Friedlander: ACC takeaways from Day 1 of NCAA baseball regionals
There’s a reason those top 16 seeds in the NCAA baseball tournament are so valuable.
Home field advantage means much more than just the last at bat on the field and a large crowd in the stands.
It’s also an opportunity to ease into regional play against the lowest seed in your bracket, usually an overmatched automatic qualifier from a lesser conference, before getting down to the business of surviving and advancing to a super regional.
Four ACC teams earned that advantage in this year’s tournament. And all four – top-ranked Wake Forest, red hot Clemson, Virginia and Miami – all took care of business with ease.
The Deacons pounded out 3 homers and rode a 13 strikeout performance from Seth Keener for a 12-0 shutout of George Mason. The Tigers pulled away late to beat Lipscomb 12-5 while Virginia batted around in the bottom of the 1st on the way to a 15-1 blitz of Army and Miami barely broke a sweat in a 9-1 victory against Maine.
All 4 teams will face more formidable foes in the winner’s bracket of their double elimination events on Saturday.
Boston College wasn’t as fortunate.
Its season will be on the line when it faces Nicholls State in an elimination game in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The Eagles came as close as you can get to earning 1 of those precious 16 hosting spots. As the No. 2 team in the bracket topped by the No. 16 overall seed, it can be deduced that they missed out on home field advantage by just 1 spot.
It ended up costing them Friday in an 11-10 loss to 3rd-seeded Troy.
BC didn’t get any help from the weather, either. It had just tied the game at 3 in the bottom of the 3rd when the game was delayed for nearly 2 ½ hours by rain. Once the game resumed, Troy took charge by opening up a big enough lead to withstand a late Eagles comeback.
North Carolina, which was also forced to travel far from home to Terre Haute, Ind., dropped its regional opener, 5-4 to Iowa, as well.
Traveling didn’t seem to bother the Tar Heels Triangle rivals Duke and NC State, though.
Maybe it’s because both were matched against familiar, in-state opponents, but both were able to come away with victories in unfamiliar territory – the Blue Devils 12-3 against UNC Wilmington in Conway, S.C. and the Wolfpack 5-1 against Campbell in Columbia, S.C.
Beyond the final scores, here are a few takeaways from the opening day of NCAA baseball regional play:
Day 1 superlatives
- Duke’s MJ Metz: 3-for-5, 3 home runs, 5 RBI in a win against UNC Wilmington.
- Wake Forest’s Seth Keener: 7 inning pitched, 0 runs, 3 hits, career-high 13 strikeouts in a win against George Mason.
- NC State’s Gino Groover: 2-for-5, 2 home runs, 2 RBI, 3 runs scored in a win against Campbell.
- Virginia’s Brian Edgington: 5 innings pitched, 0 runs, 0 hits, 4 strikeouts in a win against Army.
- Virginia’s Griff O’Ferrall: 3-for-4, 2 RBI, 1 run scored against Army.
- Clemson’s Caden Grice: 2-for-2, 3 RBI, 1 home run, 1 double, 3 runs scored.
- Miami’s YoYo Morales: 2-for-4, 3 RBI, 1 home run in a win against Maine.\
- Boston College’s Joe Vetrano: 2-for-4, 2 home runs, 4 RBI in a loss to Troy.
Too little, too late
BC and UNC staged dramatic late comebacks in an effort to steal victories. In both cases, the early holes they dug for themselves proved to be too much to overcome.
The Tar Heels trailed from the opening inning, when Iowa scored twice against starter Jake Knapp before adding another run in the 2nd. Then after the Hawkeyes seemingly put the game out of reach by adding on a pair of insurance runs in the 8th, things got interesting.
A leadoff walk to Johnny Castagnozzi and a home run by Alberto Osuna cut the deficit to 5-3. It got even tighter when Jackson Van De Brake doubled home another run later in the inning to make it a 1-run game.
But with the tying run on 3rd and the go-ahead run on 2nd, Iowa closer Luke Llewellyn struck out Tomas Frick and Hunter Stokley – the 4-5 hitters in the UNC lineup – to end the game.
BC found itself in a similar situation in its final at bat against Troy.
The Eagles fell behind by giving 5 runs in the 7th and still trailed by 2 heading to the bottom of the ninth. Like the Tar Heels, they put the tying run on 3rd and the winning run on second. While Nick Wang at least got his bat on the ball in an effort to complete the comeback, it too fell short when his line drive was caught for the final out.
Metz’s medical miracle
A torn ACL almost always means the end of the season and a long period of rehab for any athlete, especially a baseball player.
So it made sense that Duke coach Chris Pollard and his staff began making plans to move on without star 1st baseman Metz when he suffered the injury last week during the Blue Devils’ 11-inning loss to NC State at the ACC Tournament.
But the transfer from Division III Trinity wasn’t ready for his season let alone his college career to be over.
So instead of convalescing or preparing for surgery, he donned a knee brace, grabbed a bat and started taking batting practice.
He looked good enough that Pollard kept him in the lineup as the designated hitter for Friday’s NCAA regional opener against UNC Wilmington.
And he responded with a performance even he had a hard time believing.
Metz hit 3 homers and drove in 5 runs to lead Duke to a 12-3 victory that advances it into the winner’s bracket of the Conway Regional and a date with 4th-seeded Rider, a surprise winner against host Coastal Carolina, a on Saturday.
“It kind of defies logic a little bit,” Pollard said of Metz’s medical miracle and the performance it helped bring about. “But he’s an exceptionally tough person and I felt like if there was anybody on our team that was tough enough to slap on a brace after what happened last Tuesday and give it a shot to play, it was him.
“We hadn’t made a final decision yet (Thursday night) whether he was going to be on the active roster. We sat down at the hotel and I said ‘this is your call. You’ve earned it. And obviously it paid dividends today.”
Tigers still roaring
Fourth-seeded Lipscomb might have thrown a scare into the festive sellout crowd at Doug Kingsmore Stadium when it came from behind to take a 4-3 lead on Clemson at the midway point in Friday’s regional opener.
But when you haven’t lost in more than a month and are coming off a dominating performance in winning the ACC Tournament championship, you don’t worry about such trivial matters.
You just answer right back.
And the top-seeded Tigers did that by scoring 3 runs in the bottom of the 5th to retake the lead, then pulling away for their 17th straight victory on a grand slam by Billy Amick 2 innings later. Nine of their runs in the 12-5 victory were scored with 2 outs in an inning to extend the 4th-longest winning streak in school history.
That streak, along with Clemson’s air of invincibility will face its most severe test to date on Saturday in a winner’s bracket showdown with Tennessee. The 2nd-seeded Volunteers, who were the top overall seed in last year’s tournament, advanced with a thorough 8-1 beatdown of Charlotte.
The Tigers should get a boost from the home crowd in that game. But with the stands filled with fans wearing orange, it might be tough to tell who’s who.
Deacs get deeper
As if Wake Forest’s lineup wasn’t already potent enough, it got even deeper Friday.
DH Adam Cecere hasn’t been the same since returning to the lineup from a midseason injury. He hadn’t hit a homer since March 15 against Liberty and has been in such a funk at the plate that coach Tom Walter kept him out of the lineup for all 3 games at the ACC Tournament last week.
But when the Deacons took the field for their regional opener against George Mason on Friday, his name was on the lineup card batting in the 8th position.
“It’s the opening game of the regional,” Walter said afterward. “I want that guy in there. He’s the heartbeat of our team and I just couldn’t see us having the opening game of a regional without him in the lineup.”
The hunch proved to be a good one.
In Cecere’s 1st at bat in 2 weeks, he took an 0-2 slider over the wall for a 2-run homer that staked Wake to an early lead. Although it would take until a pair of 4-run rallies late in the game to finally give the Deacons some breathing room, Cecere’s clutch early swing helped ease some of the pressure both on himself and his team.
“The home run felt really good,” he said. “It’s no secret that I haven’t been playing since I got injured. But it was a step in the right direction. I hit a big home run in a regional last year. It was a similar feeling, especially in a 1-4 (seed) game, you want to take that lead early.”
On to Day 2 …