Florida State’s Stephen Spradling, left, congratulates teammate Devon Travis in a game earlier this month against Clemson. The Seminoles are the No. 3 seed in the NCAA baseball tournament but enter today’s opener in the Tallahassee regional against UAB on a three-game losing streak.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Longtime Florida State coach Mike Martin would prefer to be going into NCAA baseball tournament play with a head of steam.
The Seminoles (42-17) were awarded the top seed with home-field advantage in a four-team, double-elimination round starting today despite being the only team in the field that failed to win its conference championship, losing three straight in last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tourney.
“We ain’t the hottest club in the country right now,” Martin conceded Thursday afternoon. “But we’re a team that understands it’s a new season.”
Martin, 68, has 1,716 wins at Florida State but has never won a national championship despite 14 trips to the College World Series in Omaha. And they’ve lost seven of their last 10 games.
The host Seminoles begin their latest quest against surprise Conference USA champion UAB in today’s 6 p.m. nightcap.
The Blazers (32-28) knocked off Central Florida, Tulane and Memphis last week to capture the league title and qualify for their first postseason appearance since 1991.
“We’re a team that has to play well to win,” UAB coach Brian Shoop said, noting the bumpy season his club endured.
The Blazers, seeded No. 4 in the region, don’t have a .300 hitter or all-conference player and no pitcher with more than five wins. Michael Busby (5-4, 3.90) will open for UAB against the Seminoles, who will start Scott Sitz (3-3, 4.14). One of UAB’s five-win hurlers, Ben Bullard, is out of the tournament with a rotator cuff strain.
Hard-hitting Samford, located only a few miles from the UAB campus in Birmingham, Ala., makes its NCAA tournament debut against SEC champion Mississippi State (39-22) in today’s noon opener.
UAB’s Shoop says the Southern conference champion Bulldogs are no fluke, adding “Samford’s the best team in our state right now.”
Mississippi State coach John Cohen isn’t taking any chances against Samford (39-21), which defeated Florida 12-7 on May 15. The Gators are the nation’s top-seeded team starting regional play this weekend. Samford’s average of 7.1 runs per game ranks 11th in the nation, and Brandon Miller’s 22 home runs lead the country. He hits a home run in just over every 10 at bats.
Mississippi State’s Chris Stratton, the SEC pitcher of the year, takes an 11-1, 2.21 record against Samford.
“Our very best guy in the most important game all year,” Cohen said. “Samford is all we’ve talked about, a very hot club.”
The winner of the tournament advances to next week’s 16-team NCAA Super Regional round that determines the eight finalists for the College World Series, which is held annually in Omaha, Neb.
The winner of the Tallahassee region will play the winner of the Palo Alto, Calif. region hosted by Stanford.
Top teams face plenty of obstacles on road to Omaha
South Carolina is the two-time defending champion, and 2011 College World Series runner-up Florida — which is in the same region as recent ACC tourney champ Georgia Tech — is the No. 1 national seed.
But those aren’t the only teams poised to make deep runs at the title as NCAA regionals begin today.
Southeastern Conference regular-season champion LSU (43-16) earned the No. 7 national seed and features one of the great stories in college baseball in conference player of the year Raph Rhymes.
The junior left fielder voluntarily gave up his scholarship after last season so coach Paul Mainieri could use the money to go after recruits to improve the program. Must be good karma. Rhymes is batting a nation-leading .459.
Pac-12 co-champion UCLA (42-14) is the No. 2 national seed and playing a home regional for the third year in a row. Don’t let the Bruins’ lack of power numbers fool you.
They know how to get on base and move around runners, and their pitching staff is deep.
Big 12 regular-season champion Baylor won its first 18 conference games and comes into regionals as the No. 4 national seed and on a 22-game home win streak.
No. 6 North Carolina (44-14) has the best record in the Atlantic Coast Conference and is a national seed for the fifth time in six years.
Coach Mike Fox knows how to get his team to Omaha, Neb. The Tar Heels have reached the College World Series five of the last six years.
Here are some other keys to the tournament:
CAN SOUTH CAROLINA WIN A THIRD STRAIGHT TITLE? The No. 8 national seed Gamecocks have rebuilt their roster after losing several players that helped the program win back-to-back NCAA titles in 2010 and ’11. It wasn’t always easy — South Carolina lost five of six to start Southeastern Conference play — but coach Ray Tanner has built another formidable group. Ace pitcher Michael Roth leads the rotation while veteran slugger Christian Walker has been helped by newcomers like LB Dantzler, Tanner English and Joey Pankake. There should be plenty of intrigue in the Columbia Regional, especially considering archrival Clemson is the No. 2 seed.
SEC’S USUAL SUSPECTS: Even though Florida, LSU and South Carolina received the national seeds, it’s Mississippi State and Vanderbilt that are the hottest teams in the SEC heading into the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs won the SEC tourney last week thanks to their pitching staff, which has a league-best 2.58 ERA. Ace right-hander Chris Stratton (11-1, 2.21 ERA) is one of the best pitchers in the country. Vanderbilt was in danger of finishing the season below .500 a month ago but won 12 of its final 14 games against SEC competition.
IS PURDUE FOR REAL? The Boilermakers followed up their first Big Ten regular-season championship since 1909 with their first conference tournament title.
They were the Big Ten’s best hitting and pitching team, and have the conference’s player of the year in catcher Kevin Plawecki. But they play in the improved but always lightly regarded Big Ten, so what does it all mean? They are No. 8 in the RPI and have 14 wins over top-60 RPI opponents. But with Kentucky adding SEC flavor to the Purdue-hosted regional in Gary, Ind., the Boilers will be hard-pressed to get to a super regional.
MISSOURI STATE THE DARK HORSE? Missouri State is just 5-6 in its last 11 games, but it landed in as favorable a regional as it could have hoped for with first-round opponent Central Florida, host Miami and Stony Brook. The Bears’ 2.51 ERA ranks second in the nation, and Missouri Valley freshman of the year Nick Petree is 10-3 with a 0.92 ERA.
Central Florida is a balanced but not intimidating club and though Miami is long on tradition, this isn’t a vintage Hurricanes team. It’s a regional ripe for the taking.
DUCKS AND BEAVERS ARE ALL IN: Both Oregon and Oregon State are in the field for the second time in three years.
The light-hitting Ducks have a dominant pitching staff led by Alex Keudell. They lost out on the Pac-12 title by getting swept at Oregon State last weekend, but they’re still the No. 5 national seed in only the fourth year since the program was reinstated after a 28-year hiatus.
The Beavers feature one of the nation’s top freshmen in Michael Conforto (13 HRs, 71 RBIs) and have won seven of their last eight games. But they face a difficult task having to travel to LSU’s rowdy Alex Box Stadium.