2012 Coral Gables Regional Preview

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Coral Gables Regional
Alex Rodriguez Park, Coral Gables, Fla. (Host: Miami)

No. 1 Miami (36-21, 16-14 in ACC)
41st appearance (40th straight), at-large, third place in ACC Coastal

No. 2 Central Florida (43-15, 16-8 in C-USA)
11th appearance (second straight), at-large, second place in C-USA

No. 3 Missouri State (39-20, 13-7 in MVC)
Eighth appearance (last in 2003), at-large, second place in Missouri Valley

No. 4 Stony Brook (46-11, 21-3 in AEC)
Fourth appearance (last in 2010), automatic, America East regular-season and tournament champion

Miami was a surprise regional host after finishing eight games out of first place in the ACC, but it must be noted that the Hurricanes were without their best offensive player (slugger Peter O'Brien) from April 15 until May 24, including the back-to-back series when they were swept by Florida State and Virginia. O'Brien's return from a broken wrist drastically changes the complexion of the lineup; he is the lone Hurricane hitting above .300 (.348/.455/.652), and the lone Hurricane with more than five home runs (10). Even after missing 18 games, O'Brien still leads the team in RBIs (39). Some other key hitters seemed to get on track during Miami's run to the ACC tournament title game, particularly Chantz Mack, Dale Carey, Rony Rodriguez and Brad Fieger. But Miami's offense is still far from imposing—the 'Canes are hitting .261 as a team—and its defense has been uncharacteristically shaky this season (.958 fielding percentage, 235th in the nation). That puts a lot of pressure on the pitching staff to carry the load, and the staff might be capable of doing so. Lefties don't get craftier than ageless ace Eric Erickson (7-5, 3.20), who has been a staple of Miami's rotation since 2007—but who missed all of 2009 and 2011 with separate Tommy John surgeries. Erickson works in the mid-80s and has a superb changeup and excellent feel for his big, slow breaking ball. Fellow lefty Steven Ewing (6-2, 3.28) and righty Eric Whaley (4-4, 2.47) give Miami a proven, experienced rotation. Lefty A.J. Salcines (1.47 ERA, 7 SV) and righty Eric Nedeljkovic (1.93, 4 SV) emerged as the bullpen anchors after flame-throwing E.J. Encinosa (3-3, 2.57, 8 SV) was demoted from the closer role because of command woes.

Central Florida has been building toward this season since coach Terry Rooney took over the reins of the program, and the members of Rooney's first recruiting class are now juniors, forming the backbone of a very balanced team. UCF has excellent athleticism and speed (89 stolen bases), led by quick-twitch up-the-middle talents Ronnie Richardson (.307/.484/.502, 8 HR, 23 SB), Travis Shreve (.353/.411/.422, 15 SB) and Darnell Sweeney (.265, 20 SB). Slugging first baseman D.J. Hicks (11 HR, 68 RBI), versatile Chris Taladay (.309, 5 HR, 47 RBI) and outfielder Alex Friedrich (.327, 4 HR, 21 2B) form a physical group of run-producing upperclassmen in the heart of the order. The pitching staff is the best on Rooney's tenure, and its biggest strength is the bullpen, where righthander Roman Madrid (5-2, 0.64) and lefty Joe Rogers (4-1, 1.60, 12 SV) both have power fastball-slider attacks, helping them miss a lot of bats. The Knights have tried a number of different combinations in the rotation, as five different pitchers have logged at least seven starts. The best arm among the bunch belongs to sophomore righty Ben Lively (9-2, 3.23), who has improved his command of an 88-92 mph fastball, good changeup and solid breaking ball this year. He'll get the start in the opener, and seasoned lefty Chris Matulis (a crafty mid-80s bulldog) figures to start Saturday.

Missouri State led the Missouri Valley Conference for most of the season but had to settle for a second-place finish, a half-game behind Indiana State. Neither team won the MVC tournament, but both got at-large berths in a banner year for the Valley. Missouri State's pitching gives it a very real chance to win this regional; the Bears lead the nation with a 2.51 ERA and rank second with 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Leading the way is the dynamic duo of Nick Petree (10-3, 0.92) and Pierce Johnson (3-6, 2.55), who have dramatically different styles but are both capable of dominating. Petree, the game one starter, went 73 innings without allowing an earned run (including a 38-inning scoreless streak) before Indiana State got to him in his final regular-season start. The redshirt sophomore righty has dominated with just 83-89 mph velocity while pitching through a herniation in a forearm muscle, but his fastball has serious movement and he knows how to mix in his tight slider and excellent changeup. Johnson has electric stuff, sitting 92-93 and reaching 96 to go along with a hard three-quarters breaking ball and improved changeup. Righty Cody Schumacher (8-1, 3.57) and diminutive bulldog righty Clay Murphy (5-1, 1.37) give the Bears two more quality starting options, and freshman Tyler Burgess (5-1, 1.63, 11 SV) has been a rock in the bullpen. The Bears aren't an offensive juggernaut, but they have gritty upperclassmen all over the diamond and occasional power in the lineup, led by junior Keenan Maddox (7 HR) and seniors Luke Voit and Spiker Helms (six homers apiece).

Stony Brook has been the class of the America East conference in recent years, making three trips to regionals in the last five seasons. The Seawolves enter regionals as one of the hottest teams in the nation, with wins in 22 of their last 23 games, including a dominating run through the conference tournament. Stony Brook's numbers are gaudy—it has the nation's best winning percentage (.807), ranks second in batting (.337), triples (34) and slugging (.486); third in fielding percentage (.980) and seventh in ERA (2.87). Teams don't get much more balanced than that. The only thing Stony Brook doesn't have is a lot of power, but senior William Carmona (.380/.449/.685, 10 HR, 60 RBI) does provide a physical, powerful presence in the middle of the order. Don't write off Stony Brook's statistics just because they were compiled against softer Northeast competition. A number of Seawolves proved their mettle against premier competition in the Cape Cod League last summer, including first-team preseason All-American Travis Jankowski (.411/.476/.621 with 34 steals this spring), second baseman Maxx Tissenbaum (.400/.466/.535), right fielder Tanner Nivins (.331/.393/.459), catcher Pat Cantwell (who has thrown out a whopping 76 percent of basestealers this year) and ace righty Tyler Johnson (9-1, 1.78). Johnson, a Cape League all-star, has serious life on his mid-80s sinker and good feel for his slider and changeup. Johnson is the template for the rest of the staff: No. 2 starter Brandon McNitt (8-2, 2.26) and closer Frankie Vanderka (2.22 ERA, 5 SB) also succeed thanks to their fearlessness, movement and ability to attack the zone. The best arm on the staff belongs to versatile swingman James Campbell (5-0, 3.09), who pitches at 92 and has an effective splitter and decent curveball. All in all, Stony Brook looks like the most dangerous No. 4 seed in the tournament—a legitimate threat to win a regional.