After falling one game short of playing for the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City, the No. 2 national seed Texas Longhorns begin the Austin Regional at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Friday with the opportunity to make the College World Series without leaving the Forty Acres.
Landing such a high national seed also means more advantages than just hosting the Super Regional if the Longhorns advance — Texas has a favorable path towards winning the Austin Regional, too.
Even though Fairfield the regional with the top staff ERA and top WHIP in the country, the quality of the pitching in the regional will not approach what Texas faced in Oklahoma City when the Longhorns struggled with strikeout issues. In fact, it won’t even be close.
Arizona State and Southern both struggle on the mound and Fairfield, despite the impressive stats, doesn’t have the same type of power arms that led to the strikeout issues in the Big 12 Tournament. The Longhorns won’t face a pitcher with the unique combination of height and release point that defined the struggles against Jackson Wolf.
With the standards set by Texas this season, the expectation is that the Longhorns are the best team in the Austin Regional by a comfortable margin. But baseball can be a brutal and unpredictable sport and there’s a reason they play the games on the field and not on paper, right?
So let’s take a look at the field Texas will face over the coming days.
The Sun Devils enter the Austin Regional at 32-20 overall with a 16-14 Pac-12 record and a fifth-place finish in the conference standings. It’s a program that has faced some adversity this season losing all three weekend starters to injury and also features a ton of youth — 66.3 of its total at bats have come from freshmen. Despite those challenges, Arizona State managed to earn an at-large bid thanks to series wins in five of the last six weekend matchups.
With the injuries to the starting rotation, the Sun Devils have relied heavily on an offense that ranks in the top 50 nationally in batting average (.287), total hits (514), doubles (107), and slugging percentage (.458).
Right fielder Ethan Long leads the way with a .340 batting average, 16 home runs, 53 RBI, and a 1.133 OPS. His .725 slugging percentage led the Pac-12.
The second game of the regional features strength on strength — Arizona State’s strong bats against the extremely effective Fairfield pitching staff.
The Stags were one of the most remarkable stories in college baseball this season, starting the 2021 campaign with a 28-game winning streak and setting records along the way. The .925 winning percentage is the best in NCAA Division I baseball history to earn the program’s first-ever national rankings from Baseball America and College Baseball News. In the RPI, Fairfield ranks third nationally.
So why are the Stags the No. 3 seed in the Austin Regional facing the No. 2 national seed?
WarrenNolan.com ranked the Fairfield strength of schedule at No. 131 this season and the season didn’t end as planned — two of the three losses for Fairfield came in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship, including a loss to Rider in the finals.
Led by the pitching staff, the Stags have largely overwhelmed opponents, hitting .305 with an .895 OPS and holding the competition to a .210 batting average. Impressive stuff.
For a program that didn’t face a Power Five opponent all season, the question is whether Fairfield can maintain its success against programs like Arizona State and, potentially, Texas.
If the NCAA selection committee did its job, Southern should be the second-worst team in the tournament and there’s no question that the Jaguars needed some late success to make it into the field — Southern ranks No. 265 in the RPI with a 20-28 record, including 5-21. Only a win in the SWAC Tournament earned Southern the automatic bid.
From one perspective, that means Southern is playing its best baseball of the season with wins in five of the last six games. From a more sober perspective, it means that the Jaguars are still a team that hit .251 this season and only have five regular starters among their position players. The pitching staff any more impressive with a 6.71 staff ERA that has allowed opponents to hit .295. No regular starter has an ERA below 5.86.
Even a single win in the Austin Regional would be a significant upset.
NCAA Austin Regional schedule
Friday, June 4
Game 1: #1 Texas vs. #4 Southern – 1 p.m., Longhorn Network
Game 2: #2 Arizona State vs. #3 Fairfield – 6 p.m., ESPN3
Saturday, June 5
Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 – 1 p.m.
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2 – 6 p.m.
Sunday, June 6
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4 – 1 p.m.
Game 6: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4 – 7 p.m.
Monday, June 7
Game 7 (if necessary): same teams as Game 6 – 3 p.m. (subject to change)
Since Texas has one of the best pitching staffs in the country, the odds of Arizona State getting hot enough to win the regional seem remote barring a complete meltdown by the Longhorns. So the success by Fairfield this season likely makes them the most dangerous team in the regional — despite the missteps in the MAAC Tournament, this Stags team should come to Austin with plenty of confidence and enough balance to compete.
But, once again, the path is clear to the College World Series with Texas set to benefit from 100-percent capacity at the Disch for the program’s first postseason in three years. David Pierce’s group earned that clear path and now it’s just about taking advantage of it.