Ah, the sweet smell of the playoffs.
But first, the disappointing week that was. The UA baseball team lost the Pac-10 and season series to ASU for the first time in three years. We were not selected to host a postseason regional. Preston Guilmet lost. It was not a good seven days.
Because of the wacky Wednesday-through-Friday schedule for the series in Tempe we tried to give the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year an extra day of rest by starting him in the second game instead of his usual front-of-the-rotation spot. It backfired twice as we lost game one to quickly end the possibility of a share of the conference crown, and then Preston got knocked around in game two to lose just his second game of the season.
Would I have run Guilmet out there on short rest Wednesday night? Probably. I’ll admit the rivalry games mean a bit more than regular games, and even the outside chance of half a championship was pretty enticing. But it's really hard to argue when a guy who has won a lot of games in June thinks he can win a regional anywhere and the best way to do that is by keeping his trump card fresh and on a full once-a-week schedule.
Another interesting decision was saying Brad Mills wasn't healthy enough to start game one, but then using him in relief and letting him throw 82 pitches. The good news is Brad appears to have regained his strength and he should be ready to assume his starting role in the tournament.
We lost the first game to the Devils because we didn't hit enough, which seems strange to say because we clubbed four home runs. But usually when you hit four homers you score a lot more than five runs.
We lost the second game to the Devils even though we had 15 hits because Preston wasn't his normal dominant self and the defense did the opposite of picking up the slack. What’s hurts more: The four unearned runs? Stranding two runners on base in every inning from the second through the fifth? Giving up that cheap walk-steal-wild pitch-error run that turned out to be the game-winner in sixth? Failing to get that tying run across when we finally had momentum in the eighth?
By the way, what is up with waiting until the eighth inning before coming to life? We did it in both USC losses and again here. Although, since we never completely erased the deficit we weren’t really “coming to life.” It was more like waking up inside our coffin after already being buried six feet under.
The final game of the regular season was a bit of redemption, and it showed why they say it’s not over till it’s over in baseball. In the top of the seventh inning our first hitter grounded out, our second hitter grounded out and then...ten consecutive men reached base and we scored nine runs. See, that’s why you can’t wait till the either to get hot. We do a lot better when we wait until the seventh.
So that's two second place finishes for the Cats in the last three years. Now we gotta get one of those pretty first place deals. Besides the obviously scoreboard motivation, it would do our guys good to take a long look at this year's ASU team because they have everything we’re looking for. The Devils rode a dominant home record to the Pac-10 championship and a top eight seed in the NCAAs which means they play nothing but home games all the way to Omaha. Let's go ahead and pencil that onto the to-do list for 2008.
(Random pro sports thought indirectly related to UA basketball: I’ve been rooting for the Utah Jazz to beat the Spurs, but I have to admit I cry inside every time Deron Williams makes a shot.)
Off we go to Wichita, Kansas, for the regional round of the college baseball playoffs. As predicted the Confederacy got their 11 regionals, and the West only got three. Wichita State is the host school but our Friday opponent will be Oral Roberts University. ORU posted the exact same 40-15 regular season record that we did, they won the Mid-Continent Conference, and they enter postseason play having won 16 consecutive games and 25 of their last 26. But the only thing that matters to us right now is how good their #1 starter is and, unfortunately, he’s really good.
The ace Golden Eagle distributor is a senior right-hander by the name of Chance Chapman. He sports an 8-1 record and a miniscule 1.23 earned run average, but unlike Preston Guilmet who has been our #1 guy from day #1, Chapman started the season as a reliever and spot starter in midweek games.
In Chapman’s first start he threw seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts against Kansas from the Big-12. That apparently wasn’t good enough so he was sent back to the bullpen for a couple more appearances. His second start produced four shutout innings, but that just got him three more relief appearances. So all he did in his third start was last 8 2/3 inning, giving up two earned runs and striking out – are you ready for this? – 17 batters…against an Arkansas Razorback team that is #7 in the nation this week. In other words, he doesn’t stink.
It still took another five appearances before Chapman was finally given ORU’s #1 starter spot (talk about some high standards), but over his last four outings he went a total of 32 innings allowing only five earned runs. The highlight came on May 11 against Centenary when Chase threw a complete game with 19 strikeouts on – I’m serious, are you ready? – 150 pitches. 150! I don’t know what a Centenary is, but most guys couldn’t throw 150 pitches against the Henry’s Lube Pit Tigers of the Tulsa Little League.
The Wichita State Shockers are the Missouri Valley champions with 49 wins, which ties them for second most in the nation. As far as common opponents, WSU went 4-0 at Hawaii-Hilo and we went 1-0. They swept Hawaii and we took two of three. They went 2-0 against Northern Colorado and we went 3-0. They lost two of three to Cal State Fullerton, just like us.
In the five college baseball polls Wichita State’s average ranking is 15 and ours is 13. Their RPI is 20 and ours is 21. Add it all together and it looks like a very even match-up on paper. Outside of hosting ourselves, we could not have asked for a better draw. Now we just have to win games.
If you want to fully immerse yourself in the glory of the NCAA baseball tournament, root against Texas in their regional so we have a shot of hosting if we advance to the next round. UC-Irvine is the 2-seed in the Longhorns’ region, which would set up an interesting West Coast showdown, should both 1-seeds go down.
This is the time of year when your blood pressure rises and your pitching staff gets stretched to the limits. If you win three straight games you cruise into the second weekend of play. But if you drop one of your first two contests you have to play a total of five games if you want to advance, including a double header on Sunday. We do have five guys who have started six games or more this year so we could potentially see them all. Here’s the team’s record in games started by each pitcher:
Needless to say, winning Friday's game against Oral Roberts is of the utmost importance. Having the Brad Mills of old return to shake up the Shockers in game two would be a good plan as well. It's never easy to win on the road, but it sure beats get left out altogether like last year.
It's time to shock the world! Well, southern Kansas anyway.
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