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2021 NCAA Tournament South Bend Regional Preview

Steven Hajjar Michigan Billmitchell
Steven Hajjar (Bill Mitchell)

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Friday Schedule

No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 4 Central Michigan (1 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 Connecticut vs. No. 3 Michigan (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3)

No. 1 Notre Dame (30-11)

All-Conference Honorees: SP John Michael Bertrand (1st), 1B Niko Kavadas (1st), RP Tanner Kohlhepp (2nd), DH Carter Putz (2nd)

Season in a sentence: In its best season since at least 2006, Notre Dame lost just one series all year, won its first ACC championship and is back in regionals for the first time since 2015 and hosting for the first time since 2004.

Best pitcher: John Michael Bertrand, LHP—Bertrand transferred to Notre Dame after Furman’s program was eliminated and he’s been a huge addition for the Irish. He is 7-2, 3.33 with 57 strikeouts and 19 walks in 75.2 innings. While much of the rest of Notre Dame’s pitching staff has been used in a variety of roles based on matchups, Bertrand has been a constant, steady force in the rotation.

Best hitter: Niko Kavadas, 1B—Kavadas has hit 16 home runs, most by a Notre Dame player in a single season since Brant Ust hit 17 in 1999. He this season is hitting .288/.453/.691 and has drawn 41 walks. Kavadas gives Notre Dame a true middle-of-the-order threat who can change the game with one swing.

Outlook: Notre Dame presents a bit of a different look than most College World Series contenders. Instead of a hard-wired, three-man rotation, the Irish have about a half dozen pitchers they will call on over the course of the weekend to pitch important innings. They can win games in a variety of ways offensively and will be aggressive on the base paths. They lead the nation with a .985 fielding percentage. It might be unconventional, but it’s been a winning formula for Notre Dame, and the Irish will look to stick to it again this weekend.

No. 2 Connecticut (33-17)

All-Conference Honorees: SP Ben Casparius (2nd), 1B Reggie Crawford (2nd), OF Kyler Fedko (1st), SP Austin Peterson (2nd), OF Erik Stock (1st), OF Chris Winkle (1st), C Pat Winkle (2nd), RP Caleb Wurster (1st)

Season in a sentence: UConn returned to the Big East and won both the regular-season and conference tournament titles behind a deep, talented lineup and solid pitching staff.

Best pitcher: Ben Casparius, RHP—Casparius sat out last season after the Connecticut native transferred home from North Carolina. He this year moved to the front of the UConn rotation and has excelled, going 8-4, 3.07 with 123 strikeouts and 33 walks in 88 innings. He attacks hitters with his fastball-slider combination and has piled up a lot of swings and misses on his low-90s fastball.

Best hitter: Kyler Fedko, OF—Fedko, the Big East player of the year, is hitting .411/.495/.697 with 12 home runs and seven stolen bases. He can do a bit of everything at the plate, but mostly just squares up a lot of baseballs. Even on a team that is hitting .297 as a group, Fedko stands out.

Outlook: UConn finished with a flourish, going 15-3 in May. While the Big East is solid competition, the level of play is going to rachet up this weekend. It’s nothing the Huskies haven’t seen after opening the season with series at Virginia, Southern Mississippi and Texas Tech. But UConn went just 2-8 in those games and is just 17-16 away from home this season. The Huskies will need to show that they’ve improved since those early-season road trips. Winning this regional starts with a strong effort from Casparius and closer Caleb Wurster.

No. 3 Michigan (27-17)

All-Conference Honorees: 2B Ted Burton (1st), OF Tito Flores (2nd), SP Steven Hajjar (1st), C Griffin Mazur (2nd), 1B Jimmy Obertop (3rd), SS Benjamin Sems (2nd), RP Willie Weiss (3rd), SP Cameron Weston (2nd)

Season in a sentence: Michigan was the preseason favorite in the Big Ten and had a chance with two weeks left in the season to win the title, but ultimately fell short against Maryland and Nebraska, the top two teams in the conference.

Best pitcher: Steven Hajjar, LHP—Listed at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Hajjar certainly looks the part. And, for the last two years, he’s looked the part on the mound, too. He is 4-1, 2.85 with 101 strikeouts and 28 walks in 75.2 innings. Hajjar hasn’t always been overpowering this year, but he’s given the Wolverines a chance to win nearly every time out.

Best hitter: Benjamin Sems, SS—The Wolverines offense has been the Big Ten’s best, averaging 7.0 runs per game, so there’s no shortage of options here. Ted Burton is the team’s leading hitter and Tito Flores has been excellent as well, but Sems, a graduate transfer from Kansas, gets the nod here. He’s hitting .321/.395/.494 with six home runs and playing solid defense at shortstop. It’s hard to imagine where the Wolverines would be without him.

Outlook: Michigan, like the rest of the Big Ten, played a conference-only schedule this season, so this weekend will represent the first time this season it sees a team from outside the conference. That shouldn’t hold the Wolverines back, but it does make it a little harder to know what to expect from them. Michigan’s offense stacks up well with the opposition this weekend, but it all may come down to its pitching staff.  If Michigan gets good starts from Hajjar and Weston, it will be difficult to beat. But the Wolverines will need a couple other pitchers to step up if they come out of the loser’s bracket.

No. 4 Central Michigan (40-16)

All-Conference Honorees: TBA

Season in a sentence: After a slow start, Central Michigan soon found its stride and won its second straight Mid-American Conference title, edging Ball State on the final day of the regular season.

Best pitcher: Andrew Taylor, RHP—It’s nearly impossible to pick between Taylor and Jordan Patty (9-2, 2.58). Patty has the experience and has led the rotation all season, but Taylor’s body of work this season simply has to be recognized. He’s 11-3, 1.21 with 120 strikeouts and 23 walks in 89.1 innings. He isn’t overpowering but throws a lot of strikes with his fastball-curveball combination.

Best hitter: Zach Gillies, OF—Gillies, a fifth-year senior, is CMU’s leading hitter and brings plenty of speed to the top of the lineup. He’s hitting .361/.489/.444 with 21 stolen bases. Listed at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, Gillies doesn’t bring much pop, but he can’t be underestimated.

Outlook: Central Michigan is one of the best No. 4 seeds in the field. It still has a lot of players in the mix who were a part of the 2019 regional team that opened the Starkville Regional with a win against Miami before dropping the next two games. CMU’s 1-2 punch of Patty and Taylor will make things difficult for its opponents in the first two games and they have a strong bullpen behind them, led by Grant Frazer and Ian Leatherman. The lineup has a lot of experience—five regulars from the 2019 regional team will start this weekend—and CMU doesn’t give many free bases away. This is the kind of veteran, experienced mid-major capable of making a run, though bettering their 2019 showing won’t be easy.

Statelistgraphic

2021 Michigan Top MLB Draft Prospects

Ranking the top high school and college MLB Draft prospects from Michigan in the class of 2021.

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