 overall and 20-8 in the Summit League in 2011, then struggled in 2012 (18-33, 7-14) but rebounded with a strong 2013. After finishing second in the Summit League behind Nebraska-Omaha (which was not eligible for the postseason), the Jackrabbits lost their Summit tournament opener to Western Illinois, then won four straight games, capped by a pair of shutouts against North Dakota State on Sunday, 2-0 and 1-0. Kolton Emery (7.2 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K) sparkled in the first game Sunday, while Shane Kraemer (5.1 IP, 5 H, 0 R) and two relievers combined on another seven-hitter in the finale. South Dakota State’s best arm belongs to senior righty Layne Somsen (4-5, 1.92), the pitcher of the year in the Coastal Plain League last summer. Somsen can run his lively fastball into the low 90s and has a swing-and-miss breaking ball. Like the other teams in this regional, South Dakota State’s strength is its pitching staff, which has good depth and a shutdown closer in sophomore righty J.D. Moore (1.67 ERA, 13 SV), who can run his fastball up to 92. The centerpiece of the lineup is senior Daniel Telford (.421/.452/.711, 36 RBI), who has hit six of the team’s 15 home runs. No other Jackrabbit has more than two homers, making this another team that needs to hit situationally and execute the inside game in order to generate offense.