(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
Friday marks the commencement of regional play across the country. Arizona State will be playing in the regional hosted by Cal State Fullerton for the second time in three years in the quest to make the College World Series for the first time since 2010.
The Sun Devils are looking for revenge in Fullerton after losing the regional there in 2013. ASU will face stiff competition from more than just the Titans, as Clemson and Pepperdine are the other two teams that make up what is considered one of the toughest regionals in the country.
No. 1 Cal State Fullerton Titans (34-22, 19-5 in Big West)
Despite the strength of the quartet of the teams in the regional, Fullerton might be the weakest among the 16 No. 1 teams. Their inclusion among the exclusive group was questioned by many after an impressive but up and down season.
They struggled with a difficult non-conference schedule, winning seven straight over Baylor and Texas Tech but also going through a 2-7 slide. They did well in the tough Big West to earn an automatic bid into the tournament.
The loss of starting pitcher Justin Garza (3.05 ERA in 12 starts) to Tommy John surgery looms large for the Titans chances, as they will have to rely on a pair of freshmen who lack big game experience despite having good seasons.
John Gavin, who served as the Saturday starter after the injury to Garza, and Connor Seabold, who made eight starts over the course of the season, will be counted on to fill Garza’s void.
They will follow right-hander Thomas Eshelman, who has as good of command as any starting pitcher in the country. The junior walked just six batters over 114 and 1/3 innings, unheard of at any level of baseball. He also threw five complete games and posted just a 1.57 ERA. It is safe to say Eshelman was one of the big reasons why the Titans came away with a No. 1 seed.
With the pitching staff not as strong as it normally is, an offense that hit just .267 with 18 home runs will have to carry the load. Davi Olmedo-Barrera leads the Titans in a plethora of offensive categories, including runs (37), home runs (8) and RBI (39). Justin Vargas is a formidable leadoff hitter and Josh Estill has some pop in his bat, but outside of that, the Titans don’t have much to show for at the plate. They will need to get contributions from outside of their primary hitters to do damage in the regional.
No. 2 Arizona State Sun Devils (34-21, 18-12 in Pac-12)
In an expected rebuilding year under first year head coach Tracy Smith, ASU rode a hot start to begin their march to regain national prominence. The Sun Devils played nearly every game down to the wire, which worked in their favor early in the season but flipped the other way as the season concluded.
The Sun Devils went 4-5 against No. 1 seeds in the 2015 tournament, but proved they could play with anyone in the process. Their series losses to TCU and UCLA both came at home, but featured at least one game that could have went either way, so ASU was one clutch hit or pitch away from winning both series.
Pitching was expected to be the strong suit for the Sun Devils, but instead it was the offense, which featured all nine regular starters hitting above .284. Colby Woodmansee, Brian Serven, Johnny Sewald and Trever Allen were among six Sun Devils named to the All-Pac-12 team, while three other hitters were named as honorable mentions.
Sewald has been the table setter at the top of the lineup, while Woodmansee and Serven have bounced back from rough seasons to form a fearsome tandem in the middle of the order. Allen provides senior leadership and consistent hitting, leading the team with a .345 batting average.
Perhaps the most crucial hitter for ASU has been David Greer, who wasn’t expected to have much of a role, but benefitted from a Dalton Dinatale injury early in the season and took over his starting job for good. Greer was among the Pac-12 leaders in batting average for most of the season, but hit a cold stretch at the end of the season. Nevertheless, he still hit .328, good for third on the team.
While the starting pitching did not live up to the hype, it was not considered a weakness. An early season rotation change put Seth Martinez in the rotation, and he was quickly moved into the Friday starter role after Brett Lilek struggled. However, Lilek picked it up towards the tail end of the season and will be crucial in ASU’s regional success.
The one consistent presence in the rotation was Ryan Kellogg, who won eight games and delivered a 3.67 ERA. While he wasn’t always dominant, the junior left-hander kept his team in the game every start.
The bullpen was all over the place in the season, and was the cause for many of the ASU’s losses. The mainstay was closer Ryan Burr, who also earned All-Pac-12 first team honors. After a fantastic start to the season, Burr hit a rough patch, but all in all had a successful season that included him breaking the record for most saves in a Sun Devil career.
Outside of Burr, there were many questions marks. Darin Gillies appeared as a late inning option, and Eder Erives was an occasional innings eater, but the struggles of Jordan Aboites and Hever Bueno, two important relievers in the 2014, held back the ASU bullpen from reaching their full potential.
Although they did not get the No. 1 seed that some had thought they deserved, ASU is as good of a bet as anyone to win the regional.
No. 3 Clemson Tigers (32-27, 16-13 in ACC)
A prime example of a team who is better than their record shows, Clemson had to play in the always difficult ACC, which has three No. 1 seeds.
They showed they are a force to be reckoned with when they swept Florida State to close their regular season. The Tigers also beat Louisville in the ACC tournament before losing to North Carolina which resulted in their elimination.
Part of the reason why they are a No. 3 seed is due to a weak non-conference schedule. They won three of five series’ outside of the ACC.
Clemson has hit 35 home runs, 17 more than Fullerton. More than one-third of those were hit by catcher Chris Okey, who is living up to his high school potential after a disappointing freshman season. In addition to his 12 home runs, Okey also hit .320 while starting every game behind the plate.
Perhaps the best hitter in the regional is Reed Rohlman, who hit .370 this season as a freshman while starting. A pair of juniors, Tyler Krieger and Steven Duggar, provide protection to Rohlman and Okey in the order. Krieger hit .342 with 13 steals while Duggar added ten stolen bases.
If Clemson has a downfall in this tournament, it will be with their pitching staff. Much like the Titans, they have one dominant pitcher in their rotation. That guy is Matthew Crownover, who doesn’t have the impeccable command of Eshelman, but has shut down hitters left and right, which is shown by his 1.59 ERA.
Fellow junior Zack Erwin complements Crownover well, but has allowed about one hit per inning pitched this season and may not be as good as his 2.66 ERA shows.
The question mark lies within their third starter. Brady Koerner has received the most looks of any option, but his 7.55 ERA in 12 starts is far from impressive. The bullpen also has its share of question marks. No reliever has more than four saves for them, and right now it looks like Taylor Vetzel and Pat Krall are their primary late inning options.
It will be crucial for their starting pitchers to go late in the game to eliminate the looming bullpen problems.
No. 4 Pepperdine Waves (30-27, 17-10 in WCC)
The sleeper in the region are the Waves, who should not be overlooked despite a tough regular season. Pepperdine finished second in the West Coast Conference, but earned an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.
They defeated ASU in regional play last season, so the Sun Devils are looking revenge this time around.
Pepperdine struggled in non-conference games, with most of their tougher games coming against Pac-12 opponents. They went just 1-6 against USC, UCLA, and Washington and also lost to UCSB. They held their own throughout conference play and hit their stride in the conference tournament, winning three out of four games to earn an automatic bid.
The Waves are not a team that will pound out a ton of hits, but they do hit the ball out of the park with the best of them. They hit 49 home runs this season, most among the four teams in the regional. Hutton Moyer (13 HRs) and Brad Anderson (10 HRs) get most of the credit for the home run totals, but Chris Fornaci and Manny Jefferson, who have hit seven and six home runs respectively, also make strong contributions.
Moyer is the only real speed threat on the team, having stolen 13 bases on the season. However, he has been thrown out eight times as well. The Waves offense will have to deter themselves away from being the one dimensional power threat to advance in the regional.
The pitching could come to the rescue if the offense goes through a dry spell, as they may have the best overall rotation in the regional. Jackson McClelland, Ryan Wilson and A.J. Puckett make up a trio of starters that has stayed the same all season long and are hitting their stride and the perfect time.
The bullpen features closer Max Gamboa, who saved seven games, and Chandler Blanchard, who came up huge in their conference tournament. Outside of those two, the bullpen is thin for the Waves, who will need long outings from the rotation, much like ASU and Clemson.