Category archive: Alabama Crimson Tide
Are you ready for some baseball? Division I college baseball gets under way at 10 a.m. ET on Friday with the first two games of the Big East-Big Ten Baseball Challenge. If everything goes according to plan, one of the final games of opening weekend will feature Florida International's Garrett Wittels attempting to break Robin Ventura's 58-game hitting streak on ESPNU/ESPN3.com (Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET).
While the first pitch of the season has yet to be thrown, it's never too early to start looking forward to June and the first College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. Defending champion South Carolina lost its top two starting pitchers from last year's squad but returns a talented offensive core and has one of the best bullpens in the country. Last year's CWS field included several programs on the upswing. Arizona State was the only team from the 2009 field to return to Omaha in 2010; this year, the Sun Devils could be the only team not to earn a return trip to Nebraska. The talent level isn't down in Tempe, but unless the NCAA sanctions are reversed, ASU is barred from the postseason.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikESPN Preseason All-American Trevor Bauer leads a talented Bruins staff.
The 2011 season will see another change that could have an even bigger effect than the CWS' move three miles up 13th Street. College baseball is changing the specifications for aluminum bats from measuring the ball exit speed (BESR) to the coefficient of restitution (BBCOR). Early indications from fall practices are that power numbers will be down -- a lot. Small ball could become an even bigger part of the college game, which would favor several West Coast teams in a year when that region already appears to be extremely strong. Combined with the flipped orientation from Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park -- where the wind is more likely to blow in than out -- pitching and clutch hitting could share the spotlight in late June.
Predicting the field, and especially the teams with the best chances at reaching Omaha, is tricky in mid-February. Using the 2010 preseason coaches' poll, only three of the top eight teams earned national seeds, and just two finished their season at Rosenblatt. Eventual national champion South Carolina and runner-up UCLA both started just outside the Top 25. High early-season expectations are usually enough to get into the tournament, as only East Carolina and Ohio State failed to make the field after appearing in the preseason Top 25.
This is the first time I've attempted to pick the field before the season started. My results at the end of last season were good but not great, but in some cases I favor my bracket to the official NCAA field. I was within one seed on six of the eight national seeds, overseeding Virginia by three spots and picking South Carolina over Georgia Tech for the final top-eight spot (with the way things played out, that looks like a good decision). Of the 34 at-large bids, I had 32 in my final bracket, and the two I omitted topped my "first nine out" section. California was my first team out (and most egregious miss, since it was the No. 2 seed in Norman) but went 0-2; Louisiana-Lafayette was my second team out and went 1-2 in the Austin Regional. The two teams from my bracket that missed regional play were Kentucky and Florida Gulf Coast; Kentucky had a solid RPI but missed the SEC tournament, while FGCU won the Atlantic Sun regular-season title in its first year of tournament eligibility behind ace Chris Sale but fell in the conference tournament. Of the 16 regional sites, I got two exactly right (Atlanta and Norwich) and three of four teams for three more (Auburn, Gainesville, Louisville).
Now that I've dispensed with the caveats, here's my initial projection:
Los Angeles Regional
Last five in: Florida International, Nebraska, Western Carolina, San Diego State, Liberty
First nine out: Kentucky, Elon, NC State, Pittsburgh, Tulane, Oklahoma State, Cal Poly, Southeastern Louisiana, USC
With the exception of Arizona State, which is banned from the postseason, all the teams that played in the final CWS in Rosenblatt earn regional hosting assignments and No. 1 seeds, with the top four national seeds all gunning for a return to Omaha. The other four national seeds all fell 2-1 in super regionals last year, so this bracket is biased toward last year's elite teams. The road from opening day to Selection Monday is bumpy enough that the final field probably won't look like this, but there's a lot of returning talent from last year, and the top squads have reloaded quickly.
Eleven of the 30 conferences with automatic bids send more than one team to a regional. The usual suspects lead the charge, with the SEC (eight), Pac-10 (seven), ACC (six) and Big 12 (six) each in the running to send at least a half-dozen teams to the postseason. The Big East and Sun Belt seem poised to send three teams to a regional for the second straight year, while Conference USA and the Big West should pick up a third bid after only nabbing two last season. For the three conferences slated for two bids, there's one clear leader and one bubble team: Coastal Carolina (Big South), TCU (Mountain West) and College of Charleston (Southern) should be locks to make the field, but Liberty, San Diego State and Western Carolina could be on the wrong side of the bubble if they don't secure automatic bids.
Darryl Dennis/Icon SMIDanny Hultzen and the Cavs are focused on getting to Omaha this season.
Connecticut has the talent to earn a national seed, but the Huskies are in uncharted territory. Last year's great northern hope was Ohio State, and the Buckeyes failed to qualify for the Big Ten tournament after starting the year in the Top 25. UConn needs to overcome a tough early-season trip to California and a bull's-eye on its back during Big East play; that will make the Huskies stronger for postseason play but could cost them some wins and a top spot.
The order of finish for the SEC is always tough to determine, especially considering how quickly a strong recruiting class can pay dividends. Odds are that the eight teams that reach the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., will still be playing in June, but at this point it's hard to count any of the 12 teams out. The top three teams coming into the season are all in the Eastern Division, and it's unlikely that three teams from the same division would all earn national seeds -- much like the early part of the season last year, South Carolina draws the short straw.
The top half of the ACC seems more clear-cut, with Virginia, Florida State and Clemson jockeying for a national seed. Danny Hultzen and six returning hitters give Virginia an early advantage, but the Seminoles and Tigers aren't far behind. At least one of those teams should earn a top-eight spot, with the other two battling for the final spot with the SEC third-place team, the Big 12 second-place team and Connecticut.
The biggest issues for the Pac-10 could be the depth of the conference and Arizona State's postseason ban. The Sun Devils should still pile up wins this year, and every conference win is a lost opportunity for the other Pac-10 schools. The conference won't match its eight bids from last season; seven bids seems most likely, but if ASU sweeps any of the middle-of-the-pack teams, six bids is a possibility.
Three and a half months of action on the field before the NCAA tournament field is announced. Let the games begin!
Jeremy Mills is a researcher for ESPN and is a contributor to ESPN.com's college baseball coverage.
The Pokes have been unable to muster much of anything against Tigers starter Casey Harman, who allowed only one hit in the first five innings. The left-handed sophomore from South Burlington, Vt., has retired eight straight hitters and allowed only Neil Medchill's single in the first. Harman has struck out six batters and walked two.
The Tigers have had a couple of chances to score against Pokes starter Andrew Oliver, but lined into double plays in both the fourth and fifth innings. Oliver has allowed only three hits and struck out four in the first five innings.
If Alcorn gives his coach a thumbs-up, Bragga knows his pitcher's back is holding up.
Ever since Alcorn missed most of two seasons because of a degenerative back condition, Bragga isn't sure how long the senior can last on the mound.
In Saturday's elimination game of the Clemson Region, Bragga didn't have to worry about Alcorn's endurance. Alcorn threw the third complete game of his career, limiting No. 2 seed Alabama to nine hits in a 6-2 victory at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
The Golden Eagles won an NCAA tournament game for only the third time in school history and the first since 2001.
Tennessee Tech advanced to another elimination game Sunday, when it will play the loser of Saturday night's game between top seed Clemson and No. 3 seed Oklahoma State.
"I wanted to stay in there," said Alcorn, who threw 129 pitches, including 78 strikes. "I wanted to stay in there until Coach Bragga took me out. If I start something, I like to finish it."
Growing up near the Tennessee Tech campus in Cookeville, Tenn., Alcorn wanted nothing more than to pitch for the Golden Eagles. After a standout career at Cookeville High School, Alcorn realized that dream when he signed to play at Tech in 2005.
With his lively fastball and good command, Alcorn was going to be the pitcher who would become the centerpiece of Bragga's young program.
But after a promising start as a freshman in 2005, Alcorn's career nearly ended as soon as it started.
After starting only two games as a sophomore in 2006, doctors diagnosed Alcorn with two broken vertebrae in his back. He tried rehabilitation and returned to the mound, only to break a third vertebrae shortly thereafter.
After only six starts at Tennessee Tech, doctors advised Alcorn to retire from baseball.
So that's what he did.
"It was tough," Alcorn said. "It was probably the toughest thing I ever had to do."
But Alcorn probably didn't realize how tough he really is.
After Alcorn sat out the 2007 season, Bragga was close to making his pitcher's retirement official by declaring him medically unable to perform. Alcorn would keep his academic scholarship, but could no longer pitch for the Golden Eagles.
But with his back feeling better, Alcorn told Bragga he wanted to give it one more shot. He pitched in 14 games last season, compiling a 7-5 record with a 4.64 ERA.
Alcorn battled back problems again this season, but still managed to start eight games, compiling a 2-3 record with a 5.91 ERA.
In what might have been his last college start, Alcorn turned in the best performance of his life. He allowed one run in the second and one more in the seventh. At one point, he retired eight consecutive hitters and held the Tide's powerful lineup without a hit in four innings.
"He just did a good job of keeping the ball down and away," Alabama second baseman Ross Wilson said. "He really didn't miss on anyone. He'd throw the curveball and make you respect it. When a guy's keeping you off-balance like that, it's hard to hit."
Alcorn doesn't have overpowering stuff anymore. He says his fastball tops out at about 88 mph. After his back injury, he focused more on mechanics and pitching, rather than just throwing.
"I think the injury was a blessing in disguise," Alcorn said. "I don't think I would have been able to accomplish this if I didn't quit the first time. It would have gotten worse, and I wouldn't have been here today."
And without Alcorn, the Golden Eagles wouldn't be preparing for tomorrow.
The Tigers, who rallied for two runs in the ninth inning of Friday night's 5-4 victory over Tennessee Tech, have hosted either a regional or super regional eight times since the NCAA expanded its baseball tournament in 1999. Clemson came away as the winner in each of those previous home postseason appearances.
In fact, Clemson has won 16 consecutive home games in an NCAA regional.
The Tigers are sending left-handed pitcher Casey Harman (7-3, 3.86 ERA) to the mound. Harman, a sophomore from South Burlington, Vt., has outstanding control. He has walked only 12 batters in 74 2/3 innings and his 6.4 strikeout-walk ratio ranks second in school history. The Tigers are 9-2 in his 11 starts this season.
The Pokes are going with left-handed junior Andrew Oliver (5-6, 5.58 ERA), who was roughed up in his last start. Oliver got a no-decision in OSU's 9-8 loss at Texas Tech on May 15, allowing eight runs and seven hits in 2 1/3 innings.
Here are the lineups for Game 4 of the Clemson Region:
DH Chris Epps
2B Mike Freeman
LF Jeff Schaus
1B Ben Paulsen
RF Kyle Parker
CF Wilson Boyd
3B Jason Stolz
SS Brad Miller
C Phil Pohl
LHP Casey Harman
Oklahoma State (33-22)
CF Micheal Dabbs
3B Tryone Hambly
LF Neil Medchill
C Kevin David
SS Tom Belza
DH Mark Ginther
2B Davis Duren
RF Doug Kroll
1B Dean Green
LHP Andrew Oliver
The Golden Eagles (31-23-1), who nearly beat top seed Clemson Friday night, advanced to play in another elimination game Sunday, when they'll face the loser of Saturday night's game between the Tigers and No. 3 seed Oklahoma State.
Tennessee Tech senior Michael Alcorn, whose college career was nearly derailed by back injuries, threw his second complete game in his past three starts. Alcorn, a home-grown product from Cookeville, Tenn., allowed two runs and nine hits to record the third complete game of his career. He threw 129 pitches, including 78 strikes.
Tech center fielder Chad Oberacker went 3-for-4, and second baseman Chad Hayes went 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
It was Tennessee Tech's third victory in the NCAA tournament and first since a 9-7 win over Wake Forest in the 2001 Knoxville Region.
Then a costly error by Alabama pitcher Adam Morgan put the Golden Eagles back in front 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh of an elimination game of the Clemson Region.
With Tennessee Tech leading 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, left fielder Alex Henry led off with a double. Center fielder Chad Oberacker tried to move Henry over with a bunt, but Morgan fielded it and threw wildly to third, allowing Henry to score for a 4-2 lead.
Alabama had an opportunity to tie the score in the top of the seventh. With two outs, Tide designated hitter David Howell hit a hard liner to second. Golden Eagles second baseman Chad Hayes couldn't handle it, and Brandon May tried to score from second. Hayes threw perfectly to catcher Cory Wright, who tagged out May at the plate.
The Tide cut Tennessee Tech's lead to 3-2 on catcher Vin DiFazio's RBI single to left in the seventh.
Alabama had three hits in the inning, after getting only one in the previous four innings.
The Golden Eagles scored two runs in the second on second baseman Chad Hayes' RBI-single up the middle. Third baseman Evan Webb led off the second with a single, and then moved to third on catcher Cory Wright's double to left. Both players scored on Hayes' hard grounder past second.
Tennessee Tech starter Michael Alcorn has been pretty sharp through three innings, allowing only three singles to start the second.
The No. 2-seeded Crimson Tide opened the second with three straight singles, including first baseman Clay Jones' run-scoring hit to right.
Alabama might have done more damage, but designated hitter Del Howell bounced into a double play to end the threat. Howell, who is also a starting pitcher for the Tide, was sidelined for much of the season because of mono. He had appeared at the plate only once since April 15, drawing a bases-loaded walk in a 9-6 loss to LSU in last week's SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala.
The Crimson Tide, who fell to No. 3 seed Oklahoma State 10-6 on Friday, are 11-7 in NCAA tournament elimination games under coach Jim Wells. The Golden Eagles, who lost 5-4 after Clemson scored twice in the ninth inning on Friday night, are 1-2 in elimination games.
The Tide is starting left-handed pitcher Adam Morgan (4-1, 3.61 ERA), who has won one of his past seven starts. He was the winning pitcher in Alabama's 13-3 victory at Auburn on May 16, allowing five hits and three runs in seven innings. Before that game, his previous win was an 11-5 victory over Georgia on March 14.
The Golden Eagles are going with right-handed pitcher Michael Alcorn (2-3, 5.91), who allowed four runs in each of his past four starts.
Here are the lineups for Game 3 of the Clemson Region:
LF Taylor Dugas
SS Josh Rutledge
2B Ross Wilson
RF Kent Matthes
3B Brandon May
1B Clay Jones
C Vin DiFazio
DH Del Howell
CF Alex Kubal
LHP Adam Morgan
Tennessee Tech (30-23-1)
LF Alex Henry
CF Chad Oberacker
1B A.J. Kirby-Jones
RF Ben Burgess
3B Evan Webb
DH Brandon Crossman
C Cory Wright
2B Chad Hayes
SS Heath Cheverton
RHP Michael Alcorn
"At that point, we were just trying to tie the score up," Leggett said. "We'd been trying to tie it for five innings. It was getting a little frustrating."
But Schaus did more than that, hitting a two-run double down the right-field line with one out to lead the Tigers to a 5-4 victory over the upstart Golden Eagles in an opening-round game of the Clemson Regional at Doug Kingsmore Stadium.
Schaus, a sophomore from Naples, Fla., smashed reliever Lee Henry's 1-1 pitch over the first base bag and into the right-field corner. Pinch hitter Addison Johnson, who led off the ninth with a single to left, scored from second base to tie the score at 4. Designated hitter Chris Epps, who had reached on a bunt single past the mound, scored the winning run from first.
"I knew [Henry] was throwing sliders to a lot of guys," Schaus said. "I was just looking for a ball up in the zone. He kind of hung one, and I was able to get enough on it to get it past the first baseman."
The Tigers seemed to do just enough to stay close to Tennessee Tech for much of the game before finally getting it done in the ninth.
Clemson advanced to play No. 3 seed Oklahoma State on Saturday night. The Cowboys were a 10-6 winner over No. 2 seed Alabama in Friday's earlier game.
The No. 4-seeded Golden Eagles and Crimson Tide will play in an elimination game Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
"I knew it was going to be a tough game," Leggett said. "We haven't had an easy opening game in the [NCAA] tournament since -- maybe ever. It was the kind of game I expected. I just thought we were a little rusty the first four innings. We weren't sharp in any facet of the game."
Clemson trailed 4-1 going into the bottom of the fifth, after the Golden Eagles scored two runs off a wild pitch and an error by the Tigers. Schaus hit a solo homer in the fifth to pull the Tigers back within a 4-3 deficit.
"It was a little too close, but it's definitely nice to get the win," said Schaus, who went 2-for-5 with three RBIs. "Going into the losers' bracket would have been tough."
Clemson improved to 16-0 in NCAA regional games played at Kingsmore Stadium.
"It's exciting to win in the ninth," Leggett said. "Hopefully, we'll get some momentum for tomorrow."
Tennessee Tech might not have much left in terms of starting pitching. Golden Eagles coach Matt Bragga gambled in trying to win Friday night's game, using his two best pitchers against the Tigers. Left-handed starter Ryan Dennick saddled the Tigers for much of the game, giving up only five hits and three runs in seven innings. Henry, who was 9-2 with a 2.96 ERA coming into the game, went the rest of the way, allowing three hits and two runs in 1 1/3 innings.
Clemson reliever Graham Stoneburner (7-3), who allowed only two hits over the last 4 2/3 innings, earned the victory.
"We were playing with fire, putting so many leadoff batters on," Bragga said.
And in the ninth, Clemson's hitters finally made the Golden Eagles pay for their mistakes.
"It was frustrating for a while," Leggett said. "We could have taken a different path to the end of the game, but our kids did a good job of staying focused."