Breaking Down Manhattan, Starkville Regionals; Razorbacks, Bears Ready to Go

Chris Murray Bio
NCAA baseball tournament action begins today at 16 regional sites. By now, anyone reading this should know that Fayetteville was not selected to be one of those 16.

The time for hand-wringing about a possible snub delivered to the Razorbacks is over. And the chances of Dave Van Horn allowing that to happen at all (despite several Arkansas players venting over Twitter) are very low. As has been speculated before, this could be a positive for Arkansas. The Razorbacks played well on the road in SEC play, and their last two trips to Omaha (2009 and 2012) were made away from Baum Stadium.

Instead, the Hogs are in Manhattan, Kan., at the regional hosted by Kansas State. Meanwhile, the University of Central Arkansas is making its first NCAA regional appearance, at the Starkville, Miss. Regional.

Arkansas Razorbacks (37-20)
The Razorbacks should be no mystery to readers of this column. The near-consensus preseason no. 1 team, Arkansas stumbled out of the gates and was never quite able to get back among the upper echelon of NCAA squads.

The Razorbacks do boast the nation’s top earned-run average, at 1.87. From their weekend starters – Barrett Astin, Ryne Stanek and Randall Fant – to a deep bullpen (including Colby Suggs, Brandon Moore and Jalen Beeks), the Hogs feature hurlers who are adept at hanging zeros on the scoreboard.

It has been that pitching staff that has kept Arkansas in a lot of games, and that’s due to spotty defense and an offense that has often come up short. Tyler Spoon leads the Razorbacks with 45 RBIs, while Brian Anderson and Dominic Ficociello are two of the team’s top run producers.

Arkansas’ track record is pretty clear: the pitching will be there. If it can avoid costly errors, and just scratch across a few runs, it should be in good position to win the regional.

Bryant Bulldogs (40-16-1)
Bryant University, out of Smithfield, Rhode Island, is the no. 3 seed and Arkansas’ first opponent. The Bulldogs are making their first appearance in an NCAA regional in just their fourth season at the Division-I level.

The Bulldogs opened the season with six losses and a tie in their first seven games. Those first two series were against tournament teams – Houston Baptist and Oregon State (host of the regional opposite the Manhattan regional). Since those first seven games, Bryant has gone 40-10. The Bulldogs blitzed through the Northeast Conference with a 27-5 record. After dropping their opener in the NEC tournament, the Bulldogs won the next four games by a combined 41-5 score.

Outfielder Kevin Brown is the team’s top hitter, with a .368 average, six homers and 46 RBIs. Brown also has 22 stolen bases, and Bryant has 95 as a team. Carl Anderson leads the team with 47 RBIs, and Joh Mullen has 45. Peter Kelich will get the start against the Razorbacks. He has a record of 7-4 with a 2.53 ERA and an 83-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Out of the bullpen, Salvatore Listani leads the Bulldogs with 10 saves and a 1.27 ERA.

Kansas State (41-17)
The regular-season Big 12 champions are hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history. The Wildcats went 16-8 in Big 12 play. They won six in a row before falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. K-State may have been a surprise host to many, but a solid RPI and strong finish to the season definitely worked in its favor.

Outfielder Jared King leads the team with 48 RBIs. First baseman Shane Conlon boasts seven homers and a team-best .956 OPS. Second baseman Ross Kivett’s 26 stolen bases leads the team. The Wildcats are another team that likes to run, stealing 93 bases in 140 attempts.

The Wildcats are expected to throw Levi MaVorhis in the opener with Wichita State, despite having started just five games this season. K-State appears to be holding back its “weekend” starters – Nate Williams, Joe Flattery and Matt Wivins – for a potential winners’ bracket game Saturday. Jake Matthys is 8-1 with a 2.13 ERA out of the bullpen.

Wichita State (39-26)
The Shockers finished second in the regular-season Missouri Valley Conference race, and then came out of the loser’s bracket to win the MVC tournament and grab the league’s automatic bid. Casey Gillaspie leads the Shockers with 10 home runs, while Garrett Bayliff bats a team-high .389. Tyler Baker has driven in 46.

Cale Elam, Wichita’s starter in today’s opener, is 7-4 on the season with a 2.60 ERA. The Shockers have a number of quality arms out of the bullpen, including Aaron LaBrie and Brandon Peterson. Wichita State is coached by the venerable Gene Stephenson, who is second in all-time NCAA coaching wins. Arkansas fans no doubt recall the contentious Stephenson from the 2004 Fayetteville Regional. The Shockers made a trip to Arkansas in March, where they defeated Arkansas-Little Rock and lost to Central Arkansas.

Today’s games: Wichita State vs. Kansas State, 2 p.m.
Arkansas vs. Bryant, 7 p.m.

Central Arkansas (39-20)
The UCA Bears have also received their share of run in this space over the course of a historic season. UCA cracked the top 25 on the strength of their non-conference play, which notably included a series win over Mississippi State in Starkville. After winning five games in three days to claim the Southland Conference crown, the Bears get a return trip to Starkville. They won’t sneak up on the Bulldogs, but at the same time, the Bears know they can win there and should be confident.

UCA sends Caleb McClanahan to the mound against MSU. McClanahan is 10-5 on the year with a sterling 2.17 ERA. Starters Bryce Biggerstaff and Jeffrey Enloe figure to play big roles this weekend, while Ethan McKinzie and Clint Green lead a capable bullpen. Forrest Allday leads the Bears with a .383 batting average. Michael Marietta has 56 RBIs and 23 extra-base hits. As a team, UCA has stolen 90 bases in 111 attempts. Dating back to the 2012 season, UCA has won three of five games in Starkville.

Mississippi State (43-17)
The Bulldogs’ late-season surge was rewarded, as they were selected as a regional host. MSU won four of its last five games entering the SEC Tournament, then won its first three games at Hoover before falling to Vanderbilt in the semifinals. After a 16-14, third-place finish in the SEC West, the Bulldogs’ showing in the tournament apparently made the difference.

Hunter Renfroe has clubbed 15 homers and batted in 54, both astounding numbers in this dead-bat era. Both Renfroe and Adam Frazier bat at a .354 clip. Overall, the Bulldogs have six players hitting .300 or higher.

MSU will take no chances with UCA, sending its top starter, Kendall Graveman, to the hill. Graveman is 5-5 on the year with a 3.04 ERA in 91 2/3 innings. Jonathan Holder and Chad Girodo are excellent in relief, with 1.00 and 1.10 ERAs, respectively. MSU is 30-7 on the season at Dudy-Noble Field.

South Alabama (42-18)
Despite losing five of their last eight games, and being eliminated from the Sun Belt Conference tourney, the Jaguars received an at-large bid based on their overall strong season. USA went 20-10 in conference play, good enough for second place. In non-conference, the Jaguars defeated Southern Miss, and had tough losses at Florida State and at Mississippi State.

Jordan Patterson, the Sun Belt player of the year, has a .360 average to lead the club, while Dustin Dalken supplies the pop with eight homers. Nolan Early has a team-best 58 RBIs, a staggering total for 60 games.

USA’s top starter is Matt Bell, with a 6-1 record and 3.52 ERA and a near three-to-one strikeout/walk ratio. Dylan Stamey is 5-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 22 relief appearances.

Mercer (43-16)
The Bears are another small-conference team that came up short in its conference tourney, yet was rewarded with an at-large berth due to its overall record. Mercer went 20-7 in Atlantic Sun games, but lost two of three in the conference tournament. The Bears were boosted by wins over Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

Chesny Young has flirted with .400, entering the regional at .394, while also driving in 61 runs. Nick Backlund has slugged 13 homers and driven in 65. As a team, the Bears have hit 56 homers, an absurdly high total in this era.

At 7-1 with 2.35 ERA, Brandon Barker is the Bears’ top starter. DJ Johnson is close behind at 6-2, 2.80. Mercer’s bullpen ERA is poor compared to the other teams in the original, and this could definitely hurt the Bears’ chances.

Today’s games: South Alabama vs. Mercer, 2 p.m.
Central Arkansas vs. Mississippi State, 7 p.m.

All games will be carried on the ESPN family of networks, which apparently includes

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