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Less than three weeks from the 2013 NCAA tournament bracket release, I'd rank the eight national seeds like this: North Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU, Cal State Fullerton, Virginia, Oregon, Oregon State, Florida State.
The Tar Heels and Commodores are probably interchangeable at the top, with the Tigers right behind them. The Titans have proven they can pitch with anybody and have an impressive nonconference series win against Oregon.
I put the Cavaliers No. 5, because I believe in their arms and their sweep of FSU is more impressive than anything subsequent teams have accomplished; if they beat UNC to finish their regular season, I'd consider the Cavs ahead of Fullerton.
Oregon gets the nod over Oregon State for now -- the Ducks have also beaten the Beavers once already -- but OSU will have its opportunity to leap its in-state rival by beating Stanford this weekend and the Ducks one week from now. FSU can pitch and score some runs, but I'm a little unimpressed with its overall body of work. The Seminoles don't have the chance to beat No. 1 UNC, so their final series against NC State and Clemson are necessary to juice their profile; if the Wolfpack beat FSU this weekend, I might be compelled to give them the eighth national seed.
Any issues? Feel free to air them out. Now that we have our order, let's take a quick look at the biggest question facing each national seed in the final weeks of the regular season.
Question: How will Skye Bolt return from his broken foot?
The Tar Heels are the most complete team in the country. They rank third in the nation in ERA (2.28), fourth in slugging percentage (.476), second in on-base percentage (.424) and first in runs per game (8.8). They have experience in their rotation, depth in the bullpen, flexibility in their lineup. They don't need anything.
But Bolt, a freshman outfielder and switch-hitter, was one of UNC's best hitters before fouling a ball off his right foot on April 12 and breaking a bone. In 34 games, he hit .392/.509/.648 with six homers and 28 walks compared to 12 strikeouts. He's 6 feet, 2 inches of lighting at the plate.
"He's very dynamic and has bat speed from both sides of the plate," Scott Jackson, UNC's hitting coach, said. "And he's mentally advanced -- he's very disciplined with the strike zone."
Bolt will get another round of X-rays on May 13, and UNC is hoping to get him back in the lineup by next weekend for the regular-season finale against Virginia. Will those three games plus the ACC tournament (and possibly a midweek game) be enough for him to get his rhythm and timing? Will he roll out and automatically hit like he did to begin his college career? This isn't a matter of a good team plugging a hole; it's simply a question of whether the rich get another All-American hitter for a potential College World Series run.
Question: Will Tyler Beede finish his breakout season strong?
The Commodores rank seventh in the nation in ERA (2.55), sixth in OBP (.412) and 20th in slugging (.449). If you argued they are better than UNC, there'd be a few counters; if you say Vandy is just as balanced as UNC, there'd be no complaint here. Tim Corbin's club does everything well.
With Kevin Ziomek and Beede, Vanderbilt has two starting pitchers who can match up with anybody. Ziomek has a 2.03 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 88 2/3 innings, while Beede has a 1.73 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 78 innings along with that shiny 12-0 record.
Beede, a 6-4, 215-pound sophomore right-hander, has emerged this season as a potential top-five pick in the 2014 MLB draft, and if he continues his success through the postseason, he and Ziomek could easily pitch Vanderbilt to a College World Series title. The one concern with Beede: his 44 walks. With a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a hammer breaking ball, there's no need for him to blindly feel around the corners. Beede's talent is enough. When he trusts it, he tends to win.
Question: Can the Tigers keep up their crooked numbers?
Not many teams get into pitching duels with LSU and come out clean. Not with Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades and Cody Glenn and a Chris Cotton-led bullpen. The trouble for opponents is that LSU can just as easily slug its way to a win.
The Tigers have cracked double digits 11 times this season -- the latest being an 18-6 assault on Florida last Saturday -- and rank in the top 25 nationally in both OBP (.395) and slugging (.442). Alex Bregman, hitting .401/.449/.604 with five homers and 13 doubles, has been a star in his freshman season in Baton Rouge. Mason Katz, with 13 homers and a .672 slugging percentage, has consistently delivered damage in the middle of LSU's order.
If the Tigers are hanging 7s, 8s and 9s on the scoreboard come tournament time, it's possible they don't lose a game until Omaha (and maybe not even then). But as we saw in LSU's super regional loss to Stony Brook last season, even the most talented of clubs can be befuddled by some mid-80s hurler with movement and deception. I don't see that happening this season, because this LSU team is deeper across the board, and that's the Tigers' strength.
"I'm not sure we have the best pitching team or best hitting team or best defensive team," head coach Paul Mainieri said. "But we do all three at a pretty high level."
Question: Will the Titans hit enough?
Here's what Cal State Fullerton does perhaps better than anyone: Throw strikes. The Titans lead the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.58, because they philosophically despise falling behind in counts and dispersing free bags.
Thomas Eshelman has a 1.51 ERA with 56 strikeouts and two walks. Justin Garza has a 2.25 ERA with 67 strikeouts and 13 walks. Grahamm Wiest has a 2.56 ERA with 70 strikeouts and 10 walks. Those are the three starters you'll see in a postseason series, and because the Titans' pitching staff as a whole is so good, they're comfortable grinding out low-scoring games. So it's not really a coincidence that Fullerton's offensive approach is a patient one, a style dictated by the evening and the opposing pitcher.
"Pitchers make mistakes a lot," head coach Rick Vanderhook said. "If a guy makes his pitch on the outside corner, so what? He's going to miss, and when he does it's going to be fat. So don't go chasing."
But there figures to be a game this postseason in which Fullerton needs to be an aggressor, needs to go hunting for some runs. Vanderhook doesn't preach passivity, but the line between that and discipline is too thin to be measured by the naked eye. The Titans get on base at a decent rate (.386) but rank 67th in slugging (.401). Michael Lorenzen is a power threat, but does anyone qualify as real danger? Fullerton will need to have a few more bats produce regularly, in the event a pitching staff that has carried the club all season needs the favor returned.
Question: How far can the Cavs ride their youth?
We have seen the true brilliance of Brian O'Connor this season in Charlottesville. Players come, players go and Virginia baseball keeps humming along. That's the way it's been in O'Connor's time at Virginia. There's a consistency in culture that fosters a consistency in on-field performance.
"It starts with the recruiting process," O'Connor told me earlier this spring. "So the guys who decide to come here know what it's going to be like, the expectations, how we coach, what's important for us to have a successful program."
There are six Cavaliers hitting .300 or better this season: five sophomores (Mike Papi, Branden Cogswell, Nick Howard, Brandon Downes, Derek Fisher) and one freshman (Joe McCarthy). Howard also leads Virginia starting pitchers with a 3.18 ERA, followed by redshirt senior Scott Silverstein (3.32) and freshman Brandon Waddell (3.98).
Virginia's youth hasn't been much of an impediment on the way to a 39-8 record, but there's one small sign of a young team: Seven of Virginia's eight losses have come in conference play, and it has dropped two of its four road ACC series (at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech). That's not exactly an indictment of the Cavs, but merely an observation. They've lost only three games at home -- ACC games to Miami and Maryland, and a midweek contest to Radford -- and have earned the right to play in Charlottesville until the College World Series. I don't anticipate this team heavy on underclassmen losing because of inexperience, but it is one question other elite teams don't have to answer.
Question: Will the pitchers have to do it all?
What do Houston Baptist, Sacramento State and Grambling all have in common? They score more runs per game than the Ducks. In fact, 133 teams in the country score more runs per game than Oregon's 5.3. This isn't really a surprise, as George Horton's current club feels like a light version of Horton's old club, Cal State Fullerton.
The Ducks rank in the top 20 in ERA (2.78) and will pitch their way through the NCAA tournament if they are to go on a run. Tommy Thorpe (2.74 ERA), Cole Irvin (2.93) and Jake Reed (3.27) make up a rotation plenty good enough to get to Omaha.
But, like Fullerton, what happens when the Ducks inevitably run into good lineups and need to match runs for a few innings? Are they capable of that? Individually, Oregon has some good hitters. Ryon Healy is hitting .342/.419/.583 with 10 homers and 15 doubles. Brett Thomas and Scott Heineman have combined for 28 doubles. There is some pop here. Is there enough on the whole, though?
One thing Horton mentioned about his club in a phone conversation was its toughness and off-field discipline, and he believes that -- along with the experience of losing at home in the super regionals last season -- will make a difference for the Ducks this spring.
Question: What will Michael Conforto do?
No team relies entirely on one man, but the Beavers need Conforto to rake if they're getting to the College World Series.
Oregon State is a troubled offensive club, ranking 93rd in runs per game (5.7). Its .375 OBP is workable if not spectacular, but its .380 slugging percentage is far below average. If there's ever a team that has to "manufacture" runs, it is the Beavers, which makes cashing in scoring opportunities even more critical.
It's easy to look at Conforto's season and feel a bit disappointed, because the preseason expectations for the sophomore outfielder were so high. It's unfair and unrealistic to call a .327/.442/.500 season with seven homers a down year. But Conforto has the talent to be one of the best hitters in college baseball, and he left a little on the table -- statistically, anyway -- this season. The Beavers can pitch for days, but if they're heading to Omaha, they need a big postseason from Conforto.
Question: Wait a second: Is FSU relying on its arms?
These are something like the bizarre Seminoles. Sure, they still can hit, ranking in the top 30 in slugging percentage (.427) and top 10 in on-base percentage (.415). If the sun rises in Tallahassee, so too will the offense.
But we have become accustomed to Florida State teams that bludgeon opponents, particularly at home at Dick Howser Stadium. I don't think that's the kind of club Mike Martin has this season. FSU's home ballpark tends to inflate offensive numbers, yet the Seminoles have only three players slugging better than .500 (DJ Stewart, Marcus Davis, Stephen McGee) and barely crack the top 70 nationally in home runs (25).
The strength of FSU this season is in starting pitching and bullpen depth. Scott Sitz is putting the final touches on an All-American season, with a 1.41 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. Sophomore right-hander Luke Weaver has been exceptional, with a 1.98 ERA and 74 strikeouts (13 walks) in 63 2/3 innings. Robby Coles misses bats out of the bullpen. Gage Smith leads FSU with 27 appearances and has brought command and reliability in relief. The Seminoles are deep, and for once, their offense may be a secondary story this postseason.
Today in Omaha: High of 70 degrees, scattered showers and thunderstorms, 37 days until CWS Game 1.