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March 20, 2012

Nine Innings: Seizing the Day

Occasionally informative, sporadically clever but always original, Mark Etheridge gives his thoughts on college baseball. No rain or mercy rules in sight, we are here for all nine innings.


First Inning

"I do not mean to pry, but you don't by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?
Do you always begin conversations this way?" - Princess Bride


When you take everyone's best shot, sooner or later you are going to get caught on the temple. South Carolina left Lexington Sunday bloody and battered as Kentucky swept the Gamecocks. For those who might have killed too many brain cells on St. Patty's Day, South Carolina has won the last two College World Series titles.

No one can sustain that pace forever. Players leave. Opponents improve. Odds even out.

This edition of the Gamecocks has the pitching to earn another title. The rotation of Michael Roth, Matt Price, and Colby Holmes is going to keep them in games all year. The difference between this Gamecock squad and the past two editions comes with the position players.

Freshmen, junior college transfers, and new starters dot the Gamecock lineup. The talent is there making this a high-ceiling club. But like most teams gaining experience they will have their peaks and valleys, especially away from home.

Entering the weekend, I'll admit I felt Kentucky would win a game from South Carolina. After all, they were undefeated and regardless of the opponent, this is baseball. Upsets happen. This weekend in Lexington, the Wildcats did more than sweep a series from the most dominant program in recent college baseball history.

Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson brought in a strong recruiting class to supplement a solid returning group. Expectations internally were optimistic for a return to the postseason but then again, they typically are. But this year, this isn't the same old Kentucky club that hasn't tasted the postseason since the 2008 Ann Arbor Regional.

This group of Cats were down but not out as Luke Maile hit a walkoff two-run home run to give Kentucky a 4-3 victory Friday. This was more than a single game, it was tugging on Superman's cape. It showed the college baseball world that Kentucky wasn't just a "game opponent". These guys looked like contenders and built on Friday's dramatic victory with another 4-3 win Saturday. Sunday they removed any doubt regarding their legitimacy with a 6-3 sweep-clinching decision.

After a road trip to Cincinnati Wednesday, the Wildcats face life on the road at Dave Serrano's Tennessee club next weekend. If Kentucky plays as well away from Cliff Hagan Stadium as they do inside it, that May 3-5 series against Florida could have some huge ramifications.


Second Inning

"At home I am a nice guy but I don't want the world to know. Humble people, I've found, don't get very far." - Muhammad Ali

John Cohen says what he thinks and doesn't really care who hears it. The Mississippi State skipper has a solid club this Spring and has his squad fighting through a tough rash of injuries. Outfielder Brent Brownlee is out after surgery. First baseman/Pitcher Daryl Norris is also out while Outfielder/Pitcher C.T. Bradford is out with an injured shoulder. Outfielder Taylor Stark pulled a hamstring and Friday night starting pitcher Ben Bracewell hasn't pitched since leaving a March 2nd start.

As a result the Bulldogs have dipped deep into their bench as Tyler Fullerton took off his redshirt and put on a Maroon one. The outfielder Fullerton traveled to Baton Rouge and started all three games.

After all of the injury challenges, Mississippi State had their chances in Friday's opener as starter Chris Stratton struck out 17 LSU batters but the Tigers won 3-2 in 10 innings.

After the game a fired up Cohen had this doozy of a sound-bite: "We out-competed LSU. We out-worked LSU. We just had some things not go our way at the end."

Quotes like those fire up fanbases on both sides. Writers love to hear it because stories containing them are more likely to be read. That said, you sure don't hear a lot of "we out-whatevered" the opponent quotes these days.

I'm sure many coaches feel like they whipped their opponent everywhere but the run column. Few say it publicly. Part of me likes the bravado. Part of me thinks you should take the high road with comments about other teams - especially after they just beat you.

So how did the rest of the series play out?

LSU won another one-game 4-3 Saturday before the Bulldogs avoided the sweep with a 7-1 victory Sunday.

"Well when (the coaching staff) arrived here at MSU, we wanted to pitch it better than our opponents," Cohen said after Sunday's win. "That is certainly the case in our ballpark, because it plays so big. We are now getting to that point. Even though we only won one game, we out-pitched LSU the entire series."

Probably muchado about not-a-lot. One thing about Cohen - he gets coaches chomping to play.


Third Inning

"What? Over? Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? " -- Animal House

OK, who among the folks in attendance for Georgia State's win over Northeastern Friday left early? Be honest. If you were a Panther fan (and made it through the one hour weather delay) and saw your team down 12-2 in the bottom of the ninth Friday, would you have slipped out early to get a head start on the Atlanta traffic?

If so, you would have missed one of the greatest moments in program history. The Panthers scored 11 runs in the bottom of the ninth inning -- 10 with two outs -- to erase a 10-run deficit and stun Northeastern with a 13-12 victory.

The Panthers entered the ninth down 12-2 but sent 14 batters to the plate and scored an improbable 11 runs on nine hits capped by Kody Adams' walkoff single.

"I just want to say a million times over -- special, special, special," said head coach Greg Frady after the win. "You can look at our entire roster; It was a total team effort. I told the team that the two things you can control are your attitude and your effort and we showed that in never giving up tonight."

Frady used all 16 position players on his roster and five pinch hitters over the final three innings.

The bottom of the ninth began with a strikeout and the Panthers had been down to their final out with the score 12-3 after Adams flied out to center field. GSU was down to their last strike repeatedly but strung together seven hits and two walks to storm back for the win.

"Something just felt weird over the team," Adams said of the ninth-inning rally. "You could feel a positive energy every time someone came up to the plate. I fought back from being down 0-2 in the count (in the final at-bat) and he threw me my pitch and I finally took advantage of it."

So how many of you would have stayed? According to the good folks with the Georgia State program, the majority of the fans stayed through the lightning and saw an incredible finish.

"We actually think almost everyone stayed," said Georgia State Assistant Sports Communications Director Ned Colegrove. "If we lost anybody it was during the lightning delay in the 7th."

"I don't think the crowd was that big of a factor from 12-2 until 12-5," Frady added. "But at 12-6 I started to hear them, at 12-8 they were getting loud, at 12-10 they were really making a difference and at 12-12 they were beside themselves!"


Fourth Inning

"You don't need to see his identification … These aren't the droids you're looking for … He can go about his business … Move along." - Star Wars

There is always the question about schedule strength and records. You can schedule teams you should beat and pump up your win-loss record, your confidence, your home gate, and build some excitement with your casual fanbase ("hey, the Isotopes are 15-1 this year!).

Or you take the other route and schedule the best competition you can find. You will likely lose more games but learn where the problem areas are on your club. You will also build a strong strength of schedule and prepare your club for the tough teams they will face later in the season.

Folks like me often poke fun at weak schedule strengths. It makes sense because we want to see games that get people excited. However, one can't help but look at Kentucky's opening SEC weekend and wonder if their approach might be the way to go.

A team like Auburn challenged themselves in pre-conference and like last year, may be sweating it out down the stretch to get an overall record above .500. Kentucky at 18-0 entering SEC play will have no such concerns. Factor in their top ten RPI and it is tough to find fault with Gary Henderson's approach.


Fifth Inning

"I got laid off when they closed that asbestos factory, and wouldn't you know it, the army cuts my disability pension because they said that the plate in my head wasn't big enough." -- National Lampoon's Vacation

Kentucky is not the only team expected to finish middle of the pack or lower who are off to strong starts. Check out these clubs impressing early on:

South Carolina-Upstate 15-3
Wake Forest 16-7
Maryland 14-6
Virginia Tech 15-6
Campbell 18-3
William & Mary 15-7
Appalachian State 17-3
Western Carolina 15-5
UALR 13-8


Sixth Inning

"Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass." - Die Hard

Along those same lines, here are some clubs in conferences not considered RPI strongholds who have RPIs in at large bid territory. Some of these teams will maintain their pace and play in the postseason. Others will drop back and hope for an automatic bid.

Purdue: 14-3, #8
Texas State: 13-6 #15
Appalachian State: 17-3 #23
Pepperdine: 14-5 #25
Southeastern Louisiana: 15-6 #30
Elon: 12-8 #34
Miami-Ohio: 11-8 #41
Notre Dame: 10-7 #44
Hawaii: 14-7 #45
Santa Clara: 13-4 #47
Western Carolina: 15-5 #48
Gonzaga: 12-6 #50

The list below contains teams expected to contend for at large Regional berths but have a ton of work to do to get their RPI rank into the consideration area:

Kansas State: 12-8 #175
Jacksonville: 10-11 #160
Tulane: 14-6 #159
Oklahoma State: 12-9 #157
Creighton: 11-7 #153
Connecticut: 6-11 #149
Troy: 9-9 #142
Oklahoma: 11-9 #139
Alabama: 8-12 #135
FIU: 8-10 #133
Georgia Southern: 9-11 #127
Florida Atlantic: 14-7 #111
California: 11-7 #107
St. John's: 9-9 #100

* RPI ranks from Boydsworld.com


Seventh Inning


"Hey, what if the Voice calls while you're gone?
Take a message." - Field of Dreams


With a top ten pRPI and a sparkling record, we may have a new cold-weather club to account for in our Regional hosting discussion. Purdue entered the season with high expectations and thus far has done nothing to lower them. The Boilermakers would be an intriguing host selection for many reasons.

When we review the NCAA Baseball Handbook there are five listed criteria for consideration by the Baseball Committee:

  • The committee shall attempt to place regional tournaments so that maximum national balance can be obtained, preferably at least one regional in each of the eight Division I baseball regions. Bingo, without wasting any time, the criteria jumps straight to the heart of the matter. Most seasons there is no viable option outside the South and the West. Nebraska had a run where they hosted frequently. Other than that, Wichita State has hosted in 2007 and 2002, Notre Dame in 2004 and 2002, and then there was Connecticut in 2010. If Purdue's resume is close, they have a shot.

  • Prospective host institutions must submit a minimum financial guarantee of $50,000, which shall be 75 percent of the estimated net receipts as submitted on the hosting proposal (online proposed budget). If Purdue has the credentials to host, the guarantee should not be a factor.

  • Once that guarantee is met, the committee shall consider the additional criteria as listed in Bylaw 31.1.3.2.1. Lights are highly recommended at all prospective regional sites. These lights should meet the NCAA standards found by clicking on the "NCAA Broadcast Manual and Policies" link at www.ncaa.com/broadcast. The committee will consider previous crowd control and behavior of the prospective host institution.. Here is where the gray area enters the discussion. Purdue is currently playing at Lambert Field which has no lights. With just two games daily, the schedule could be played during the day but any rain delays could prove disastrous.

    There is another option. Construction is currently underway on Alexander Field. According to this release, "Alexander Field will seat 1,500 with the possibility of expansion to 2,500. The press box will include media seating, radio and television announcing booths, and a game-day operations area. Television-quality lights will allow for night games to be televised."

    The goal entering the school year was for Alexander Field to be ready in April. Construction delays have pushed back the timeline but Purdue still has hope of playing games in Alexander in May. Sources feel there could be a scenario where the field, dugout, lights, seating are ready but the press box is not.

    So where would no working pressbox leave their bid?

    The handbook did not address the topic specifically, only stating "It may be necessary for host institutions to create auxiliary media seating outside the permanent press box area." A workshift temporary "open-air" pressbox might be passable. Other schools have brought in large tents to serve as an interview room.

    Another option would be for Purdue to rent a pressbox. When Coastal Carolina hosted a Regional on campus at cozy Watson Stadium in 2010, they rented a pressbox for well into five figures. Those who were there said it worked out OK with only minor inconveniences.

    We checked with the NCAA on this topic and received the following response from J.D. Hamilton, Media Coordinator for the NCAA Division I College World Series:

      "All institutions submitting a bid to serve as hosts for the upcoming 2012 NCAA Division I Baseball Championship must complete a facility evaluation form that details the nature of their baseball facilities, to determine if it is a suitable site for hosting a championship preliminary round.

      One of the aspects in the evaluation form is for prospective hosts to indicate if they don't have a press box, and then provide information on how they plan to accommodate the need for there to be one on site.

      Additionally, there are a number of factors that go into the selection criteria for host sites, with regional location being one of these, but our primary concern is having a facility of championship quality to ensure the student-athlete experience is the best possible.

      Baseball championship site bids are due Friday, April 20, so all institutions have another month to decide if/how they can viably serve as a host. The NCAA will review and discuss any and all bids submitted before determining what sites will be awarded as hosts."

    This will be a fun story to follow as the season progresses. But as we detail in the next inning, if history is any indicator there is a strong possibility that Purdue won't be hosting at all.


    Eighth Inning

    "There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?" - Airplane

    Each season some upstart club not typically associated with hosting Regionals gets off to a great start and start the discussion on whether they can host a Regional or not? Some end up hosting like Michigan, Connecticut, and Coastal Carolina. Most of the time those teams drop back to the pack as #2 or #3 seeds and hit the road for the postseason.

    In the early season these clubs can pick their opponents and if they win, push their RPI rank into elite status. As the fixed part of the season hits, often the conference foes drop their resume out of the hosting area.

    I thought it might be interesting to look back over the past seasons and pick some clubs that were Regional contenders in early April and follow to see where they landed.

    In our first Regional Projections in 2011, Stetson, Texas State, Southern Miss, and Fresno State were all projected hosts. Keep in mind at the time all had among the best 16 resumes in the Nation. Keeping that lofty perch proved difficult as their respective conference play started. All ended up as #2 seeds although Southern Miss remained in hosting contention all season.

    Our first Regional Projections in 2010 were interesting as we had The Citadel as a host team. The Bulldogs were a surprise club for many since they had not enjoyed a lot of National success. They had a talented club but their RPI rank slid in the SoCon and dropped them to a #3 seed on Selection Day.

    In 2009 our first Regional Projections had three surprise clubs in San Diego State, Ohio State, and College of Charleston. This was the Stephen Strasburg Aztec club and no one questioned their ability to win the first game of any series. They could not win enough of the other games and dropped to a #3 seed in the "Regional of Death" with UC Irvine, Virginia, and Fresno State. Ohio State was a popular snowbid alternative but their RPI rank dropped them to a #3 seed in Tallahassee. College of Charleston took the biggest plummet as they went from hosting in April to missing the field completely in 2009. They did, however, earn a spot in our annual mock NIT field.

    The first 2008 Regional Projections had a couple of teams that were perennial Regional teams but seldom hosts. Southern Miss had hosted before (as a #2 seed) and were in position to host again. Instead, they slipped to a #2 seed on the road. UNC Wilmington appeared to be in position for a historic host site but their CAA schedule could not sustain their early momentum dropping them a #2 seed.

    In 2007, Pepperdine was the non-traditional host club in the early projections. Their WCC slate and West Coast RPI anchor hurt their chances and dropped them to a #3 seed on Memorial Day.

    Will Purdue be more like Michigan or Connecticut or more like our eighth inning clubs? Only time will tell but the odds are not in their favor.


    Ninth Inning

    "You're so wise. You're like a miniature Buddha, covered in hair." - Anchorman

    The last time these two teams met a champion was crowned. South Carolina won the regular season series in Gainesville and followed it with a two-game sweep in Omaha. It is a different year and many of the actors have changed, but Thursday, Friday, and Saturday should be special in Carolina Stadium.

    This was shaping up as one of the biggest regular season series in recent history. It may still be, even after the Gamecocks shocking performance at Kentucky last weekend. Florida won't care that South Carolina is winless in SEC play. The pitching matchups alone make this a must-see.

    Here is what some of the sport's prominent voices think about the upcoming series:

      "Florida is the most complete team in the country (but Stanford is not far behind). Losing Thompson hurts but their freshmen have been really impressive so far. I talked to Sully (Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan) this week and he was pretty excited about the freshman class. (Taylor) Gushue is supposed to be in high school, his numbers are pretty scary considering that. My only concern is whether there is a lull during the course of the season; Will they get bored? With a .985 fielding percentage, near National leader in home runs and a loaded pitching staff - that is pretty salty.

      "For South Carolina, I talked to Ray (Tanner) yesterday. His approach after getting swept is one huge reason for their success the past few years. There was absolutely no panic. They always seem to play their best at the end of the year. That said, the offense has been so-so. One home run for Walker so far, but I suspect that turns around shortly. I do think that (Matt) Price ends up in the bullpen before the year is up. (Michael) Roth is Roth, he will match up with anyone in the country. Tough to replace both middle infielders, no matter how good the newcomers are. Remember, we are less than halfway through the season. I suspect that Carolina will be there in June."
      -- Kyle Peterson, ESPN Color Analyst


      "I think this is the series of the year in college baseball, even after Kentucky's sweep of the Gamecocks. These teams were very evenly matched last year, and the fact that they met in the CWS Finals adds plenty of intrigue, considering how many players are back for both teams. You have to consider Florida the favorite-I think Florida is the best team in college baseball by a considerable margin, and the Gators are playing at a higher level than South Carolina in the weeks leading up to this meeting. Both teams have great pitching, of course, but I think Florida's bullpen is more reliable, and I think Florida's offense is considerably more powerful and explosive. But South Carolina is at home, and you know the Gamecocks will respond with a strong effort after getting swept this past weekend, so I certainly wouldn't count out the Gamecocks. What a compelling matchup." -- Aaron Fitt, Baseball America


      "No matter what happened to South Carolina in Lexington, Ky., last week, this series is as good as it gets in the SEC. Defending champs vs. runner up. You have to believe with the way Florida is playing, that it will be out for blood this weekend. But as usual, with a championship-like situation, I fully expect the Gamecocks to get some of their issues worked out between now and then. Great atmosphere and two teams that I believe will be in the national title picture at the end of the season. Does it get better than this in the regular season? I'm not sure it does." -- Kendall Rogers, Perfect Game


      "Feelings on Florida-South Carolina? Well first off, it appears as if the Gamecocks should feel relieved it's going to a home weekend, 'coz they haven't been very good on the road so far. Because of that pro-Gamecock crowd and general comfort level of playing in their element, this could go either way. I'm not busting any huge headlines by saying that those SoCar boys need this a little bit more than that piping-hot Gator team, so we'll see it that manifests itself on the field. Keep an eye on the Gamecock youngin's and their nerves. Their performance could be the difference in it being a bounce-back series win for the 'Cocks or another "WTF is goin' on?" series loss. Either way, it'll be a big time atmosphere. -- Eric Sorenson, ESPN.com and CollegeBaseballToday.com



    Extra Inning

    "You know we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize that that was the only day." - Field of Dreams

    Sometime after midnight, the man sat alone. The brick steps supported his weight which supported the weight of his world.

    The smoke had destroyed much of what the fire didn't. The water from the fire hoses did a number on much more. Cleaning seemed futile. Fatigue and hunger arrived and were shooed away as an unwelcome nuisance.

    "Where do we go from here?

    "Is the house still habitable?

    "How will our family cope?"

    The scene itself was not unfamiliar. Fires ravage homes and wreck lives every day. Instead of a backdrop for a local news story or a Lifetime TV movie, this time it was much closer. This time it happened to me.

    Leap day, February 29, our family lost about half of our house. The fire started upstairs. The rooms up there are a total loss. Walls, ceilings, and floors all must be replaced. Downstairs has a smoky aroma but is livable. We shuffle over a slab where the floors used to be. The clothes washer never stops. We will demolish upstairs and rebuild but those things take time.

    The cause of the fire is unknown, at least officially.

    Our daughter was playing in the room where the fire started. She left the room and minutes later the smoke detector alerted her mother. Efforts to put the fire out were futile and my wife made the call for help.

    "I tried to put it out," my wife said through tear-stained eyes. "The smoke, it was just too much."

    Tears have been found in abundance lately. Moments like these reach into your soul and snatch those raw emotions most of us fortunately don't feel in to day-to-day life. Every photograph saved; every act of kindness; every step towards normalcy is magnified.

    Life moves on whether you are ready for it or not. Everyday challenges rise in difficulty. Things you took for granted are no longer as easy.

    Many of you may be familiar with my daughter's struggle to find her way. I've written about Madison's life on the Autism Spectrum often over the years. She is 13 now and like most of us were at that age, aching for more independence.

    The line between encouraging her self-reliance and reenacting an AXE Anarchy commercial has become increasingly thin. This latest episode obviously did not help. Puberty is tough under the best of conditions. Imagine not being able to ask questions or understand the changing world around you. This is her every day, her norm.

    As a result, I have taken a step back -- probably a long overdue one. For the first time in over a decade, I sat out a college baseball weekend. Then I did it again the following week. None of you really complained which is a great testament to the strong corps of writers providing our content this season.

    I'm not saying I'm back to writing. I'm not saying I'm not. This weekend the time was there for a column. Sometime later this season, there will be another one. Lessons in perspective, importance, and unpredictability have been received.

    Just like that night of smoky solitude, the man is back on those front steps. Time has dulled the pain, lessened the uncertainty, softened the frustration. Clothes flip in the spin-cycle. Two heads sleep soundly in a downstairs bedroom. There is so much to be thankful for.




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