Utah Utes vs. Boston College Eagles
First Pitch: 6 PM
When seedings are released for the baseball tournament, there's often a clear-cut interest factor to the games. Depending on who wins, each game has a sales pitch behind it, a very obvious one at that.
Take the Baton Rouge regional, for example. The top three seeds were LSU, Rice, and Southeastern Louisiana. The sales pitch couldn't have been clearer. If the top seeds won the first round, LSU and Rice, two great baseball powerhouse schools, would meet in the second round. Since Rice isn't that far from Baton Rouge, it would draw a great crowd.
But if Rice loses to Southeastern Louisiana, it sets up a second round matchup between teams from the same state, increasing the potential interest factor.
In the Charlottesville regional, Bryant played well enough over the course of the year to earn a #2 seed. Because the second game with a #1 and #2 seed wouldn't draw that well, William and Mary, which is located in Williamsburg, was assigned to the regional, giving it two teams from the state of Virginia.
In Coral Gables, Miami and FAU are the top two seeds, setting up a grudge match in the second round, with Florida-based Stetson as the four seed. But should FAU have lost (which they did), it sets up a baseball glamour match between Miami and Long Beach State.
That brings us to Oxford. The regional was designed to have Tulane and Ole MIss in the second round. But if Tulane lost, it gave an ACC school to the Rebels in Boston College. Throwing in a power conference champion, even one that was under .500, made people regard this as one of the most competitive regionals in the nation. But the thought was that Ole Miss would be able to beat Utah, who really wasn't that good, then draw either a regional team in Tulane or an ACC-SEC matchup with BC.
The good news is that organizers will get the Ole Miss-Tulane matchup. The bad news is that it's an elimination game. Utah crashed the party late last night, advancing past the Rebels in 10 innings, and earning a spot in the winner's bracket second round against Boston College.
So now the Eagles will face a slightly less hostile crowd than expected in the second round. They'll do it after we know who is the first team eliminated in this regional. The winner of this game automatically qualifies for the Regional Finals tomorrow afternoon. The loser drops to the loser's bracket second round, where they await the Tulane-Ole Miss winner tomorrow in the early afternoon. Whoever wins tomorrow's loser's bracket second round has to play two games, the latter of which is against the winner's bracket champion.
Needless to say this is a big game.
Record: 26-27 (19-11 Pac-12)
Last Time Out: Utah defeated Ole Miss last night in the NCAA Tournament first round, 6-5. They won the game over the host Rebels on a two-out double in the 10th after Ole Miss blew a 5-2 lead. The Utes were incredibly resilient and proved they belonged after many criticized their league for earning an automatic bid with an under-.500 record.
Around the Horn
This is a Utah team capable of hitting the ball well. As a team, they hit .281, though both their runs (283) and home runs (27) were down. It's a team that has four guys that hit over .300, another three that hit .275 or better, but for some reason they couldn't quite put everything altogether.
Down the list, Cody Scaggari the team's best hitter with a .328 average and .492 slugging percentage. He leads the team in doubles and triples with 11 and 4, respectively. Behind hi, it's a drop to .316 and .312 for Dallas Carroll and DaShawn Keirsey, followed by Kevin Marruffo at .304. Max Schuman and Josh Rose are right in there at .285, and by the time you hit Hunter Simmons - who had the game-winning hit - you're at .278.
But there's an element of this team hitting well that's curious. Salt Lake City is at an elevation of over 4,000 feet. We all know about the Colorado Rockies and playing in elevation, so it's interesting to see how Utah's hitting translates over more than one game into the lower altitudes, especially in a place as humid as Oxford, Mississippi. You would also have thought they would've scored more runs.
No surprises today out of the BC lineup, at least not projected. But a note about Donovan Casey. His presence really shored up the bottom of the lineup, moving Mitch Bigras down to the nine hole. Bigras is capable of putting up one big hit per game, and while it's not done every game, he's a more solid hitter than people give him credit for. In the nine spot yesterday, he doubled.
Casey himself is the prototype of the #7 hitter. He's always capable of delivering in a big spot, though it's hard to tell that because he doesn't come up in the big spot as often. Think of him like a Trot Nixon type - a guy with a hole in his game that he is able to compensate for by being a dirt dog who gets it done. He's not the best hitter in the lineup, but he does more than just fill a spot.
On The Bump
As good of a hitting team as Utah is, their pitching staff was really bad outside of Jayson Rose and Dylan Drachler. Rose is the type of guy who is a good weekend starter, and his 102 strikeouts in 103 innings projects him to the type of guy who would start on Saturday or Sunday on other teams. By lack of depth, he's the #1 starter on the Utes.
That means he's not the best tool in the shed, but he's capable of putting together good outings. Hence why he went 8-5 with a 2.62 ERA this year with a .206 opponent's batting average. In a big setting, the hope is he can rise to the occasion, which he did yesterday, going six innings and giving up five runs on four hits. The walks were up (four), but he struck out four. He did enough to keep his team in the game.
He handed the ball to Riley Ottesen, a guy who had 21 appearances (18 from the bullpen) but a 7.46 ERA. He promptly delivered eight shutout innings of one hit baseball before Dylan Drachler shut the door for his ninth save of the year despite giving up two hits.
Here's the good news - I just spent all that time talking about guys who will probably not pitch today (unless Utah has a lead and goes back to Drachler at the end). Rose is gone, meaning BC instead faces a starter like Josh Lapiana (4-5 with a 4.18 ERA) or Dalton Carroll (5-7 with a 5.20 ERA). Both of these guys ended the year on completely different trends, with Lapiana going 4-1 with a 4.00 ERA and Carroll going 2-6 with a 5.68 ERA in 10 Pac-12 starts apiece.
The bullpen has been pretty bad for the Utes, and although they rose to the moment yesterday, we're not sure if they can do it consistently. They're either riding a wave of great momentum right now, or the law of averages will need to win out. How that happens will be determined by how BC sees the ball at the plate.
The Eagles counter with Mike King, their sinkerball #2 who is really a #1. On any other staff, including Boston College, King is the ace, and he was earlier in the year. He became the #2 starter only because of the breakout explosion by Justin Dunn, who we knew would be good but could never have expected to be that good. King projects to a second day draft pick, and he's not likely to be back next year as a result.
He'll go for his eighth win, showing just how consistent he really is. One thing about King, if you're not used to it, is that he works fast. He's one of the fastest workers in the nation, and it keeps hitters guessing. In an era of human rain delays, he's Usain Bolt on the mound.
This game could find itself interrupted by rain in the same way last night's game was. In the tropical humidity of the southern United States, rain becomes a factor throughout the day when it pops up. It rained yesterday morning, then again during the Ole Miss-Utah game. During that Ole Miss game, it started coming down so hard that it became a legitimate factor, though it stopped after 20 minutes or so and cleared.
Temperatures are only in the 70s today in Oxford, and they'll be dropping down towards 75 when the BC-Utah game starts. But the humidity is going to be 100%, meaning it'll feel like soup with air so thick you can chew it. Chances for precipiation stay high during the early game, then drop off in time for 6 PM, then increase again through the rest of the night. Once again, the wind is going to be absolutely dead.
Back at Swayze Field for another game.
One thing to note that I might've missed yesterday. Apparently Ole Miss students and fans in the outfield want players to throw them warmup balls at the end of half innings. When they do, they write "love notes" on the ball and send them back. That's pretty cool, though I encourage an Ole Miss fan to weigh in if I got anything there wrong - or at least give more details.
The student section was great yesterday on television, and I was very impressed with how many students line up to enter right field before an Ole Miss game. Hopefully some of them can latch onto BC as their school because this has been a great weekend for all parties to enjoy Oxford.
Music For When They're Messing With The King
Olivia King and Maye Star - KING
If you've been to Shea Field this year, Mike King walks out to a song that has a chorus that says, "You're messing with the King." When I talked to him a couple of weeks ago about the upcoming MLB Draft, he told me that the song was written by his sister, who recorded it for him. It passed through the team and became his first inning jam.
It was pretty easy to find on YouTube, but this is pretty cool. The first line of the song - "I step to the mound and I put on my crown" - is pretty bad ass, and I'm sure it's pretty special considering it was done by his sister. Shout out in the music video to the placement of his BC jersey on the chair in the recording studio.
Random Fact(s) of the Week...Er, Day
In their first four years in the Pac-12, Utah never finished higher than 11th in the league. They were the preseason pick to finish 11th for this year as well.
Utah had never won more than seven Pac-12 games in a season prior to this year, and they'd won only three Pac-12 series. It's also the first two men's conference championships since the Utes joined the Pac-12.
Utah opened the year 3-11, meaning they finished the season on a 22-15 clip. They went 13-8 at home this year, compared to 12-19 on neutral or road territory. What's that mean? It means to not take this team lightly.
The Utes are a very good late inning team, but they struggle in the middle innings. In the fourth through sixth innings, they are -34, including -17 in the fifth inning (outscored 50-33). That changes dramatically in the later innings, where they're +24 in the seventh inning alone.
They're also -16 in third innings.
This year, Utah has not lost a game when leading after six. They're 17-0 in those situations, compared to 5-25 when trailing. When leading after seven, they're 20-1, compared with 3-24. And when they lead after eight, they're 23-0, compared with 2-25 when trailing.
They rely on scoring a lot of runs (obviously with their ERA being a little bloated). When they score two or less, they're 2-13, and they're 5-25 when they score five or less runs. But anything from six and up? They're 18-2.
So what's all of that mean? It means Utah is going to struggle with the second time through the order, and it means that's when BC will likely need to make its move. If Utah's starter can't get through the second time through the order, he'll hand it to a bullpen that could likely struggle. If BC can get to the bullpen early in the game, they'll face someone who is going to have their back to the wall. In a snowball effect, that's a big advantage for the Eagles to have.
That's doubly big when you put a guy like King the mound. I've seen King struggle in a start before, and he's not a sure thing for an elite outing. But he's a guy who loves the ball in this situation, and he's the bread-and-butter of this Eagles staff. If he can start mowing down hitters, he'll keep BC in a good spot until the lineup explodes. If not, he can take over the game on his own.
Given what we know about BC's ability to quickly score runs with their small ball mentality, this is going to be an incredible game to watch. Utah proved last night that they're no pushover, and they proved that, even as a four seed, they're still a power conference champion.
This might have been a marquee matchup the organizers wanted for the loser's bracket, but it might just prove to be the game they'll enjoy as the winner's bracket.