The Road To Omaha is finally winding down as the teams have been selected and the NCAA Baseball Tournament is officially on deck. The Vanderbilt Commodores enter as the defending champions with the most devastating starting pitching corps in the nation, while the well rounded Arkansas Razorbacks enter as the number 1 overall seed as both conference season and tournament champions. The SEC leads the field this year with eight bids among the 64 squads, with the Big 12, Pac 12 and ACC all well represented. With that said, here is a full preview and prediction of the first 4 regionals, consisting of 4 team double elimination brackets in which the winners advance to the Super Regional round.
Fayetville Regional: #1 Arkansas, Nebraska, Northeastern, New Jersey Tech
Continuing with past trends, the committee took care of the #1 overall seed with a rather light regional. Arkansas has been the best team in the country all season long, having not lost a single SEC series en route to the regular season outright crown and a perfect run through the conference tournament. The Razorbacks are one of the most dangerous hitting teams in the country with Christian Franklin, Jalen Battles and Brady Slavens highlighting an order that can hit all the way down, as 91 team home runs suggest. Clearly, nobody is outhitting the Hogs in this field. Their lone weakness comes with the starting pitching as it is depleted behind ace Patrick Wicklander. However, the best reliever in the country in Kevin Kopps has had no issue backing up the rotation and slamming the door consistently. The Big Ten champion Nebraska Cornhuskers have had a quality season against a competitive Big Ten speared by great hitting from Jaxon Hallmark and Max Anderson, who are hitting .341 and .337 on the year. Northeastern boasts a top 30 RPI ranking, three starters among the top 40 pitchers in the country in WHIP and the third best team ERA in all of division 1. This very well could cause problems for the high powered offenses of Arkansas and Nebraska. New Jersey Tech is the least competitive team here. Even though they won the America East Tournament, it came off a fluke due to inclement weather which dodged them from playing perennial conference contender Stony Brook and even though the bullpen has performed consistently, starting games has been an issue. This regional won’t be a cakewalk for Arkansas but with home field advantage (Arkansas won 26 of 31 at home this year), the best lineup from top to bottom and Kevin Kopps, the Razorbacks should have no problem keeping Baum-Walker’s gates open for the Super Regionals as they win their third straight regional and inch closer to the schools first national championship on the diamond.
Winner: #1 Arkansas 3-0 Runner Up: Northeastern 2-2
Ruston Regional: #16 Louisiana Tech, NC State, Alabama, Rider
Among the 16 brackets, Ruston is easily the most wide open. Three teams can win it, which doesn’t happen often in this tournament. LA Tech sports an impressive #19 ranking in the RPI but NC State (#35) and Alabama (#32) aren’t too far behind them. The Bulldogs thrive with the bats, as they rank fourth in division 1 with 590 team hits and they excel at driving those runs in with 393 RBI’s on the year. The pitching for LA Tech has been serviceable with Jonathan Fincher and Jaret Whorff doing well enough to allow the bats to win games. Like Tech, NC State also win their games at the plate as they have four players clubbing double digit home runs. Pitching has been the Wolfpack’s issue this season as their best starter, Reid Johnston, is sporting a 4.18 ERA despite 79 strikeouts. Alabama also specializes with the bats albeit not on the level of Tech or State but struggles with the arms. The Tide have also not shown up in big games consistently this season as while they did steal 2 games in the SEC Tournament (including an extra inning win over #3 Tennessee) they won just 3 SEC series this season, all against non conference tournament qualifiers. Alabama barely stumbled into this tournament with a miracle upset against Tennessee and a questionable runners interference call saving them from early elimination, suggesting they will have trouble winning a tough game against LA Tech or NC State outright. Rider isn’t much of a concerning team as they don’t standout on any aspect of the game and didn’t play any real competition this year. This regional will come down to who can pitch the best, in a field full of hitting. While the Bulldogs have been consistent all season and been able to take games from #1 Arkansas and #12 Ole Miss, NC State is white hot right now in a tough ACC (went 24-6 to end season) and are firing on all cylinders with only an even hotter team in Duke stopping them from a conference championship. The Wolfpack’s offense should pack its usual punch in Ruston and with a team that is more experienced than LA Tech in terms of facing the marquee arms in Miami and Notre Dame compared to Southern Mississippi and Old Dominion, NC State is a better bet to perform like themselves at the plate. If they can get a big outing from the mound out of Sam Highfill or Chris Villaman at some point in this regional, NC State will break through to Fayetville.
Winner: NC State 4-1 Runner Up: #16 LA Tech 2-2
Stanford Regional: #9 Stanford, UC Irvine, Nevada, North Dakota State
In a two team race, host Stanford and UC Irvine are the favorites to emerge out of this bracket. The reason for this comes in the facts that North Dakota State didn’t play a single game against a top 50 RPI team and Nevada also has not stepped up to competition, going 3-9 out of conference and 0-5 against the top 50. The Stanford Cardinal dominated this campaign from wire to wire, winning all but 1 series on the year with victories against tournament teams in UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State, UC Irvine and national seeds in Arizona and Oregon all falling victim. Stanford has rode their bats here as six starters boast OPS marks above .800 including one of the nation’s premier power threats in outfielder Brock Jones, who leads the team with 13 long balls. On the mound, senior star Brendan Beck has been dominant with an outstanding .188 opponent batting average and a quality 3.07 ERA, adding to triple digit strikeout numbers. While the rotation is thin behind him, the Cardinal bullpen is among the best in the country with a fantastic setup-closer duo in Joey Dixon and Zach Grech. The Anteaters of UC Irvine also had a fantastic season, one deserving of a national seed that they will look to prove they should’ve had in this regional. These guys win their games on both sides of the ball as Nick Pinto and Michael Frias both have put together nice seasons on the mound with ERA’s in the mid 3’s while the lineup as a whole has compiled a .294 team batting average, in the top 35 among D1. While Stanford took 3 of 4 from UCI back in March, this Anteaters team is much improved at the plate since they last went to the Sunken Diamond as their 14 wins in their last 15 games suggest. Led by a red hot offense with 5 players batting above .300, UCI’s bats are at their best right now but it may not be enough to hit Beck and his vast arsenal. The good thing for the Anteaters is this is double elimination and even if they lose to Beck in their second game, they have shown all year they can break out the bats to win three straight (5 sweeps in the regular season). They’ll demolish Nevada and break out early in both games against Stanford’s thin starting pitching, rendering the bullpen a non factor and propelling the Anteaters to win their fifth regional in program history.
Winner: UC Irvine 4-1 Runner Up: #9 Stanford 2-2
Lubbock Regional: #8 Texas Tech, UCLA, North Carolina, Army
In one of the most crowded regionals among this year’s field, three Power Five teams who are perennial contenders will square off. The hosting Red Raiders are looking for revenge as they come off a trip to Omaha in 2019 in which they fell just a win short of the championship series and a very early exit in this year’s Big 12 Tournament when they dropped out at the hands of TCU and Kansas State. Regardless of their tough finishes in recent postseasons, Tech has mashed their way back to a top 8 seed with Dru Baker’s .372 batting average and Jace Jung’s .342 mark along with 20 home runs highlighting one of the best offensive units in the country. Not to be outdone by their bats, Texas Tech has also been quietly quality on the mound with Micah Dallas, Patrick Montverde and Mason Montgomery all holding sub 4 ERA’s as a deep and reliable group. Among the top teams in the country in the preseason, UCLA has played below expectations in 2021 but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a team to count out in this tournament. Despite a 35-18 record and the #21 RPI ranking, the Bruins have struggled in big games this year, going 6-6 against the Top 25 and finishing fourth in the Pac 12, less than two years removed from being the top overall seed in the 2019 tournament. This year’s team is platooned on offense through contact hitting by juniors Kevin Kendall and Matt McLain, who lead the way with .355 and .323 batting averages respectively. UCLA doesn’t specialize in the long ball and have found runs hard to come by at times this season but when ace Sean Mullen takes the mound, it hasn’t been an issue. The star right hander has been blowing hitters away this spring with 87 punch outs and an efficient 3.07 ERA. Behind him though, Jesse Bergin and Zack Pettway have been wildly inconsistent, even with standout Max Rajaic emerging as one of the best closers in the country with his 1.55 ERA. North Carolina in a down year has not been able to find any sort of groove as COVID and injuries have seriously disrupted their mojo no matter how many batters Austin Love can strikeout. With a weak offense containing little power or extra base threats, the Tar Heels made it here by the skin of their teeth and will not win a game that Love doesn’t start. That being said, UCLA will have to run through the loser’s bracket to win 4 straight games which is simply unrealistic considering their performance in high pressure situations against hard hitting teams. With West Point not playing anybody resembling a tournament team, Texas Tech should have a favorable path to return to the Super Regionals as UCLA will run out of gas on the mound by the time they reach the Lubbock finals. The Red Raiders should surprisingly handle a stacked regional and keep their season going at least another weekend.
Winner: #8 Texas Tech 3-0 Runner Up: UCLA 2-2
Image: USA Today