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2018 NCAA Baseball Tournament: Chapel Hill Regional Preview

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Purdue is part of a strong field in Chapel Hill this weekend.

Courtesy Purdue Baseball

Can Purdue win a baseball regional?

That’s the question we face now. Six years ago Purdue hosted a regional in Gary and won game 1 with ease, then two bad innings derailed their run and they were out of the tournament in 48 hours. College baseball regionals are hectic affairs. It is 6-7 games over 3-4 days and weather can cause havoc as well. It takes almost equal parts luck and skill to get out. 4 seeds can play spoiler if they have an ace pitcher with a good day. 1 seeds can roll at home or get into trouble because of said ace for a 4 seed.

In other words, we’re in for a whole lot of fun.

Here is an early look at Purdue’s regional in Chapel Hill. Like six years ago, we have three pretty good teams at the top and a real dark horse at the 4 seed.

1. North Carolina Tar Heels (38-18)

The Tar Heels absolutely deserved a national seed. They were the ACC regular season co-champs at 22-8 with Clemson. They were 23-6 at home and have been solid after a bit of a slow start. They were 3-5 after eight games, but all eight were against NCAA tournament teams. I actually saw North Carolina three times this year. My annual trip to see family in Miami coincided with their 3-game set with the Hurricanes. They won the first two games 8-4 and 906 over Miami before dropping game 3 7-5. That third game was shortened by rain to 5 innings, and given how bad Miami was this year, I would have put money on North Carolina winning it had it gone the full nine.

Their first game on Tuesday could get real interesting. They played North Carolina A&T this year in a midweek game, so the top pitchers for each team was not going. The Tar Heels won 1-0 with a single run in the fifth inning. UNC should win the opener, but don’t be surprised if A&T makes it close.

Purdue would most likely be looking at Austin Bergner as their pitching opponent, and he is 6-2 with a 4.26 ERA. The Tar Heels have a strong bullpen though with Brett Daniels and Caden O’Brien as the top two relievers. They don’t have a dedicated closer, but Daniels and O’Brien have a wealth of appearances and are a combined 11-0.

At the plate North Carolina is batting a healthy .282. Kyle Datres leads them with a .339 average and 30 RBI, while Michael Busch is their cleanup man. He bats .313 with 11 home runs and 52 RBI. Brandon Riley also has 47 RBI in a very potent lineup. Compared to Purdue they have a lineup with a lot of power. They have 49 home runs as a team compared to Purdue’s 25.

North Carolina is the deserved favorite here, but last season they were a regional host and national seed before they were upset in game 1 by 4 seed Davidson 8-4. They came back to beat Michigan and Florida Gulf Coast in the loser’s bracket, but Davidson beat them again in the final 2-1 to steal the regional. This year’s North Carolina team is not as strong as last year’s, so anything can happen.

2. Purdue Boilermakers (37-19)

Our Boilers are a 2 seed in an NCAA regional, something that seemed impossible a few weeks ago. We went from 16-16 to 37-19 with an unbelievable 21-3 finish. The key was 8-3 in the final 11 games, where we played only NCAA teams or close Bubble teams. Michigan and Illinois would likely be in the tournament instead of us had we not gone 5-0 against them in the last two weeks. We also beat Ohio State twice and Oral Roberts, who are both in the field.

Tanner Andrews (7-4, 2.71) has been excellent in his last two starts, throwing a complete game against Ohio State to start the Big Ten Tournament with an 8-2 win. He also was part of a shutout in his final home start, a 3-0 win over Michigan. He’ll go in game one, while Gareth Stroh (5-2, 4.68) will be there for game 2. Stroh has been a little more up and down this year, but when he is on he can give Purdue a great game. He had 5 2/3 shutout innings against Michigan before a dropped third strike led to three runs.

Alec Olund has powered the back of Purdue’s lineup and he leads the team with a .344 average. Jacson McGowan is coming back on after a bit of a slump. He is batting .302 with 12 home runs and 56 RBI. We have gotten production up and down the lineup during this hot streak. Skyler Hunter and Nick Dalesandro have gotten it done in the 2 and 3 spots, while Harry Shipley has had a number of clutch hits at the top of the lineup.

Purdue is going to keep doing what got it here. It is going to be aggressive on the bases (90 stolen bases as a team) and play a lot of small ball. In four games we did not hit a home run in the Big Ten Tournament and we have only 25 as a team all year. One of those was Shipley’s inside-the-park job against Ball State. We’re going to work walks, get singles, steal bases, get hit by pitches, and generally be annoying as possible. Can that work to win a regional? We’ll see.

3. Houston Cougars (36-23)

The Cougars have been at the bottom of the top 25 for most of the season and were even in the hosting discussion for a bit. They are an experienced team that has been to four tournaments in the last five seasons. Last year they hosted a regional and lost to Iowa in game 1 and Texas A&M in the final. They won a regional in 2014 before losing a Super Regional at Texas.

We had a couple of common opponents with them this year. Both of us lost 2 of 3 games at Tulane. They played Southeastern Louisiana twice and split both games, while Purdue lost to them 4-0. Houston played a tougher schedule than Purdue. They were the regular season champs in the American Athletic Conference and had a very impressive sweep at East Carolina, who is a regional host.

We’re likely going to see Trey Cumbie on the mound, and he is 7-3 overall with a 3.44 ERA. He has 15 starts on the year with a pair of complete games. He started the season as a Second Team All-American and was the American Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year last season with a 10-2 record and 2.04 ERA. This season he has an impressive 101 strikeouts, so he’ll be a tough pitcher to face. We may also see THIS year’s American Pitcher of the Year in Aaron Fletcher, who was 6-3 with a team-best 2.43 ERA and 76 strikeouts compared to only 17 walks in 85.1 innings.

Houston is not as strong at the plate with a .259 average. Jared Triolo leads them with a .343 average and 4 homers plus 26 RBI. Joe Davis is the only other hitter over .300 at .308 with 10 homers and 52 RBI. They also like to steal bases with 80 on the season, so Dalesandro’s ability to throw guys out could be critical.

Our opener is not going to be easy, but 2/3 matchups are often between two teams that are similar in profile. Cumbie was a 38th round pick last season by the Astros, but he elected to return for this season. We could be in line for a real pitcher’s duel here.

4. North Carolina A&T Aggies (32-23)

The Aggies come from the 31st and last rated RPI conference, but they were the best overall team to come from that league. They were the only team with a winning overall record, but they finished behind Coppin State, who was 18-4 in the league compared to A&T’s 16-8. The Aggies played just three top 50 teams all year, losing to South Carolina 12-2, North Carolina State 9-7, and North Carolina 1-0. Their only win against a team in the top 150 was 3-2 over North Carolina-Greensboro. This year is just their second NCAA appearance and first since 2005.

Michael Johnson (7-1, 3.27 ERA) and Tim Luth (6-2, 3.55) give them a shot at the top of the pitching rotation. They also have a pair of solid relievers in Josh Stikeleather and Josh Bottenfield. Bottenfield has an impressive 1.88 ERA and 3 saves in 38 appearances.

At the plate Dawnoven Smith leads them with a .335 average and 8 home runs with 44 RBI, leading the team in those three categories. They are third in the regional with a team batting average of /276 and they have 42 home runs spread about the lineup. Greg White and Perry Hunt also bat comfortably over .300.

As a four seed not a lot is expected of them, but they can cause some problems. They have already shown they can play with North Carolina. Given their paucity of games against top level competition they know this is their one shot to make some noise. All it takes is one game form their ace to throw the entire regional into chaos.

Regional pick:

North Carolina

Winning the ACC regular season title is no easy feat, and North Carolina knows it has to atone for last season’s meltdown against Davidson. I do think Purdue can win at least one game, however. Even if it was only against North Carolina A&T in the loser’s bracket it would be just our second NCAA win ever. As far as playing the tar Heels, we have a small history of making some noise at Boshamer Field. Our 2006 team played a 3-game set there and actually took game 1 against the No. 2 ranked Tar Heels 5-4. We didn’t even make the tourney that year, but we beat the No. 2 team in the country, so anything can happen. That’s the joy of baseball.