It’s been 11 years since the Texas Aggie baseball team has advanced to Omaha, college baseball’s ultimate postseason destination. The 2010 A&M team will begin its journey to end that drought Friday at 11:00 when the No. 2 seed opens up the Coral Gables Regional against the three-seeded Florida International followed by the No. 1 seed and host Miami Hurricanes matched up with Ivy League champion Dartmouth.
Overall, this regional has a little bit of everything and interesting sub-plots galore. Of course, ESPNU and the national media have descended on Mark Light Field to follow the 54-game hitting streak of FIU’s Garrett Wittels who is just four games shy of tying the all-time longest streak held by former OSU and major leaguer Robin Ventura. Locally, the focus is on the rivalry between the Hurricanes and Golden Panthers, universities that are less than 10 miles apart but athletic programs that have not competed against each other since the ugly 2006 fight on national television that resulted in over 30 suspensions and tension between the two schools.
It doesn’t stop there. FIU head coach Turtle Thomas and Miami coach Jim Morris have not been on speaking terms since Thomas was dismissed from Morris’ staff in 1999 following a national championship run. So there’s a lot going on outside the lines…and luckily none of it involves the Aggies. That could play into A&M’s favor as the media circus swarms around the two south Florida teams. However, it still comes down to what each team can do on the field, and the numbers show that this regional will provide very interesting match-ups.
Florida International brings the big bats to the regional led by Wittels hitting a blistering .414 with 57 RBI’s, but it doesn’t end there. The Golden Panthers boast a .336 team batting average and every starter is hitting above .300. However, FIU has struggled on the pitching mound with a hefty 5.34 ERA. R.J. Fondon is the team’s Friday starter with a 5-3 record and 4.40 ERA, certainly not the dominating numbers one expects from a No. 1 hurler.
On the other hand, No. 1 seed Miami boasts a more balanced squad with a .293 team batting average, a 3.68 team ERA, and a solid .970 fielding percentage. The hitting is solid, yet unspectacular throughout the batting order. However, the Hurricanes have a first team all-American and Golden Spikes finalist in Yasmani Grandal hitting a white hot .422 with 14 homers and 56 RBI’s. Also in the middle of the order is power hitter Harold Martinez with 19 homeruns and 60 RBI’s to go with his .298 batting average. If A&M pitchers can navigate those two in the middle, the rest of the lineup is manageable.
However, Miami’s pitching depth is the team’s strength led by third team all-American Chris Hernandez (8-3, 3.03 ERA) who will pitch in the winner’s bracket game on Saturday. Despite losing No. 2 starter Eric Erickson (4-1, 2.52 ERA) to an elbow injury, the Hurricanes have plenty of weapons on the hill with no fewer than five hurlers with extended innings and an ERA under 4.00 along with emerging freshman Eric Whaley who had a quality start in the ACC tournament and will take the ball this afternoon against Dartmouth.
Speaking of Dartmouth, the Ivy League champion is a long shot to make noise at this regional. Facing a very weak schedule that included only three games against Top 50 teams (0-3), the Big Green brings to the table a bloated 5.29 ERA and a .304 batting average. That doesn’t bode well for success this weekend. Getting one upset win would be a big accomplishment.
So how do the Aggies compare? Actually, the numbers show the Aggies will be very competitive this weekend. Texas A&M’s team batting average (.301) is higher than Miami and the stellar team ERA of 3.48 is two-tenths lower than the host No. 1 seed. The difference appears to be in the depth of the pitching staffs. It’s no secret that the Aggies are very top heavy on the mound that have relied on five arms for a bulk of the heavy lifting (Loux, Stripling, Ehlert, Wacha, Stilson). In a four-team tournament, a team can’t survive in the loser’s bracket on five pitchers. In fact, a loss in these first two tournament games and the Aggies must play five games – and that means going to the bullpen extensively to pitchers that have been highly inconsistent all season.
So the key for Texas A&M will be to take care of business today with Barret Loux on the mound, and then hope for a great outing from Ross Stripling or Michael Wacha likely against Miami’s all-American pitcher Chris Hernandez. If the Aggies can stay in the winner’s bracket, then a trip to the super regional round and a step closer to Omaha appears very realistic.