Image credit: Brendan Beck (Bill Mitchell)
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No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 4 North Dakota State (4 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 UC Irvine vs. No. 3 Nevada (9 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 1 Stanford (33-14)
All-Conference Team Honorees: TBA
Season in a Sentence: Coming off of a 5-11 record in 2020, Stanford quickly proved that it was a team that had taken a step forward in 2021 on the way to winning all but one Pac-12 series this year, putting up a 17-10 record in league play and finishing in third place, good enough to earn a postseason bid for the fourth straight season.
Best Pitcher: Brendan Beck, RHP—For the fourth straight season, Beck has been a steady hand in the Stanford rotation, and in fact, this is the best season he’s enjoyed with the Cardinal. He’ll go into the weekend 7-1 with a 3.03 ERA, a 106-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .188 opponent batting average in 86 innings.
Best Hitter: Brock Jones, OF—This Stanford offense has a high level of physicality, and Jones has been a huge part of that. After a trying true freshman season as part of Stanford’s tough 2020, the outfielder, a former safety on the Stanford football team, has broken out in a big way. He’s hitting .300/.453/.588 with 13 homers, 44 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.
Outlook: Because its schedule was relatively back-loaded with its toughest opponents, Stanford flew under the radar for much of the season before announcing itself as a real force to be reckoned with after series wins against Arizona and Oregon late in the campaign. Its lineup is good enough to lead the team through to super regionals. The key will be what it gets on the mound once it gets past Beck and top relievers Zach Grech and Jacob Palisch, as that unit is a step behind the offense in terms of development.
No. 2 UC Irvine (40-16)
All-Conference Team Honorees: OF Mike Peabody (1st), OF Nathan Church (1st), SP Michael Frias (1st), RP Gordon Ingebritson (1st), CP Jacob King (1st), C Dillon Tatum (2nd), 2B Justin Torres (2nd), SP Nick Pinto (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: After taking some early lumps, some of them against tough opponents like UCLA and Stanford, UC Irvine caught fire in mid March and never lost a Big West conference series on the way to winning the regular-season title by three games, which earned it its first postseason appearance since it went to Omaha in 2014.
Best Pitcher: Michael Frias, RHP—Trenton Denholm came into the season as the most accomplished UC Irvine starting pitcher, and while he’s been solid this season, it’s been Frias who has been the ace in 2021. The righthander is 8-1 with a 3.30 ERA, 86 strikeouts and a .207 opponent batting average in 76.1 innings.
Best Hitter: Mike Peabody, OF—Peabody took a huge step forward in 2021 and became a much more complete hitter. Back in 2019, he was a key piece of the puzzle for UCI, hitting .312/.434/.416, but not only has he raised his batting average significantly this season, he’s also hitting for more power, as he’s sporting a .353/.481/.583 slash line with 15 doubles, eight home runs and 54 RBIs. Catcher Dillon Tatum is also worth a mention here. He’s played in just 36 games, but he leads the team in home runs with 13.
Outlook: UC Irvine is far from a stereotypical West Coast team. The Anteaters pitch well and starting pitching depth is a real strength, to be sure, but this is also a team that drives the ball with authority at the plate to a greater degree than you would expect from a Big West team and they can beat you in a slugfest as well as a pitchers duel. As the host team, Stanford has to be considered the favorite to advance out of this regional, but UC Irvine isn’t far behind.
No. 3 Nevada (25-18)
All-Conference Team Honorees: TBA
Season in a Sentence: Nevada caught fire late in the season, winning its last six Mountain West Conference series on the way to securing the automatic bid awarded to the league’s regular-season champion, which delivered the first postseason appearance for the Wolf Pack since 2000.
Best Pitcher: Shane Gustafson, RHP—Gustafson, a low-slot righthander, has been a key piece of the puzzle for Nevada all season. In 42 innings, all in relief, he has a 3.00 ERA, a .216 opponent batting average and three saves. Late in the season, he also became something of a workhorse in his role. In each of his last six appearances, he’s thrown at least 2.2 innings, including a 5.2-inning outing against San Diego State. That kind of versatility really makes him a weapon in a regional setting.
Best Hitter: Dillan Shrum, 1B—Shrum was limited to just 33 games during the regular season, but he really made them count, hitting .479/.521/.992 with 15 doubles, 15 home runs and 47 RBIs. Outfielder Dario Gomez, who is hitting .404, and third baseman Tyler Bosetti, who at one point this season had home runs in eight straight games, are also in this conversation.
Outlook: Having hit .321/.396/.535 as a team this season, Nevada’s strength is offense, and it should be able to hit with anyone in this regional. Pitching is more of a mystery for the Wolf Pack, as the team had a 5.43 ERA during the regular season, but Sunken Diamond at Stanford isn’t as offensive an environment as any number of ballparks in the MWC, so perhaps Nevada’s pitchers will take to it well. Still, it seems safe to assume that Nevada’s path to making it to the end of the weekend is to out-slug the opposition.
No. 4 North Dakota State (41-17)
All-Conference Team Honorees: SS Bennett Hostetler (1st), OF Jake Malec (1st), SP Cade Feeney (1st), RP Parker Harm (1st), 3B Tucker Rohde (2nd), OF Jack Simonsen (2nd), SP Max Loven (2nd), SP Evan Sankey (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: North Dakota State went 20-11 in the Summit League in the regular season, good for second place, and ended the regular season with a program-record 41 wins after it went 3-1 in the Summit League Tournament to secure its first postseason bid since 2014.
Best Pitcher: Parker Harm, LHP—NDSU has a deep rotation of four solid pitchers in Cade Feeney, Evan Sankey, Max Loven and Ben Smith, but none of them have been as dominant as Harm this season in a relief role. In 21 appearances and 34 innings, he has a 1.85 ERA, a 59-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a .167 opponent batting average and 11 saves.
Best Hitter: Bennett Hostetler, SS—This is the fifth season in which Hostetler has been a regular in the NDSU lineup, but it’s the first in which he really put everything together in this way. He has career highs in all three slash line categories at .391/.514/.584, in doubles with 13, home runs with eight, RBIs with 54 and stolen bases with 18.
Outlook: There is a group of senior players here in Hostetler, Harm, outfielder Jake Malec and third baseman Tucker Rohde who all put together strong senior seasons to get the Bison to this place and it seems safe to assume they’re not going to go down without a fight this weekend. The three other offenses in this regional present a tough matchup for the NDSU pitching staff, but there is some quality depth on that unit that should keep the Bison competitive in that regard.