As has been discussed earlier, the Bears were a bit fortunate to end up in the Houston regional. They could have easily been shipped across the country like Georgia and Arkansas, or they could have been placed in the same pool as one of the elite teams in the tournament like Vanderbilt or Florida.
Instead they will start their playoff journey against arguable the worst two seed in the entire bracket. Baylor’s record of 29-26 is by far the worst of any two seed, and is in fact better than just a handful of teams in the entire 64 team bracket. Most of those teams are four seeds and automatic qualifiers that would not have made the tournament as at-large teams.
Now, record can be misleading, and it’s certainly true that Baylor plays in one of the stronger baseball conferences in the nation. The Big 12 sent six of their twelve teams into the playoffs. Baylor also has an impressively high RPI, a function of a brutally difficult schedule. But it’s still hard to escape the conclusion that Baylor is over-seeded as a two. Nevertheless the Bears from Waco have beaten playoff teams like Georgia, Texas St., Florida International, and every Big 12 playoff qualifier, so it’s clear they are capable of beating any team on the right day.
An argument can also be made that Rice was a stretch as a national seed, although their credentials as a one seed are solid. The Owls split the Conference USA regular season title with Southern Mississippi before winning the CUSA postseason tournament. And the CUSA got four teams into the playoffs, so winning both the regular season and postseason title is a pretty big feather in their cap. But they also built their resume during the non-conference portion of their schedule, with impressive wins over playoff teams Stanford, Arizona Texas St. and Texas A&M (three times). It is interesting though not necessarily meaningful to note that Rice has played both Baylor and Cal already this season, losing both games.
I don’t want to say that Alcorn St. is an afterthought, but they are one of the few teams in the tournament with a losing record, they come from a weaker conference and they have never reached the playoffs before. In any case, congratulations to the Braves for their historic accomplishment.
Add those three teams in with a Cal team that struggled down the stretch and against playoff-caliber competition on their schedule and you have what might arguably be the weakest of the 16 regionals. But let’s go a little deeper into each team, starting with the squad that will take the field across from Cal on Friday.
Pitcher to watch:
Logan Verrett has been Baylor's ace and most consistent pitcher. A fastball/slider/changeup pitcher that typically throws in the low 90s, he has solid if unspectacular control with good enough stuff to rack up a solid strikeout rate of almost 9 K/IP.
Hitter to watch:
First baseman Max Muncy led Baylor in batting average, home runs (9), on base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, and walks, and was the only player to start every game of the season. I think he's the guy to worry about. He's been hitting in the second spot in the lineup and possesses decent speed for a first baseman.
Power. In a season characterized by a huge across the nation decline in power stats, Baylor has managed to partially defy that trend. The Bears have hit 34 home runs and 144 extra base hits, more than any other team at the Houston regional. Don't throw mistake pitches against this team.
Putting the ball in play. Baylor does a pretty good job of drawing walks, but the also strike out a bunch and as a result have a dismal batting average of .268. We've been worrying about Cal's offense, but for comparison Cal is hitting .284 on the year. If you can keep Baylor from hitting the ball against or over the wall they can struggle to score runs.
Pitcher to watch:
Freshman Austin Kubitza was selected in the 7th round of last year's baseball draft but elected to pursue college baseball, and he's shown the type of talent that would lead the Pirates to risk a draft pick on him. Like Verrett he's a fastball-slider-changeup pitcher, but has shown slightly better control. The question Cal fans want to know: Will he start on Friday against Alcorn St., or will he be saved for Rice's 2nd game against Cal or Baylor?
Hitter to watch:
Anthony Rendon is probably the most well rounded hitter in the Houston regional. He hits for average (.327 on the year) he hits for power (6 homers, 20 doubles) and he has a spectacular batting eye (78 walks to just 32 strikeouts!). All that adds up to a player that gets on base more than half the time he steps to the plate. That's scary stuff.
Patience at the plate. Rice is 8th in the nation in walks and subsequently carries a .356 team on base percentage into the playoffs, easily the highest in the regional. A potentially important matchup: Cal pitchers are 13th in the country in walks allowed per 9 innings.
Power. I wouldn't describe Cal as a power hitting team by any stretch of the mind, but they still collected more home runs, triples and doubles than Rice. The Owls make up for that with their incredible plate patience, but I think they might be vulnerable to a control pitcher on the top of his game.
Alcorn State Braves
Pitcher to watch:
Steve Easter. Alcorn State (and the entire SWAC, to be honest) isn't filled with spectacular pitching, but Easter was certainly a rock for the Braves. He threw an impressive 107.1 innings, leading the conference in innings pitched and games started.
Hitter to watch:
Kilby Perdomo slugged 10 home runs to finish 2nd in the SWAC and led his teams in runs and RBIs, fueling his team's attack all year long. Admittedly, his numbers have to be viewed through the lens of a league with a conference-wide ERA of 6.62, but those numbers are impressive regardless of the context
Speed. The Braves averaged more than three stolen base attempts per game, successfully swiping 133 bases to lead the SWAC. They also converted 80% of their attempts, so the generally weren't running themselves out of innings like Cal tended to do.
Pitching. Easter may have a rubber arm, but when your go-to-guy has an ERA in the mid fours it might be a long day. Alcorn State will do well to not get swept out of the playoffs in two games.
After Cal's late season slide, I'm not particularly optimistic about Cal's chances. But the one player I do have unquestioned faith in is Erik Johnson, who has been magnificent all season long. I think Johnson will find a way to pitch Cal to a win over an inconsistent Baylor squad.
Alcorn State will likely be swept out of the playoffs in two games, setting up a huge game between Rice and Cal on Saturday. If Cal (presumably behind Justin Jones) somehow finds a way to beat Rice for the second time this year they could break through to a super-regional for the first time under David Esquer. But Rice is a well rounded team playing good baseball, and I just don't see Cal scoring enough the way their bats have been slumping. It's boring to pick chalk, but Rice looks to be the best team and will be playing at home. Now go out there and prove me wrong, Bears!