Hands down my favorite thing about college baseball is double-elimination tournaments. A four-team setup like Xavier will face in Nashville is pretty straightforward, but things get convoluted when you get up to six and downright weird when more teams are added to the mix. The Musketeers' mission this weekend will be to lose fewer than two games and let the rest sort itself. Here's a look at the three teams Xavier will have to outplay to make that happen.
#1 Vanderbilt (43-17, at-large bid)
Vandy is the host and top seed and is widely regarded to be one of the top programs in college baseball. They won nearly three quarters of their games this year and finished third in a very strong baseball conference. They weren't able to secure the automatic bid, but you don't get to host a region by being merely very good. Vandy is 31-5 at home this year and will be the favorite here.
They largely get it done on the back of their pitching. Vandy is in the top 20 in ERA and WHIP and second in the nation in K/9. Starting pitchers Kyle Wright and Jordan Sheffield set the tone, each striking out more than 10 batters per 9 innings, and third starter Patrick Raby posted a 7-1 record and held opponents to a .174 batting average. Bullpen ace Matt Ruppenthal held opposing hitters to a .144 batting average against in 45 innings while closer Ben Bowden settled into the back of the 'pen after bouncing through the rotation; he leads the team with 10 saves.
Vandy boasts two very strong hitters in Bryan Reynolds and Jeren Kendall. Reynolds put up a .335/.462/.615 batting line with 13 homers, and Kendall posted a .331/.394/.570 line and stole 28 bases. Beyond those two guys, Vandy has a number of hitters who have gotten extended looks, but their production has been spotty. If they can cobble together a deep enough lineup, they'll storm the regional.
#2 UC Santa Barbara (37-18-1, at-large)
UCSB was 28-10-1 at the beginning of May, but they stumbled to a 9-8 finish and lost their chance at both winning their conference and hosting a region. Instead they'll travel 2/3 of the way across the continent to Nashville. Injuries slowed the Gauchos down a little bit, but they're getting healthy at the right time heading into regional play.
Shane Bieber is a monster at the top of the rotation for UCSB; he threw 4 complete games and 112.1 innings on the year while striking out 91 and walking only 13. He led the team with 11 wins; the next winningest starters were Joe Record and freshman Noah Davis, who each won 5. Both of those guys will put a lot of traffic on the bases and neither posted gaudy strikeout numbers. Reliever Kyle Nelson was used as a true bullpen ace, appearing 29 times with a 7-2 record and leading the team with 8 saves. He struck out 73 in 63.1 IP and allowed opponents to hit just .214; he'll come into the game whenever the situation gets the most dire.
UCSB is not a good offensive team; they're 152nd in the nation in scoring per game. Only Devon Gradford (.357 average) hit over .300, and that's in about a half-season's worth of AB. Their top offensive play is JJ Muno, who hit .282/.360/.450 on the year. Leading the team in HR with 7 was Austin Bush (.267/.354/.436). The offense was not a strength for Santa Barbara this year.
#3 Washington (32-21, at-large)
The Huskies exceeded expectations this year, coming just a hair shy of winning the Pac-12 title and solidly earning their at-large bid. They had a strong season, but injuries have hit them at the wrong time and their could be trouble lining the bullpen this weekend.
Missing for Washington will be closer Troy Rallings, who threw 61 IP, striking out 60 while allowing teams to hit just .155 off of him. He had a 0.89 ERA and 16 saves, but he'll likely be out with elbow issues. Also likely missing will be set up man Will Bellowe, who held opponents to a .194 batting average, though he did walk 19 in 26 innings this year. Staff ace Noah Bremer will get the ball in game one; he had a 3.17 ERA in 15 starts this year. Behind him... it's grim. Second starter Joe DeMers has a 6.30 ERA, and nobody else on the team started more than 6 games. It's hard to see where the innings will come from for Washington.
The Huskies will also have some trouble scoring; they are 183rd in the nation in scoring. They have stolen a total of 26 bases as a team, a number Xavier's Will LaRue eclipsed all by his onesie. They are led by Chris Baker and his .327/.375/.512 line; he also led them in homers with 7. Behind him is a fairly punchless group; Levi Jordan posted an empty .316 average, John Naff put up a respectable .300/.422/.460 line, and Joey Morgan hit 12 doubles.
Obviously Xavier's behind the eight ball a bit as the four seed. There are some reasons for optimism though, starting with the fact that nobody is hotter than X right now. All three of these teams failed to take their conference crowns, but Xavier won the Big East regular season and tournament and is on a 16-2 tear. Xavier's pitching staff is statistically the least impressive of the bunch, but nobody in the region hit more homers or stole more bases than the Muskies' offense. X will put pressure on the other teams to make plays and punish them for their mistakes; it's not unreasonable to hope the hot streak continues and Xavier emerges from Nashville with the silverware.