Not-so-fun fact: The last time UVA baseball played in an NCAA regional that was 1) not in Charlottesville and 2) not in the Pacific time zone was 1996. Every UVA placement in the Brian O'Connor era has either been as a host or in California, except for the one trip to Corvallis, Oregon. Geographic constraints, I suppose. You can send three teams on short plane rides, or two teams on bus rides and one team to the opposite coast. That's how the selection committee thinks, and thus UVA is taking another trip to the desert to face three teams that could practically ride their bikes to the playground.
Last time that happened, though, things went pretty well. So we'll see. There's a semi-familiar opponent in San Diego State, last seen futilely throwing Stephen Strasburg at the Hoos' lineup. UC-Irvine isn't here, but there's another UC-Somebody in their place. And the Hoos' actual matchup is a fascinating story. Oh, and if UVA gets past the regional, they won't leave the state, and the #1 overall seed likely awaits. So the storylines are here, the teams are here, let's see what it all entails.
#1 seed - UCSB Gauchos
Record: 40-15 (16-8)
C: Campbell Wear (.195-1-21)
1B: Robby Nesovic (.344-0-39)
2B: Woody Woodward (.295-0-12)
3B: Peter Maris (.300-2-24)
SS: Clay Fisher (.247-0-18)
LF: Cameron Newell (.380-3-31)
CF: Andrew Calica (.315-1-18)
RF: Luke Swenson (.307-0-29)
DH: Paddy O'Brien (.400-2-18)
SP: Dillon Tate (8-4, 2.08, 100 Ks)
SP: Justin Jacome (7-4, 2.53, 91 Ks)
SP: Shane Bieber (8-4, 2.26, 95 Ks)
SP: Domenic Mazza (6-1, 2.69, 72 Ks)
RP: Robby Nesovic (1-0, 2.70, 13 Ks)
RP: Kyle Nelson (3-1, 0.80, 31 Ks)
RP: Connor Baits (1-0, 4.32, 11 Ks)
RP: Chris Clements (3-0, 2.16, 10 Ks)
Lineup notes: The DH position here is rotated heavily among a few different players, and substituted liberally. O'Brien is the best hitter of that otherwise not real inspiring group, but Billy Fredrick does have a very patient batting eye, with 18 walks in 72 plate appearances. Some lineup shuffling was necessary when 1B Dalton Kelly broke his leg in April.
If talking about formidable #1 seeds to try and get past, UVA could hardly have landed in a more favorable regional. UCSB is a host instead of a 2 seed somewhere because the Big West is legitimately a tough conference; the higher-RPI teams that aren't hosting are in legitimately bad conferences.
Like any 40-win team, UCSB has some high-quality bats in their lineup. Unlike most #1 seeds, it's not a murderer's row. The clear best hitter in the lineup is Cameron Newell, the Big West co-POY. Newell, along with Andrew Calica and Luke Swenson, is part of a very sure-handed outfield; Newell and Calica had zero errors this season and Calica has never committed one in his career. Calica's a very tough player to put out; he's second on the team in walks and fast on the basepaths with 14 stolen bases against only four times caught.
The top six or seven in the very flexible batting lineup (any Gaucho player might hit in almost any slot, and even Calica, who had a 37-game on-base streak to open the season, has batted as low as eighth) are generally at least solid hitters, but there are some weak points, particularly sub-Mendoza catcher Campbell Wear. There's not a lot of home run power, though - no Gaucho has more than three - so they bunt and send baserunners frequently. (Sounds like someone I remember from the last California trip.)
UCSB's real strength is on the mound. Any one of four starters could take the mound and be a major threat to shut you down. Dillon Tate is one of the country's elite pitchers and a very likely top-five pick in the upcoming MLB draft, possibly even #1. (Sounds like someone I remember from the last California trip.) Tate changes speeds on his fastball, sometimes cranking it up near 96 or 97 or dropping it as low as 91. His slider is a nasty strikeout pitch, and his well-developed changeup isn't instantly deadly but as a third pitch it's a big reason he's projected so high.
The next two guys on the list are no picnic either. Justin Jacome and Shane Bieber each pitched very deep into games this year, averaging over 7 1/3 innings per start. Jacome's control is exquisite, walking just nine batters in 111.1 innings. Fourth in line is Domenic Mazza, mostly a weekday starter and occasional reliever, but then, weekday starter doesn't mean quite the same as it does in a power conference like the ACC. Mazza beat fellow regional member USC twice this season. He'll likely give UCSB an enormous advantage on Sunday this weekend.
This is a beatable team if you can hit them. Easier said than done. On a 1-to-10 scale for chances of getting out of the regional alive, D1Baseball gave UCSB a 3. Ouch. But the Gauchos will have the advantage in any close game, particularly in, say, the sixth inning when you're starting to warm someone up and their starter is still trucking. This is an evenly-matched regional by a lot of metrics, and UCSB's bats strike fear into nobody. But it's never a bad idea to bet on the team with all the pitching.
#2 seed - USC Trojans
Record: 37-19 (18-12)
C: Garrett Stubbs (.330-1-22)
1B: Jeremy Martinez (.290-1-35)
2B: Dante Flores (.315-5-41)
3B: Blake Lacey (.295-0-34)
SS: Reggie Southall (.230-1-18)
LF: Bobby Stahel (.379-4-31)
CF: Timmy Robinson (.298-6-50)
RF: A.J. Ramirez (.268-8-39)
DH: David Oppenheim (.281-3-24)
SP: Kyle Twomey (7-2, 2.81, 65 Ks)
SP: Mitch Hart (7-3, 3.67, 48 Ks)
RP: Kyle Davis (3-2, 4.23, 43 Ks)
RP: Tyler Gilbert (4-2, 2.97, 62 Ks)
RP: Brent Wheatley (4-3, 3.68, 62 Ks)
RP: Marc Huberman (6-4, 2.37, 48 Ks)
RP: Bernardo Flores (3-1, 3.38, 44 Ks)
RP: Brooks Kriske (2-1, 2.45, 26 Ks)
Lineup notes: This is a very stable lineup with few changes day-to-day, but USC does platoon at shortstop between Southall and Angelo La Bruna. It's nothing to do with lefty-righty stuff; they're both switch-hitters. They're just both not that good, is all.
USC is a helluva story. Picture Duke, post Coach-K, perpetually finishing 10th in the conference and occasionally scraping an NIT bid as a 6-seed, for a decade, and you get an idea of what Trojan baseball has been like. After uber-legend Rod Dedeaux retired in the '80s after earning more rings than he had fingers to put them, Mike Gillespie (you see how this keeps coming back to times past?) ran the team for another 20+ years, scoring another national title in 1998. But Gillespie "retired" after missing the tournament three out of four years,** USC hired his son-in-law for whatever reason, and proceeded to disappear.
The Trojans are back, and they'll be UVA's opponent on Friday. The dominance has passed to their neighbor UCLA, the national #1 seed, but USC is one of a handful of very respectable Pac-12 teams this year, tying for third in the conference with Cal and ASU. Their lineup hits for average about as well as 1 seed UCSB, but there's more power in it. Quite a bit more. A.J. Ramirez only hits .268, but he leads the team in doubles (14) and home runs (8).
The triples leader, though, is Bobby Stahel, an interesting player to watch. He's got speed and the best bat on the Trojan team. D1Baseball's regional preview points out that he's made several web-gem diving catches in the outfield, too, and then goes on to say, "he has been in a handful of rundowns, but has been known to get caught sleeping and get doubled up on flyouts as well." Wheeee basepath adventures.
USC also sports probably the regional's best catcher, which is actually saying something as there's a lot of quality behind the plate in Lake Elsinore. Garrett Stubbs has cut down over half the baserunners trying to steal on him, an important weapon because most of the teams in this regional are pretty stealy. That includes USC most of all, as the Trojans have stolen 93 bases this year, about one and a half per game. Stubbs himself, along with Timmy Robinson, leads the way there - both have 19. He's also one of USC's only three .300 hitters and their best bunter.
The Trojans almost certainly have the regional's best bullpen (though that's partly a function of UCSB's starting rotation that renders the bullpen halfway moot.) There's a lot of pitchers they can call on in later innings. This is the likely reason they've made the interesting choice of Kyle Davis as the Friday starter against UVA - they can hold back Kyle Twomey and Mitch Hart for the later games of the weekend, and quickly yank Davis for a reliever if he gets into trouble.
This makes for a pretty good matchup for UVA in the first game, as much as a regional three seed could say that. USC's lineup is good, and if you make a mistake they'll drill it and then steal their way to scoring position, but good pitching should also be able to quiet them down. Davis allows opposing hitters to bat .297. It might be fun to let Stahel walk just to see if it's true he comes from the run-til-you're-out school of baserunning, but really, he and Stubbs are the guys you want to send back to the dugout early. USC won't pinch-hit much, if at all, so a good scouting report on the hitters they send up goes a long way. A very plausible scenario is for UVA to beat USC on Friday and then lose to Dillon Tate on Saturday, so a possible return game on Sunday with the Trojans can be made easier by jumping on Davis very early and forcing the Trojans to burn some bullpen and neutralize somewhat the huge advantage they have on UVA in that department.
**Gillespie immediately found a job managing in short-season A ball and then went right back to college coaching, so you can read "retired" as "politely kicked out for some dumb reason."
#4 seed - San Diego State Aztecs
Record: 40-21 (19-10)
C: Seby Zavala (.283-14-64)
1B: Andrew Brown (.299-1-31)
2B: Alan Trejo (.251-1-16)
3B: Ty France (.346-4-48)
SS: Danny Sheehan (.310-6-45)
LF: Spencer Thornton (.328-2-20)
CF: Steven Pallares (.341-8-47)
RF: Chase Calabuig (.320-1-25)
DH: Justin Wylie (.245-3-16)
SP: Bubba Derby (7-4, 3.35, 122 Ks)
SP: Mark Seyler (9-2, 2.80, 78 Ks)
SP: Marcus Reyes (7-3, 4.20, 45 Ks)
SP: Cody Thompson (4-4, 4.13, 66 Ks)
RP: C.J. Saylor (3-3, 4.86, 42 Ks)
RP: Brian Heldman (3-1, 3.44, 28 Ks)
RP: Brett Seeburger (1-0, 7.01, 26 Ks)
RP: Jacob Erickson (2-1, 3.14, 23 Ks)
Lineup notes: In the MWC tournament, SDSU lost the first game, then made a lineup shuffle that rotated Brown to DH, Wylie in LF, Thornton in RF, Calabuig in CF, and Pallares to 1B. They kept on winning til they lifted a trophy, and stuck with that lineup the rest of the tourney. I have no idea whether it'll stick this weekend.
This team, lineup-wise, isn't that different from USC. Other than the musical chairs noted above, it's a stable lineup with a decent amount of power and solid contact. Unlike the other three teams in the regional, with Newell, Stahel, and Matt Thaiss, they don't have an obvious elephant in the lineup, but there's good balance at the top and a very solid knack for getting on base. Bunch of guys with double-digit HBP, and Chase Calabuig, who is not one of them, has 37 walks.
Is it a good enough lineup to touch up UCSB's rotation, though? Eh....the MWC is a one-bid league, so evaluating their hitting always has to take that into account. They likely won't get the pleasure of facing Dillon Tate, but we've been over this. Whoever UCSB throws on Friday is probably better than anyone SDSU faced in-conference.
The Aztecs' pitching, though - eesh. UCSB has the starters. USC has the pen. UVA has - well, some draftable talent, at least a star or two. SDSU, though, probably has three pitchers you'd really trust in postseason play. Bubba Derby is one; his 122 strikeouts are more than anyone else in this regional, but he knows how to find the dirt, too. Mark Seyler is steadier and maybe more effective overall; it was Derby who was rocked in the MWC tourney opener. Brian Heldman is OK out of the pen. Jacob Erickson has the lowest ERA among regular relievers, but plunks a batter every four innings.
We've seen worse lineups from #4 seeds, and if they get it together all at once they could at least make it to Sunday. But a pitching staff like this isn't winning any regionals, ever.
So, what's the strategy for UVA this weekend? Settle in for story time. When I was about, oh, 10, 11, or so, I was at summer camp playing some kind of organized tag or capture the flag or obstacle course game, whatever it was. This camp had a creek at the bottom of a steeply sloped gully of sorts. During the course of this game I was running pell-mell towards the creek and found myself there before I thought I'd get there, and then found myself sprinting just as fast down the gully. Bit scary, but I decided my best chance of not tumbling ass over teakettle into the bottom was just to keep running and try to put my foot somewhere safe with each step. If I tried to stop and go more deliberately, I'd definitely crash. I ended up still upright at the bottom with enough momentum to get me halfway back up the other side before I had to do any real climbing work.
Why I remember this I don't know. But this is pretty much how UVA has to approach this regional. And BOC knows it. He knows what he's doing with pitching staffs, and remember this is the guy that held Danny Hultzen for Saturday and let Robert Morey try to beat Stephen Strasburg. He definitely believes in the rule that your ace goes in game 2 no matter what. Not this year, though. Connor Jones is throwing against USC, Brandon Waddell, presumably, gets the next call. BOC has said, more or less, that Josh Sborz goes whenever he's needed. We're going all out to win the first one and then the next one and so on - no chess matches. The best chance we have is to go 3-0. The longer this gets stretched out, the faster our chances swirl the drain.
Bigger-picture, this is a fascinating regional. The top three seeds have RPIs of 20, 23, and 21. The teams have a lot in common. They play the college-ball style to various degrees - bunts and steals. They all have good catchers who can nullify that game. All but SDSU have a single big-time hitter surrounded by a solid supporting cast; SDSU just has a bit more balance at the top. Oh, and the host is the second-farthest team from the stadium site, since they don't have lights of their own. It'll feel more like a true neutral site, except that orange and blue probably won't be well-represented. And the prize: a trip across town to play the national #1 seed, barring a wild upset.
And because 2009-all-over-again won't go away, if there is a wild upset, the likely beneficiary, and therefore the likely super-regional host if UVA pulls off this regional .... is Ole Miss. Somewhere, Tim Weiser is cackling.