The Virginia baseball team is back in the NCAA Tournament.
The Cavaliers celebrated their return to the event Monday following the selection show, but their attention quickly shifted to the Columbia Regional. UVa, which started ACC play 4-12 before a strong finish, will put its hot streak on the line against three other teams for a spot in the Super Regionals.
“I’m so proud of them and what they’ve accomplished to this point,” UVa head coach Brian O’Connor said. “That said, we have an incredible opportunity in front of us.”
To make Super Regionals, the Cavaliers will need to navigate past a seeded in-state foe, a No. 2 seed that’s hosting and a No. 4 seed playing with house money.
Here’s a closer look at the four teams in the Columbia Regional.
Seeded but not hosting, the Monarchs are dangerous. They’ve won seven games in a row, including three against a top-20 Louisiana Tech team. Not only is Old Dominion hot, it’s shown the potential to make it to Omaha throughout the entire spring.
Old Dominion earned the top seed in the Columbia Regional with a strong body of work, including an 8-4 record against Louisiana Tech, Charlotte and East Carolina this season. All three teams were in D1Baseball.com’s latest top 25, which was released on May 23. ECU earned a top 16 seed, and the Pirates will host a regional this weekend.
“What can you say?” head coach Chris Finwood said on the latest edition of the Extra Finnings podcast. “It’s the first time ever for being a one seed for our baseball program, and that’s neat. That’s unprecedented.”
The Monarchs typically win games with the long ball. They’ve hit an NCAA-leading 101 home runs this season, and seven players have at least eight homers.
Senior outfielder Kyle Battle leads ODU with 18 home runs. Junior Andy Garriola leads the Monarchs with 72 RBI, and he’s smacked 14 home runs of his own.
While power hitting makes the Monarchs go, the team’s pitching isn’t anything to take lightly. The team’s ERA of 4.31 is solid, and junior starting pitcher Hunter Gregory has shown good form this spring. He sports a 2.84 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 73 innings. He’ll pitch Friday against Jacksonville, according to Finwood.
“He’s good, and it’ll be a good showcase for him, there will be a lot of scouts there,” Finwood said. “He’ll be excited and ready to go.”
Freshman left-handed pitcher Noah Dean is a unique matchup late in games, having recorded a team-high eight saves. His strikeout total sits at 42 despite only pitching 19 1/3 innings. Junior lefty Jason Hartline gives ODU a reliable option out of the bullpen. He boasts an ERA of 1.62 across 44 1/3 innings of relief.
Unlike Old Dominion, UVa and Jacksonville, the Gamecocks don’t enter the Regional on a hot streak, but they’ve been battle-tested all spring. They’ve played a challenging schedule, which is part of the reason why they went 7-8 in May.
Home-field advantage also gives South Carolina an edge this weekend. The team is 22-8 at home this season compared to an 11-13 record in games not played in Founders Park.
“It’s absolutely huge,” junior relief pitcher Brett Kerry told media Monday. “There’s no better place to play in the country than Founders, especially when you’re the home team.”
Offensively, the team doesn’t have anyone batting over .290, but a few guys possess plenty of power. Wes Clarke is a name to watch. The powerful junior leads the team with 22 home runs and 53 RBI. His slugging percentage sits at a lofty .667. Some teams opt to pitch around Clarke, as he leads South Carolina with 49 walks.
On the mound, the Gamecocks have decent depth. Thomas Farr and Brannon Jordan are reliable starters who have both started 14 games this spring. Each guy averages more than a strikeout per inning. Kerry and Will Sanders have both tossed over 50 innings out of the bullpen, combining for an 11-4 record and both posting ERAs below 4.00.
The Cavaliers come into the Columbia Regional playing their best baseball of the season.
UVa is 18-10 since April 1 and 7-2 since May 14, when the team returned from 10 days off for final exams.
“They’re playing as good as anybody in the country right now,” Finwood said.
Senior left-handed pitcher Andrew Abbott has been exceptional on the mound, not allowing an earned run in any of his last four starts. He’s struck out 44 batters across 27 1/3 innings in those outings, and he’s the team’s likely Friday starter against South Carolina.
Offensively, the team has scored at least five runs in 20 of its 28 games since the beginning of April. The group reached double-digit scoring in four of those games, including an 18-run outburst in a win over Virginia Tech and a 14-run showing against a Notre Dame team that’s hosting a regional this weekend.
UVa believes it is plenty good enough to advance out of the regional, and the team feels it can make a run to the College World Series if it continues playing like it has in recent weeks.
The Dolphins won three of their 18 regular-season conference games. They proceeded to win five games, including four in a row, to win the ASun Tournament and earn an automatic berth into the field.
Jacksonville making the NCAA Tournament comes as a surprise, and the team’s stats aren’t impressive after the team went just 16-32 in the regular season. The Dolphins’ team ERA sits at a lofty 6.29, and the team doesn’t showcase a ton of power. They’ve allowed 50 home runs and only hit 21 of their own.
So how did Jacksonville beat Liberty, which earned an at-large bid into the tournament, twice in the ASun Tournament? The pitching stepped up.
Redshirt senior Tyler Santana threw eight innings in a 2-1 win over Liberty on May 27. He allowed just one unearned run in the victory.
In the title game, sophomore Mason Adams delivered a gem. He tossed 6 2/3 innings and allowed just one run in the team’s 7-3 victory over the Flames. Prior to the start, Adams had allowed 11 earned runs in his last 3 1/3 innings.
The Dolphins are the underdog of the Regional, and they’re hoping to keep a surprising and impressive run alive.