The time has come, sports fans. The last shot at a national championship in a major sport for the 2010-11 school year has arrived for the Texas Longhorns, as they prepare to host a sub-regional for a berth in next week's super regional round. Texas did enough this season to earn the number 7 national seed, meaning they will host the winner of the Arizona State sub-regional next weekend if they are able to advance past this field of four. So here's what we'll do: this will be your Austin regional preview and your general open thread for the day's games around this great nation of ours, which you can follow at the NCAA website. Then, there will be a second open thread posted just before the first pitch to serve as the Texas-Princeton open thread this evening. Cool?
As an initial administrative note, Texas Sports will have live video of the entire Austin regional. So that's pretty awesome.
The Austin Regional:
Hopefully if you've been with us all season, you know something about Texas. The Longhorns come in as the one seed in this regional, and as such they have earned the right to open with fourth-seeded Princeton tonight at 6:30 PM CDT. We previously posited that Cole Green would get the start tonight in order to save Taylor Jungmann for the winner of Texas State-Kent State, but we were wrong; it's going to be Sam Stafford instead, thereby saving Jungmann for Saturday and, hopefully, Green for Sunday.
That move by Augie should tell you all you need to know about Princeton: namely, that the Ivy League champs should not provide much of a threat. Garrido is so confident that Texas will have the Tigers outclassed that he decided to go with Starter 3A (Hoby Milner being 3B) in the first game of the NCAA Championship Tournament, and we think it's absolutely the right thing to do. The fact is, if you can't beat Princeton with your third starter then you ain't winning the whole thing anyway. More after the jump.Why the supreme confidence? Because Princeton is 23-22. They haven't played a game since May 8. Granted: their stud freshman, Mike Ford, is clearly a great all-around ballplayer: he was 5-3 with a 4.12 ERA in 12 starts, and he was also the third-leading hitter for the Tigers at .299 for the year. And the team batting average is a very respectable .276. But the reality is that the Ivy League is just not a high-quality baseball conference and those numbers--not exactly mind-blowing anyway--are somewhat inflated. The Tigers' last game against anything even resembling a decent baseball school was a 12-8 win over Navy on March 27 after having dropped the first three to the Midshipmen. Aside from navy, the only other tournament team Princeton played was North Carolina--who stomped them 11-2 in their only meeting. They were swept by Georgetown and lost two of three at LSU; it will suffice to say that, outside the Ivy, Princeton did not have a particularly successful baseball season.
Texas should walk away with an easy win tonight; anything less is either cause for concern (if you're a pessimist) or a sign that the Longhorns are playing down to their competition (if you're an optimist).
As for today's early game, Texas State is kind of scary. The Bobcats and Longhorns are two of the seven teams from Texas to have qualified for the Tournament--and indicator of the quality of baseball being played throughout the former Great Republic. From the Texas perspective, there still isn't that much to be concerned about; assuming they dispose of Princeton, the Longhorns will have the Unstoppable Force on the hill against TSU and we see that ending well for Texas. Still, Texas State is a really good club. They dominated the Southland Conference, winning both the regular season and tournament titles. They sport a team batting average of .298 (compared to Texas' .270), which is inflated based on competition level but certainly not to the extent Princeton's is. The disadvantage the Bobcats have, though, is that in a 2 vs 3 game they are unlikely to take the risk of saving their ace. As such, the very talented Carson Smith (9-3, 1.98) will probably be burned for the weekend after starting today against Kent State.
Texas didn't exactly light up the rest of the Bobcats' pitching this season: they only managed to beat Texas State 3-1 on March 15 and 2-0 on April 26 against a pair of TSU pitching committees. That said, of course, Texas State's offense fared even more poorly against the Longhorn committees they faced in those midweek contests. They're peaking at the right time, though, so look for Texas State to be a tough out.
But don't sleep on Kent State either. Every year there are a couple of teams from the Northeast or Midwest that we Southern folk tend to write off as seed-fillers that end up scaring more established programs in the tournament, and Kent has the potential to be such a team. They shouldn't be able to sneak up on anybody; the Golden Flashes are ranked #24 in the country by Collegiate Baseball and they won the MAC for the third straight year. These guys can play some ball; or so it seems. To be honest, the collective strength of schedule among the four teams in this regional has to be the worst ever. Kent State has really played no one, and even Texas had a schedule strength problem that kept their RPI relatively low.
So it's hard to say just how impressive KSU's numbers are, but they sure look good. The winner of the Austin Regional Best Name Award and Kent State's leading hitter is Ben Klafczynski, who bats a torrid .368. He can also hit for power, with ten bombs on the season. More impressive, and more worrisome for Texas, is that the Flashes have three starting pitchers with ERAs under 2 and a closer at 2.03. Just like the Longhorns, the Flashes' ace (LHP Kyle Hallock) and closer (RHP Kyle McMillen) both earned All-American honors this week; and the KSU team ERA is sixth in the nation at 2.56. If Kent State can get past Texas State behind Hallock, Jungmann will still have a formidable opponent on the hill in either Andrew Chafin (1.90) or, more likely, David Starn (1.95).
There you have it--an interesting field for the Austin regional. If we were betting men, we'd say the pressure of being a 2 seed and having quasi-home field advantage will get to the Bobcats and they'll succumb to a great performance by the senior Hallock in the early game, and Texas will easily dispose of Princeton in the nightcap. Texas State should then send Princeton back to their ivory tower in Saturday's elimination game, while Texas wins (possibly 2-1) behind Taylor Jungmann Saturday night. From there, whichever team wins the Bobcats-Flashes rematch should have a pitching staff too depleted to beat Texas twice. But you never know.