As many of you know, this is an exciting time in Bloomington. The Hoosiers are a National Seed and will be hosting all the way to the College World Series. First, Indiana has to get past the competition this weekend in Bloomington. You can't host a Super Regional if you don't make it there in the first place.
Many may be surprised to hear that likely Indiana's biggest competition in this regional is one of the "last four in" type candidates. Indiana State is our cross state rival and after a poor showing in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, their bid into the field was questionable. However, their strong RPI on the year was enough to get them in. Finishing the year at 22, the Sycamores are the highest ranked RPI team in the field of four without Hoosiers on their chest.
What we should watch for with Indiana State is their defensive wizardry. Tyler Wampler can steal even the cleanest of hits at shortstop, while Landon Curry shows extensive range in the outfield. Add in a strong arm at catcher with Mike Fitzgerald and even the strongest hitting team could struggle to manufacture runs across the plate. Though a team ERA is good, it isn't stellar. Teams should be able to make contact, it's just finding a hole in the defense that will be most difficult.
As a team, the Sycamores offense is in the same realm as their pitching. Good, not great. Fitzgerald leads the offense with a .305 average. What should be concerning for the Trees lineup is they're strikeout prone at times. Fitzgerald is the only one on the team that comes close to walking as much as he strikes out. They don't offer a ton of pop either, with only two players having multiple home runs on the season. Still, they find ways to get on base. Indiana State is going to try and small ball their way to a Regional championship and they're very capable of doing it.
Next on the list is Stanford. The other set of trees in this round, will be facing off with Indiana State in game one tomorrow at 2 pm. A traditional power in the PAC 12, Stanford has had a very down year to their standards this year. A bubble team that had to rely on a few ranked wins, Stanford comes into this tournament already limping. The Cardinal won their last 8 of 10 to fight their way onto the bubble and survived the selection process.
The Cardinal are hitting a little worse than Indiana State but against a much stiffer set of competition. The strength of Stanford's offense comes not in their hitting for average, but the pop that they have when they do make contact. Alex Blandino has 11 home runs on the year as a follow up to his All-Star play in the Cape Cod League over last summer. In addition, Austin Slater and Zach Hoffpauir (yes he also plays safety) show plenty of pop to set a dangerous middle of the Stanford lineup.
When it comes to pitching Paul Quantrill's son, Cal, shows some strong stuff for a freshman. A top 100 prospect coming out of high school last year, he became the first freshman to start opening day for the Cardinal since Mike Mussina in 1988. Stanford believes in this guy and he hasn't given them much of a reason to not. John Hochstatter is another arm to look out for from Stanford. He's not a very hard thrower but he locates his pitches very well and can mix it up with the off-speed. If Stanford can get out in front, AJ Vanegas can shut the door for the trees.
Finally we have the drastically out of place Youngstown State. Sure the Penguins did what they had to, in order to make it here, but don't expect much else. They're 16-36 on the year and only won 6 games in the Horizon League. They're bad. However, they are certainly hot. They came out of nowhere to win the Horizon League Tournament and get the auto bid for the conference. This is their second overall appearance in the NCAA tournament.
The Penguins square off with Indiana in their first game at 7 pm tomorrow evening. Penguins skipper Steve Gillispie will tell you that injuries had a lot to do with Youngstown State's poor season. But, the numbers of everyone else doesn't seem to back that up. YSU will start Patrick O'Brien who comes in with a 7.23 ERA. That's only slightly higher than the staff's 6.90 ERA as a whole. Youngstown State should look at this weekend as an "it was just an honor to be nominated" type of thing. I don't expect Indiana to struggle like they did last year against Valparaiso. Valpo was a legitimate contender in their league, YSU just caught lightning in a bottle.
We do need to watch out for Phil Lipari though. He's got 33% of the team's home runs and has been the hot bat leading the squad as of late. If Youngstown State is to continue with their mojo they've been cooking Kevin Yarabinec is capable of slamming the door shut on the back end of the game. Still, I wouldn't fret too much. This team just isn't in the same league as the other three.
Overall, I wouldn't necessarily say this region is set up for a cake walk for Indiana, but they're the clear cut favorite in it. The Hoosiers are objectively better than any of the other three teams and only Indiana State can boast a win over these guys. If I were a betting man, I'd say watch out for the Sycamores. I expect Stanford and Youngstown State to go quietly into the night.