GT Heads To Music City

No. 1 Vanderbilt (51-9, 26-3 SEC, RPI 2)

Some would argue Vanderbilt is the best team in the nation, and they’d have a strong case.  The Commodores did not lose a single three-game series (North Carolina lost two), and they were 24-5 against teams in the top 50 of RPI rankings.  Regardless of whether you place Vanderbilt or North Carolina first, there is no doubt that Vandy is a very strong club.

Of the 30 semifinalists for the Golden Spikes Award, given each year to the nation’s best amateur baseball player, six will be in Nashville for this regional, and three play for the Commodores.  Topping that list is junior outfielder Tony Kemp.  Kemp is sixth in the nation in batting average (.402), with 30 stolen bases and six triples.

Kemp is hardly the only threat in the Vanderbilt lineup. All seven players who have started at least 45 games for the Commodores this season are batting at least .300.  Fellow outfielder Connor Harrell is batting .320 with 11 home runs and 64 runs batted in. Junior Conrad Gregor has drawn 52 walks while batting .309 and stealing 20 bases. Vince Conde and Mike Yastrzemski (yes, grandson of Carl) have 18 and 17 doubles, respectively, and Yastrzemski has 18 stolen bases of his own.

At the top of the rotation are the other two Commodores on the Golden Spikes semifinalist list, Tyler Beede and Kevin Ziomek.  Ziomek’s earned run average is 2.05, Beede’s is 2.01. Beede’s opposing batting average is .179, Ziomek’s is .190.  Ziomek has struck out 106 batters, Beede has struck out 97.  As a team, Vanderbilt’s ERA is a svelte 2.80, 18th in Division I.

No. 4 East Tennessee State (36-22, 17-10 Atlantic Sun, RPI 85)

East Tennessee State would be an easy team to sleep on, as the automatic bid from one of baseball’s weaker conferences.  However, the Buccaneers are 5-2 against RPI top 50 teams, including a sweep of a Seton Hall squad that arguably should have made the tournament.

ETSU is batting .293 as a team, making them one of five teams in the Atlantic Sun batting above .290.  However, the Bucs scored just 5.7 runs per game – not a terrible number, but lagging behind the teams that finished ahead of them in conference standings by more than a half-run per game.

Clinton Freeman is the slugger of the ETSU offense.  The junior is batting .336 with 18 doubles and 10 home runs.  Narrowly behind Freeman in batting average are a couple of base-stealing threats in fellow outfielders Andrew Green and Dylan Tritsch, who have 24 and 20 swipes, respectively.

The Buccaneers’ Golden Spikes candidate, Kerry Doane, is the ace of their pitching staff.  After spending the first three seasons primarily as the team’s starting shortstop, the move to Friday pitcher has seen Doane log a 1.99 ERA, with a 13-1 record. More impressively, Doane has pitched 12 complete games in his 16 starts, tallying a mind-boggling 140 1/3 innings of work.

No. 3 Illinois (34-18, 14-10 Big Ten, RPI 40)

The Fighting Illini earned an at-large bid with a fifth place finish in the BIg Ten. They suffered an early exit in their conference tournament, but had five of six games prior to the event.

Big Ten Player of the Year Justin Parr is eighth in the nation in batting average, hitting .399 for the Illini.  The senior has driven in 51 runs, with 14 doubles and six home runs to his credit.

Those numbers have earned Parr a spot on the Golden Spikes semifinalist group, as well as bragging rights over twin brother Jordan Parr, who is batting .303 with 41 runs batted in (but holds a 23-15 edge in stolen bases).  The Illini also have David Kerian (.324 average, 21 stolen bases) and Thomas Lindauer (.313 average, 9 home runs) as part of a lineup that is batting .298 this season.

However, Illinois was sixth in the Big Ten in earned run average.  Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kevin Duchene will pitch against Georgia Tech Friday, Duchene has a 2.69 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 73 innings for the Illini.  Drawing the heavy-hitting Yellow Jackets will be a challenge for the freshman, but he might be up to the task.

No. 2 Georgia Tech (34-25, 15-15 ACC, RPI 21)

The Yellow Jackets opened the ACC Tournament with a bang, hitting back-to-back homers in the ninth inning to defeat Florida State.  However, they closed with losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech, putting them 5-9 in their last 14 games despite winning a series against North Carolina in Atlanta.

Georgia Tech is powered by an explosive offense, which is sixth in the nation in home runs (56).  Both Daniel Palka (.332 average, .637 slugging, 17 home runs) and Zane Evans (.369 average, 62 RBI, 14 home runs) are in the top 25 in the nation in long balls. Evans has been named a Golden Spikes semifinalist as well as a Johnny Bench Award semifinalist (which goes to Division I’s best catcher).

The concern with the Yellow Jackets is pitching.  Of the eight ACC teams in the NCAA Tournament, Georgia Tech has the worst earned run average (4.49).  Buck Farmer has been the only consistent performer in the GT rotation, posting a 2.87 ERA and striking out 112 batters.  The bullpen also presents issues, with several regular contributors touting ERAs above 5.00.  Palka made two appearances in relief during the ACC Tournament, moving in from right field.  He struck out two batters and didn’t allow a run during 3 1/3 innings of work, which may indicate he could be a key piece to the pitching puzzle moving forward.

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