Planting the Seeds
The number one seeds won every game in the opening round of the NCAA Division I Baseball Regionals yesterday. There were three mild upsets but no big surprises on day one of the playoffs.
In the Corvallis Regional, #3 St. John's beat #2 Virginia, 5-3. Craig Hansen, considered the best closer in the country, made his first start in two years, subbing for the injured Anthony Varvaro. Hansen faced 32 batters in a seven-inning, eight-hit, three-run performance and the Red Storm backed him with five runs in the fifth and sixth innings to earn a second-round matchup with host Oregon State, a 4-3 winner over Ohio State in a battle of the OSUs. Shea McFeely hit the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth over the centerfield wall for a walk-off home run in the nightcap.
Number three Creighton won its first NCAA tournament game since 1992 over number two North Carolina State, 8-3. Creighton, one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the nation, faces the Nebraska Cornhuskers (which slipped past Illinois-Chicago, 8-6) today in the winner's bracket in the Lincoln Regional.
Third-seed Oklahoma outsoared the Golden Eagles from Southern Mississippi, 5-4, to earn the right to square off with Ole Miss (which whitewashed Maine, 5-0, behind a complete-game, six-hitter courtesy of Mark Holliman) in the Oxford Regional.
In perhaps the best-pitched game of them all, Winthrop's Kevin Slowey scattered seven hits while striking out 13 without a walk. Slowey improved his record to 14-2 in outdueling Mike Pelfrey (12-3), one of the top two starting pitchers (along with Luke Hochever, who earned the victory over Austin Peay, 7-5, to go 15-2) in Tuesday's draft.
Elsewhere, Cal State Fullerton, the defending College World Series champions, took Harvard to school in a 19-0 blowout in the Fullerton Regional. In another laugher, Texas hammered the Mighty Quinn, 20-2, in Austin. The Bobcats were treated rudely by the Longhorns in their first NCAA tournament game. Quinnipiac's second and perhaps last game will be against Miami (Ohio).
Top-ranked Tulane beat Southern, 17-7, in the New Orleans Regional as Mark Hamilton went 4 for 5 with two homers and seven RBI. The Jaguars closed within a field goal in the top of the seventh, but the Green Wave added a run in the bottom half and six more in the eighth to win by the football score.
In other action involving national seeds, Georgia Tech outlasted Furman, 5-4, in 10 innings in Atlanta, while Florida's game with Stetson and Baylor's opener vs. UT-San Antonio were both postponed by rain. You might call the Regional in Waco a Texas Hold 'Em. If it keeps raining, some team may end up winning on the river.
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I attended the Regional in Long Beach on Friday and witnessed USC handle Pepperdine with ease, 7-3, in the afternoon and Long Beach State manhandle Rhode Island, 11-2, in the nightcap. The Trojans and 49ers will face each other for the fourth time this season in the winner's bracket tonight. Long Beach will be looking to avenge three previous losses to the university with 12 NCAA championships, more than twice as many as any other school.
USC put up a four-spot in the bottom of the first inning and the Waves never recovered despite a two-run home run off the bat of Steve Kleen in the eighth. Trojans coach Mike Gillespie gambled and started his number two pitcher, Jack Spradlin, a tall left-hander who succeeds by mixing his pitches and changing speeds, rather than Ian Kennedy, the team's ace. Kennedy was held back so he could challenge the Dirtbags in tonight's featured pairing. The SC sophomore led Team USA in strikeouts last summer and the nation this spring.
Just as Gillespie's move paid off, Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers rolled the dice by going with the team's number four starter, Cody Evans. The transfer from Golden West (Calif.) Community College hadn't won a game all year and found himself behind, 1-0, in the first inning after giving up a two-out hit by pitch, a stolen base, and a run-scoring single.
I have a feeling that 2,451 of the 2,452 fans in attendance were beginning to second guess Weathers right about then. However, I thought it was a brilliant move, one in which only a number one seed in a position like Long Beach could possibly consider. The 49ers coach can now avail himself of his Big Three of Cesar Ramos, Marco Estrada, and Jared Hughes the rest of the way. That said, I am not in agreement with Weathers' decision to bypass Ramos in Game Two in favor of either Estrada or Hughes. Although the latter two pitchers are highly capable, Ramos is the guy you want starting the most important game of the year, especially considering the fact that SC is going with its top gun in Kennedy.
Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda and legendary USC coach Rod Dedeaux, long-time friends, sat together in a box just to the left of home plate. Lasorda signed autographs and posed with young boys as their fathers quickly snapped photographs. He even shook hands and spoke with Troy Tulowitzki, who was in full uniform with bat in hand, as early as the fourth inning of the USC-Pepperdine opener. Lasorda (2000) and Dedeaux (1984) coached medal-winning teams in the Olympics.
Bret Saberhagen was also in attendance. His son, Drew, a freshman, is a reserve first baseman. There were no signs of Ryne Sandberg (whose son, Justin, who is a third-year sophomore utility infielder) or Jim Tracy (father of Collegiate Baseball's second-team All-America catcher, Chad). I wasn't particularly impressed with Chad's arm although he showed some power when he hit a long fly ball to the edge of the warning track in left-center.
On the other hand, the opposing catcher, Jeff Clement, is projected to be among the top dozen players taken. Clement is ranked the number-one power hitter in Baseball America's draft preview. I've rarely seen him get a hit, but he takes a vicious cut and has put up good numbers during his college career at SC.
After falling behind 1-0 in the first, Long Beach State scored eight runs in the second frame off Dan Frederick, whose only chance of getting drafted is if World War III breaks out. Freshman Jose Hernandez and Sean Boatright hit back jack, do it again home runs over the IN-N-OUT sign on the wall in left-center field. Frederick faced 13 batters, giving up six hits, two walks, and a snowman. I haven't seen a Ram get hit this hard since the days of Kurt Warner.
Third baseman Evan Longoria, not to be confused with Tony Parker's spur of the moment arm candy, had three hits. Longoria may very well replace the departing Tulowitzki at shortstop next season. Tulo was ranked by Baseball America among all the prospects #1 in arm strength, #2 in five-tool talent, #3 best athlete, and #4 best defensive player. He demonstrated his arm by making a perfect relay throw from short right field to third base, nailing a Ram trying inexcusably to stretch a double into a triple in the seventh inning while down, 10-2. Wham bam, thank you, Rams.
Rhode Island went through more pitchers during the game than the Long Beach frat houses afterwards. The throws by the defense were higher than Dock Ellis in his no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in 1970. The team is more likely to spend Sunday at Disneyland than at Blair Field.
Between now and then, USC and Long Beach State will square off in front of what promises to be a standing-room only crowd. The K-Man Kennedy will be going for the Trojans while Weathers opts for Estrada or Hughes. Weathers had this to say about his decision not to start Cesar Ramos today:
"I feel both (Hughes and Estrada) match up better with USC. It's nothing against USC, but the other two can't be forgotten. Righthanders are better suited for USC."
I guess it's possible that Long Beach could win the Regional without using Ramos against USC, but it seems unlikely, if not unwise. In the meantime, I can't help but wonder if Weathers has planted a negative seed in the back of Cesar's head. I backed him the first time around when few others did but am less enamored with his strategy from here on out.
Time will tell.
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Quiz: Who will be the best pitcher in the ballpark this evening? Ramos, deemed to have the best command of any college pitcher in the opinon of Baseball America? Kennedy, the sophomore sensation who is putting up better numbers than former Trojan Mark Prior at the same stage of their careers? You could make a case for either, but there is also a third candidate to consider. His name? Jered Weaver, who is expected to attend tonight's game.
Weekend Link: Dirtbags Baseball. Although "dedicated to fans of Long Beach State Dirtbags baseball," Jeff Agnew covers college baseball about as well as anyone.