2014 NCAA Tournament: Previewing the Gainesville Regional

Rob Foldy-US PRESSWIRE

Florida's got one of the toughest regionals in all of the NCAA Tournament. That's okay: The Gators play better ball against good teams anyway.

The Florida, Long Beach State, North Carolina, and College of Charleston baseball teams will get the Gainesville Regional of the 2014 NCAA Tournament underway (weather permitting) this Friday, with the Dirtbags/49ers taking on the Tar Heels at McKethan Stadium in a game that began at 1 p.m. this afternoon.

Florida, the No. 2 national seed, would seem to be a heavy favorite to win the regional: The Gators won the SEC's regular season title, reached the SEC Tournament's championship game, and, dipping back into their history, have a perfect 15-0 record in regional games at home since the NCAA Tournament's format changed to its current regional/Super Regional model.

But the hue and cry about the difficulty of Florida's regional — especially compared to Miami's Coral Gables Regional — began immediately after the field was announced on Monday. And Florida will play one of the best No. 4 seeds in recent memory in its first game.

The Gators are the favorites, yes. But that favor is fragile.

Let's look at all four teams in the Gainesville Regional.

No. 1 Florida (40-21, 21-9 SEC)

Team Hitting: .267/.350/.352, 75 2B, 26 HRs, 217 BB, 336 Ks
Team Pitching: 3.24 ERA, .251 batting average allowed, 416 Ks, 172 BB, 34 HR allowed
Team Fielding: .975, 61 errors
Leading Hitters: Taylor Gushue (.323/.385/.477, six HRs, 49 RBI), Harrison Bader (.333/.412/.432)
Leading Pitchers: Logan Shore (7-3, 1.99 ERA, 62/18 K/BB), Kirby Snead (1.79 ERA, three XBH allowed)

The Gators finished No. 3 in RPI and won 21 games in a hyper-competitive SEC that produced a record 10 NCAA Tournament teams. Add in a rugged non-conference schedule, and Florida played an incredible 35 games against NCAA Tournament teams — going 22-13 in those games. The Gators played fellow national seeds Florida State and LSU three times each in the regular season, and went 6-0 in those games.

Florida also lost to Florida Atlantic, Jacksonville, Florida A&M (for the first time in program history), and Mercer in midweek games, lost a series to Texas A&M, and showed a capacity to beat or lose to any team at any time for much of the year, even after Shore developed into the staff ace late in his freshman season.

When the bracket for the Gainesville Regional was announced, Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan had this to say:

"I told our team, to be honest with you, this is probably a regional we need," O'Sullivan said. "We tend to play up to our competition or sometimes down to our competition. So I'm excited about it."

And he's probably right. If the Gators play their best ball, they should move on to Super Regional play without dropping a game. If not, this regional could become an adventure for the Gators.

No. 2 Long Beach State (32-24, 17-7 Big West)

Team Hitting: .267/.350/.352, 75 2B, 26 HRs, 217 BB, 336 Ks
Team Pitching: 3.24 ERA, .251 batting average allowed, 416 Ks, 172 BB, 34 HR allowed
Team Fielding: .966, 74 errors
Leading Hitters: Taylor Gushue (.323/.385/.477, 6 HRs, 49 RBI), Harrison Bader (.333/.412/.432)
Leading Pitchers: Logan Shore (7-3, 1.99 ERA, 62/18 K/BB), Kirby Snead (1.79 ERA, three XBH allowed)

The Dirtbags (here's your explanation) have fallen off a bit from their years of perennial title contention, and the reduction of power in the college game thanks to new bats and balls, combined with their massive stadium, probably hasn't helped. With just six homers from just four players on the year, the Beach has instead tried to do its damage on the basepaths (21 triples, 64 steals on 97 attempts), with mixed results.

When Long Beach State can't hold its foes in check, as it notably failed to do in series with Vanderbilt, Cal State Fullerton, and UC Davis, things go awry. But if the score's low, and the game's tight, the 49ers (yes, they have two names) can hang: They've pitched nine shutouts this season behind a crack staff led by Frye (just eight extra-base hits allowed on the year, all doubles), and posted a respectable 12-10 record in one-run games.

One problem with that strategy: Florida's far better (16-6) in one-run games. And cool distinctions like a four-game shutout streak won't mean too much if the Gators and Heels can hit the Dirtbags' pitching.

No. 3 North Carolina (34-25, 15-15 ACC)

Team Hitting: .273/.363/.366, 98 2B, 26 HRs, 258 BB, 356 Ks
Team Pitching: 3.03 ERA, .233 batting average allowed, 483 Ks, 209 BB, 12 HR allowed
Team Fielding: .966, 74 errors
Leading Hitter: Michael Russell (.345/.430/.505, 19 2B, 4 HRs, 32 RBI) 
Leading Pitchers: Trent Thornton (7-3, 2.24 ERA, 80/26 K/BB), Reilly Hovis (2.10 ERA, 78 Ks in 60.0 IP)

The ACC is often a brutal conference, with much of the South's baseball talent ending up in it or the SEC, and the successes of national seeds Virginia and Florida State this year probably makes the ACC no worse than the nation's second-best conference. But going .500 in the ACC was no great feat for UNC — especially given that Duke, not even in the NCAA Tournament, went 16-14, and swept the Heels.

The Tar Heels opened their year with a series loss in a weather-relocated series at College of Charleston, of all teams, then won a series against Xavier, and played two other NCAA Tournament teams in non-conference play, beating Liberty and Campbell in midweek games. They lost series 2-1 to Virginia, Florida State, and Miami, but also dropped one to Georgia Tech, which ended up under .500 in the ACC, and recorded their only sweeps on the year against North Florida and Virginia Tech, two awful teams.

On the bright side, the Heels do have decent pitching, led by ace Thornton and punchout-producing reliever Hovis, and Russell swings a heavy stick. If they can shut down Beach, the pressure will be on likely Saturday starter Benton Moss (4-2, 3.33 ERA) to put Carolina in position to get to the Super Regional level.

No. 4 College of Charleston (41-17, 15-6 Colonial)

Team Hitting: .261/.347/.375, 90 2B, 34 HRs, 220 BB, 431 Ks
Team Pitching: 2.80 ERA, .225 batting average allowed, 450 Ks, 153 BB, 21 HR allowed
Team Fielding: .971, 64 errors
Leading Hitters: Gunnar Heidt (.335/.417/.482, four HRs), Carl Wise (52 RBI), Brandon Murray (6 HR, .500 SLG%)
Leading Pitchers: Bailey Ober (9-2, 1.37 ERA, 78/18 K/BB), Taylor Clarke (10-3, 2.65 ERA)

And here is the cupcake with a rock baked inside it.

Richard Johnson examined the last 14 years of NCAA Tournament seeding, and found that this Gainesville Regional is, by a significant margin, the most difficult regional for a No. 2 seed since at least 2000 in terms of average opponent RPI. You can blame CofC for that: The Cougars are No. 53 in RPI, ahead of Illinois (which beat Florida at home), Georgia, and Tallahassee Regional No. 3 seed Kennesaw State, among other teams.

College of Charleston is the best No. 4 seed in a long time, and the best one a No. 2 national seed has seen under the current format. But that's just per RPI: The Cougars haven't done that much, besides play a good schedule and win on the road, to impress in 2014. They beat UNC at home, of course, but lost a series to Houston in Houston, and feasted on a bad Colonial conference and a lot of close games to rack up their 41 wins.

If Ober can bewitch the Gators' bats, CofC has a chance to make some noise in the Gainesville Regional. But their hitters are likely to struggle with Shore tonight, and it could be a really quick NCAA Tournament for the Cougars.

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