43-16 (21-8 in Sun Belt)
Team BA: .356
Team OB%: .422
Team Slugging%: .578
Stolen Bases: 53-85
#2 Starter: Bryce Brentz (5-3, 4.78 ERA, 61Ks/23BBs in 81 IP)
The Blue Raiders (Murfreesboro, TN) of the Sun Belt athletic conference enter this weekend's NCAA regional with a 43-16 overall record, including a 21-8 mark in conference play. While the team was an amazing 28-4 at home this season, they were just 11-11 on the road. Middle Tennessee (MTSU hereafter) shared the regular season conference title with Western Kentucky and won the Sun Belt conference tournament last weekend. The Blue Raiders head into this weekend winners of 10 of their last 12, and they are led by sophomore Golden Spikes Award semifinalist Bryce Brentz (pictured on right), who is hitting a robust .482 with 19 doubles, 28 homeruns and 72 RBI's. In addition to being the driving force behind MTSU's offensive attack, Brentz is also the team's number two pitcher, meaning IU can expect to face him on Saturday if both IU and MTSU win on Friday or if both teams happen to lose. The good news for the Hoosiers is that Brentz is not nearly as dangerous as a pitcher (see his stats above).
With a team ERA hovering above 5 at 5.20 and a team batting average sitting at .346, it is obvious the Blue Raiders win a lot of games on the strength of their bats. While Kenneth Roberts (10-1, 2.98 ERA in 15 GS) is undeniably a top-notch ace, no other MTSU starter has an ERA below 4.75, and shutdown closer Coty Woods (4-2, 14 SV, 1.51 ERA in 30 APP) is the only other Blue Raider hurler with an ERA under that same 4.75 mark. That being said, MTSU's offensive firepower is not all that surprising after all. Beyond Brentz, OF/#3 hitter Nathan Hines (.363, 27 2B, 11 HR, 73 RBI), 3B/#2 Rawley Bishop (.404, 15 2B, 14 HR, 51 RBI) and 1B/#5 Blake McDade (.338, 18 2B, 6 HR, 51 RBI) are big bats that combine with Brentz in the cleanup spot to form an extremely formiddable middle of the order behind leadoff man (SS) Tyler Burnett (.338, 12 2B, 7 HR, 37 RBI).
Like all the teams in this regional, MTSU would be another tough match-up for the Hoosiers. However, I like IU's chances against the Blue Raiders with Matt Bashore on the mound. Yes, MTSU packs considerable punch offensively, but Bashore has proven himself over the last two years to be a guy with ace-type stuff on the mound who would be the number one pitcher on a great deal of teams not only in the Big Ten, but in all of DI college baseball. When you couple that with how hot IU's bats have been of late and the fact that MTSU's pitching drops off considerably after Roberts, I think this an IU-MTSU match-up in Game 2 would tilt in the Hoosiers' favor.
34-25 (12-17 in SEC)
Team BA: .308
Team OB%: .394
Team Slugging%: .450
Stolen Bases: 87-119
#2 Starter: Sonny Gray (4-1, 5.14 ERA, 59Ks/19BBs in 49 IP)
The Vanderbilt Commodores head to Louisville with a 34-25 overall record and a 12-17 mark in SEC play. Looking at record alone, you probably have to question how Vandy even got into the NCAA's field of 64. The Commodores finished fourth in the SEC East and eighth in the conference overall, but it is important to remember that we are talking about the SEC, the nation's premier baseball conference. Yes, Vandy's record peripherals do not support an NCAA bid, but when you consider that eight SEC teams received tournament invitations (including three selected to host regionals) and that Vanderbilt had a strong run in the SEC tournament before losing to LSU in the championship, you start to understand how a team with a 12-17 record in conference play that lost seven of its last eleven (including the last four in a row) regular season contests is still playing baseball.
Like both Louisville and Middle Tennesee, Vanderbilt has an established staff ace in Mike Minor (6-4, 3.64 ERA in 14 GS), but the staff's pitching quality and depth appears to drop off a bit after that. Granted you do have to factor in the impact playing in the SEC can have on team ERA, but if I were a Commodores fan, I would be alarmed by Vandy's 5.95 team ERA in conference play and the fact that projected Game 2 starter Sonny Gray (pictured on right) sported a 6.90 ERA and a .304 opponents' batting average in conference outings. On top of these concerning statistics, it is worth noting that only one Commodore hurler had and ERA under 4.50 on the year. It should be noted, however, that Freshman Gray will throw heat often reaching the high 90s with his fastball.
At the plate Vanderbilt is led by #5 hitter Aaron Westlake (.377, 12 2B, 8 HR, 53 RBI), OF/#3 Steven Liddle (.354, 20 2B, 10 HR, 45 RBI) and #4 hitter Curt Casali (.341, 15 2B, 10 HR, 56 RBI), who together form a very dangerous middle of the order for Vandy. Outside of this trio, opposing pitchers will definitely want to keep an eye on 2B Riley Reynolds (12 SB), SS Brian Harris (10 SB; leadoff hitter) and 3B Jason Esposito (20 SB) as the team is very aggressive on the basepaths and each has double digit steals on the year.
Taking everything into account, I like IU's chances against Vandy in a Game 2 match-up with Bashore on the hill. While it is hard to gauge what type of impact playing in the brutally tough SEC has on a team like Vanderbilt, I am still confident that Bashore could hold down the Commodore hitters and that IU's potent lineup would continue to work its postseason magic and make life miserable for a guy like Sonny Gray. The Hoosiers are certainly more than capable of walking away with a W against Vanderbilt as well, should they square off in the second regional game for both squads.