Columbia Regional Preview

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Columbia Regional
Carolina Stadium, Columbia, S.C. (Host: South Carolina)

No. 1 South Carolina (40-17, 18-11 in SEC)
28th appearance (13th straight), at-large, first place in SEC East

No. 2 Clemson (33-26, 16-14 in ACC)
37th appearance (fourth straight), at-large, third place in ACC Atlantic

No. 3 Coastal Carolina (41-17, 18-5 in Big South)
12th appearance (sixth straight), automatic, Big South regular-season and tournament champion

No. 4 Manhattan (33-25, 18-6 in MAAC)
Fourth appearance (second straight), automatic, MAAC regular-season and tournament champion

Four core players help connect South Carolina to its back-to-back national title teams. Ace lefthander Michael Roth (6-1, 2.58) and closer Matt Price (4-4, 3.68, 10 saves) are simply two of the most celebrated and accomplished big-game pitchers in college baseball history. Fellow mainstays Christian Walker (.328, 10 HR, 51 RBI) and Evan Marzilli (.284, 12 2B, 11 SB) lead a lineup that features a host of talented new players. Freshmen Joey Pankake (shortstop) and Grayson Greiner (catcher) have had their growing pains, but have emerged as quality players at key up-the-middle positions. Greiner will miss the regional with a torn meniscus in his left knee, a major blow as he started 42 games at catcher. South Carolina is fortunate to have a quality backup in Dante Rosenberg, who has solid catch-and-throw skills but lacks Greiner's power. Junior-college transfers Chase Vergason and L.B. Dantzler have helped solidify the infield, and Dantzler (9 HR) has joined Walker as the lineup's primary power threats. It will be interesting to see how South Carolina structures its starting pitching. Coach Ray Tanner usually prefers to start his ace in his regional opener—which is what he did with Roth last year—but he indicated this week that he was considering starting freshman lefty Jordan Montgomery (a finesse pitcher in the Roth mold) or junior righty Colby Holmes in the first game against Manhattan. Forrest Koumas is questionable for the weekend with an elbow injury. South Carolina's bullpen is plenty deep and versatile, with Tyler Webb and Nolan Belcher presenting quality options from the left side and Evan Beal complementing Price from the right side. But the rotation is a question mark heading into the postseason—a change from the last two seasons.

Clemson must be itching to get a shot at redemption against arch-rival South Carolina, which sent the Tigers home with two straight wins in the 2010 CWS and which has won 16 of the last 23 meetings between the teams since 2007. But the Tigers must be careful not to overlook Coastal Carolina, the way slugger Richie Shaffer suggested they overlooked Connecticut in last year's regional, with a super regional showdown against the Gamecocks looming. Shaffer (.339/.479/.583, 10 HR, 46 RBI) is Clemson's difference-maker: a righthanded slugger with a knack for delivering timely hits. But he has drawn 58 walks this year, and the Tigers need players like Phil Pohl, Jon McGibbon and Spencer Kieboom to provide some protection for Shaffer in order to make a deep postseason run. Clemson's greatest advantage in this regional might be its experience and athleticism up the middle. Jason Stolz (four errors, .984 fielding percentage) has been a model of consistency at shortstop after shifting from third base to replace Brad Miller. Kieboom has excellent catch-and-throw skills, Thomas Brittle is a human highlight reel in center field, and Steve Wilkerson has improved in the second half at second base. Clemson's offensive numbers aren't gaudy, but the Tigers play hard and don't quit when they fall behind. Coach Jack Leggett said he wasn't sure how he planned to set up his rotation, but righthanders Dominic Leone, Kevin Pohle and Daniel Gossett are all candidates to start; all have quality stuff, but none has been consistently overpowering, and the bullpen sorely misses the injured Matt Campbell, its best arm.

Coastal Carolina won the Big South as usual and capped its season by winning its sixth straight conference tournament title. But this edition of the Chanticleers isn't a juggernaut like some of its recent teams have been (including the 2010 team that lost to South Carolina in super regionals). Coastal lost ace Josh Conway halfway through the season, and since then it has struggled to get deep outings out of its starters. But submarine righthanded relievers Aaron Burke (10-5, 1.18, seven saves) and Ryan Connolly (5-2, 2.11, 11 SV) carried the Chants through the Big South tourney, allowing just one run in 21 combined innings over four games (each earned the win in two of them). Hitters aren't accustomed to seeing 55 mph breaking balls like they'll see from Connolly, whose fastball tops out at 78-79 mph with serious sink and run. For Coastal to win this regional, Burke and Connolly will have to baffle hitters just like they did last week—and they are capable of doing it. The lineup, meanwhile, is anchored by a pair of physical veterans loaded with postseason experience in Daniel Bowman (.401/.483/.577, 6 HR, 14 SB) and Rich Witten (.350/.444/.493, 5 HR, 62 RBI).

Manhattan has dominated the MAAC over the past two years, going 38-8 in conference play during that span and winning back-to-back conference tournament titles. This year—coach Jim Duffey's first season at the helm after replacing Kevin Leighton—the Jaspers overcame a 1-14 start, going 32-11 from that point forward. They lost their MAAC tourney opener to Rider but then rode sidearmer Taylor Sewitt's right arm through the loser's bracket, winning four straight games (including consecutive games over rival Canisius in the championship round). Sewitt struck out 12 in a four-hit shutout in Manhattan's first win against Fairfield, then threw two shutout innings to close a 5-4 win a day later, then managed to come back and throw 11 innings of shutout relief in the winner-takes-all game the day after that. It's certainly fair to wonder many bullets Sewitt (11-1, 2.40) has left in his rubber arm after he threw 22 straight scoreless innings in the MAAC tourney, and Manhattan will need a strong start from righty John Soldinger (6-5, 3.43), who can bump the low 90s with his fastball and has a good slider. Manhattan's offense is anchored by center fielder and leadoff man Anthony Vega (.336/.417/.491, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 32 steals in 35 tries), who has legitimate five-tool ability and has a chance to be a breakout star on the big stage this weekend.