Hawkins Field, Nashville (Host: Vanderbilt)
No. 1 Vanderbilt (51-9, 26-3 in SEC)
12th appearance (eighth straight), at-large, SEC regular-season champion, No. 2 national seed
Top 500 Prospects: LHP Kevin Ziomek (No. 51), OF Connor Harrell (No. 235), OF Mike Yastrzemski (No. 251), 2B Tony Kemp (No. 269), C Spencer Navin (No. 398), 1B Conrad Gregor (No. 425)
No. 2 Georgia Tech (34-25, 15-15 in ACC)
29th appearance (sixth straight), at-large, fourth place in ACC Coastal Division
Top 500 Prospects: RHP Buck Farmer (No. 98), RHP/C Zane Evans (No. 111), OF Daniel Palka (No. 112), OF Brandon Thomas (No. 134), OF Kyle Wren (No. 215)
No. 3 Illinois (34-18, 14-10 in Big Ten)
10th appearance (last in 2011), at-large, tied for fifth place in Big Ten
Top 500 Prospects: OF Justin Parr (No. 408)
No. 4 East Tennessee State (36-22, 17-10 in A-Sun)
Fourth appearance (last in 1981), automatic, Atlantic Sun tournament champion
Vanderbilt enters the postseason atop the Baseball America rankings after setting a new SEC record by going 26-3 in league play during the regular season, then reaching the conference tournament championship game. No college baseball team has a deeper roster than Vandy, perhaps the nation’s most complete team. The Commodores rank seventh in the nation in batting (.317), sixth in OBP (.411) and 17th in slugging (.449). They put serious pressure on opponents with their speed, ranking eighth nationally with 126 stolen bases. SEC player of the year Tony Kemp (.402/.482/.506, 30 SB) sets the tone atop the lineup, and there is no letup lower in the order, as all eight Commodores who have played at least 50 games are hitting better than .300. Connor Harrell (.320, 11 HR, 64) is the primary power threat in the middle of the lineup, but Vince Conde, Conrad Gregor, Spencer Navin, Zander Wiel and Mike Yastrzemski also provide some pop. The defense is outstanding, fielding at a .976 clip, thanks in large part to Conde’s emergence as a rock-solid shortstop. Navin is one of the nation’s best defensive catchers, and the outfield is loaded with speed. Kevin Ziomek (10-2, 2.05) and Tyler Beede (14-0, 2.10) comprise perhaps the best one-two pitching punch in college baseball, and the bullpen has an enviable collection of power arms from the right side (Carson Fulmer, Adam Ravenelle, Tyler Ferguson, Walker Buehler if he isn’t used as a starter) as well as the left (Jared Miller, Steven Rice, Philip Pfeifer). And sidewinder Brian Miller (5-2, 1.59, 15 SV) is a fearless closer who set the school record for saves this year.
No team had more of a rollercoaster season than Georgia Tech, which looked like college baseball’s best offensive team over the first five weeks, when it averaged 10 runs per game. One week, the Jackets lost a series at Duke; the next, they took two of three from Virginia. Then they lost six straight games and three straight series, only to rebound with a series win against North Carolina--then lose a series to Miami. When Tech is on, it can beat anyone. Its power potential is fearsome, and it ranks sixth in the nation with 56 home runs. Zane Evans (.369/.437/.613, 14 HR, 62 RBI), Daniel Palka (.339/.430/.637, 17 HR, 65 RBI) are elite run producers in the heart of an order that has pop from top to bottom. Kyle Wren and Brandon Thomas bring excellent speed on the basepaths and in the outfield. The infield is experienced but not always reliable on defense. The same goes for the weekend rotation, anchored by senior righty Buck Farmer (8-4, 2.87), who competes with an 88-92 fastball that reaches 95 at times, a solid-average slider and changeup. Dusty Isaacs (4-7, 4.77) and Cole Pitts (5-3, 4.94) also have arm strength but have been inconsistent from start to start, and Georgia Tech’s postseason prospects probably depend on whether that duo can perform in big games. Of course, if Tech’s bats get hot at the right time, the Jackets can bash their way through the postseason even without great pitching.
Illinois stands out for its athletic lineup, which is headlined by brothers Justin Parr (.399/.455/.583, 6 HR, 51 RBI, 15 SB) and Jordan Parr (.303/.396/.433, 6 HR, 41 RBI). Justin Parr, the Big Ten player of the year, also plays a good center field, where his strong arm is an asset. Thomas Lindauer has slick actions and a good arm at short, and he brings power to the leadoff spot, hitting .313/.361/.498 with nine homers and 37 RBIs. The Parr brothers, Lindauer and first baseman David Kerian (.324/.398/.411, 21 SB) are threats to run and are efficient basestealers, combining to swipe 72 bags in 84 tries (86 percent success rate). The Illini aren’t blessed with overpowering arms on the mound, but they are well stocked with competitors with feel for pitching and good movement on their mid-to-upper-80s fastballs. Lefty Kevin Duchene (the Big Ten freshman of the year after going 8-1, 2.69) and righties John Kravetz and Ryan Castellanos all fit that description, and all three also have feel for their breaking balls and changeups.
East Tennessee State finished fourth in the A-Sun in the regular season, then went on a perfect 4-0 run through the A-Sun tournament to earn its first trip to regionals since 1981. ETSU is a particularly dangerous No. 4 seed in a regional because it has one of the nation’s most accomplished aces in senior righthander Kerry Doane (13-1, 1.99 with a nation-leading 12 complete games). Doane, who can run his fastball into the low 90s and has a good 80 mph slider, threw nine strong innings in East Tennessee State’s A-Sun tournament opener, then threw another nine innings in the championship game against Stetson. ETSU’s other big star is two-way talent Clinton Freeman, who is hitting .336/.402/.578 with 10 homers, 18 doubles and 56 RBIs (leading the team in all of those categories except OBP), while also going 7-1, 3.04 with eight saves in 56 innings off the mound. The junior, who led the Alaska League in hitting last summer, can touch 90 mph from the left side and is a dogged competitor. The Buccaneers have another bullpen rock in submariner Will Chesney (4-2, 2.70, 31-8 K-BB in 37 IP). Catchers will get a workout in this regional, because all four of these teams have impact speed. ETSU has three regulars with 20-plus stolen bases in Andrew Green, Dylan Tritsch and Jeremy Taylor. That trio covers serious ground in the outfield, led by center fielder Green, who can run the 60-yard dash in 6.4 seconds. Green is one of four key seniors in the lineup, including two others at up-the-middle spots (catcher Mason Hershey and second baseman Derek Niesman). In sum, this team has balance and experience, and is certainly capable of making some noise in Nashville.