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Baseball Regional Preview: Escape from Norman

Can Cal claim Norman as Bear Territory? via <a href=""></a>
Can Cal claim Norman as Bear Territory? via

Let's be honest - Cal got extremely fortunate with their regional placement.  To start, they don't have to travel as far as Washington St. (Arkansas) Oregon St. (Florida) or Oregon (Connecticut).  Secondly, they avoided getting placed in the same region as one of the top 8 national seeds.  And thirdly, their first round matchup is against another team that, like Cal, was not 100% confident with their spot in the post-season.  That's a pretty sweet deal for a team that limped to the finish of the regular season.

Having said that, advancing out of the regional for the first time since 1992 will not be easy in any way.  As much as Cal fans may have been happy to see Oklahoma and North Carolina, those two fan bases were probably happy to see Cal, as the Bears have struggled in May and were probably over-seeded.  Oklahoma may not be a national seed, but they're 100% legit.  They finished second in the Big 12 and they've won nine of their last 10 games.  They have lost exactly one series all year long - a sweep at the hands of consensus top five Texas.  North Carolina also comes in reasonably hot, having won twelve of fifteen.  A sweep in Virginia - another top five team - is the only blemish in the month of May.  Even Oral Roberts has a history in the post-season - twelve straight regional appearances!

I'm not at all convinced that Cal is built for post-season success.  With only two starters that have consistently excelled and a very iffy bullpen, it may be a huge challenge to play as many as five games in four days and a potential Sunday double header.  That's lots of innings in a very small period, against a bunch of teams that swing the bat very, very well.  Just wait until you see the power numbers after the jump!

Cal will open their playoff run against North Carolina at 5:00 PM, Pacific time on Friday.  So what can we expect on Friday?  And what about Saturday's game, in which we all hope Cal will be in the winner's bracket?  Let's take a look:

North Carolina - The Tar Heels are actually pretty similar to Cal in many ways.  They have two starters who have excelled in that role all season long, and a suspect bullpen.  They have a balanced lineup with modest power from a few different sources.  Cal has a slight advantage in slugging percentage and North Carolina has a higher on-base percentage, but the two lineups are relatively even.  Their biggest advantage over Cal?  Their defense is markedly better, at least as measured by errors and fielding percentage.

Hitter to watch:  Sophomore shortstop Levi Michael is hitting .355, and leads North Carolina in slugging, OBP, home runs, steals (90% success rate), and runs.  He's the guy that makes the offense go in pretty much every way.  He hits 3rd in the Tar Hell lineup and keeping him off the basepaths would go a long way towards an opening game victory.

Pitcher to watch:  I'm expecting Junior Matt Harvey to take the hill for Friday's game - he's been North Carolina's best starter in pretty much every way.  His ERA is 3.10, he strikes out almost three times as many batters as he walks, and he's a workhorse with 90 innings pitched on the season.  The likely match-up on Friday will be Harvey vs. Justin Jones - I'm guessing that both teams will throw their most durable pitchers first so that they will be as fresh as possible if they need to start again later in the weekend.

Oklahoma - With all due respect to Oral Roberts, if Cal manages to defeat North Carolina, I fully expect the Bears to face the Sooners on Saturday.  The most obvious talent Oklahoma has?  Hitting the long ball.  Oklahoma has hit 90 home runs this year.  Nine-Zero.  That's insane.  That's 31 more home runs than the best slugging team in the Pac-10 hit.  16 different Sooners have hit a homer run so far this year.  If Cal gets a chance to take on Oklahoma, it will be an interesting battle, because Cal's staff has been great at keeping the ball in the yard - they only allowed 27 home runs all year, best in the Pac-10.  Immovable object, meet irresistible force.  Meanwhile, the Oklahoma pitching staff is the reverse of Cal's - iffy starting pitching but a pretty great bullpen.

Hitter to watch:  Garrett Buechele has led the Oklahoma barrage with 16 home runs and a batting average of .393, which would make him the leading hitter in the Pac-10.  In the offense-friendly Big-12 he's 'only' forth but he's one of the scariest hitters Cal could face regardless.

Pitcher to watch:  I'm going to cheat and say the entire bullpen.  Oklahoma's four main starting pitchers have an ERA of about 4.5, which is pretty average.  But Oklahoma has 8 pitchers used primarily in relief with an ERA of 3.97 or better.  And all of them have a K/BB ratio of nearly 3-1.  That kind of depth can be a big asset in a competition that may require a team to play 5 games in 4 days.

Oral Roberts - I was tempted to write off the Golden Eagles because they were swept badly by UCLA - a collective score of 41-7.  But then I though, 'Well, Cal got swept by UCLA too, so who am I to judge?'  Oral Roberts made the regionals by virtue of their victory in the Summit League Tournament.  They were exactly 16-16 in their non-conference schedule.  Their best win is undoubtedly a 3-2 victory at Texas, which tells you that ORU can beat anyone, anywhere.  ORU also scoffs at Oklahoma's power.  90 home runs?  Lame.  Does 98 home runs impress you?  Granted, those home runs came against a much weaker schedule, but still!  Makes me wonder if ORU plays in a bandbox!

Hitter to watch:  Nick Baligod.  What a great name.  I wish my last name was Baligod.  But he's not all name.  Baligod is hitting .396 with 11 home runs and a nearly .500 on base percentage.  You should also keep your eye on Tyler Saladino and Seth Furmanek (who also pitches, though with limited success)- they have 17 and 22 home runs respectively

Pitcher to watch:  It's tough to pick out a top performer here - ORU's team ERA is 5.97 and from the look of their stats their coach has been moving players into and out of different roles in an attempt to find a winning formula.  Eleven different players have made starts.  Bryce Smolen has had the most success amongst the eleven and has pitched the most innings of any Golden Eagle - I'm betting he'll be leaned on heavily and may make appearances to both start and finish games.

Regional Schedule (All times Pacific Standard):

Game 1:  Oral Roberts vs. Oklahoma, 11:00 AM
Game 2:  North Carolina vs. Cal, 5:00 PM

Game 3:  Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser,  11:00 AM
Game 4:  Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner,  5:00 PM

Game 5:  Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 11:00 AM
Game 6:  Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 5:00 PM

Game 7:  Same teams as Game 6, if necessary

Go Bears!