The East Carolina Pirates will be hosting an NCAA Regional tournament for only the third time in school history, and the Gamecocks are looking to steal their thunder. Admittedly, South Carolina’s work will be cut out for them, as they’ll also be fighting Ohio State and UNC Wilmington for a trip to the Super Regionals.
The action kicks off on Friday at 2 P.M. EST on ESPN2, as the Gamecocks square off against the No. 3 regional seed Ohio State Buckeyes, followed by the regional host ECU Pirates taking on UNC Wilmington at 7 P.M. EST. The ECU/UNCW game will air on ESPN3.
Let’s take a look at the four teams playing at Clark-LeClair Stadium this weekend, as well as who I predict will come out on top.
No. 1 East Carolina Pirates (No. 12 National Seed)
43-16 (14-10 American)
The field for the Greenville regional is set.
The Pirates enter the regional on a 15-game hot streak in which they went 11-4 and won their conference tournament. They finished the regular season with the 9th best win percentage in the country at .729, and will undoubtedly have the home crowd on their side this weekend. This ought to be a neck-and-neck regional, but East Carolina are the favorites for a good reason.
Player To Watch
LF/DH Bryant Packard (.403/.460/.680, 14 HR, 50 RBIs)
Bryant Packard is, without a doubt, the best hitter in this region. In fact, many would argue he’s one of the best hitters in the country. The first team All-American batted at a clip of .403 during his Sophomore campaign, good for 7th in the country. Packard has been leading the charge all season for the Pirates, and will most likely be pitched to very carefully by opposing pitching staffs. As a baseball fan, I’d deem his at-bats to be as close to “must-watch” as you can get.
32-24 (16-13 SEC)
The Gamecocks are IN!! We’re heading to the Greenville Regional and will open up play against @OhioState_BASE on Friday! @ECUBaseball and @UNCWBaseball #Gamecocks pic.twitter.com/YVN9DW84nM
— Gamecock Baseball (@GamecockBasebll) May 28, 2018
South Carolina went 10-5 over their last 15 regular season games, and many experts believed the Gamecocks had a strong resume to at least make hosting a regional site a possibility. However, an early exit in the SEC tournament caused those dreams to slip away. Mark Kingston’s squad has shown plenty of grit all season long, and they certainly didn’t go down quietly in Hoover last weekend as they lost to LSU in extra innings. The Gamecocks are one of the best No. 2 seeds in the nation, and have the pieces and the fight necessary to give East Carolina a run for their money.
Player To Watch
SS LT Tolbert (.320/.404/.484, 6 HR, 49 RBIs)
How LT Tolbert failed to make it onto any of the three All-SEC teams of 2018 is beyond me. In his junior season, Tolbert played every position in the infield at some point, and led the Gamecocks in hits (70), and RBIs (49). On a team full of veteran leaders and young talent, LT Tolbert stands out as a leader for Mark Kingston’s squad. He’s come up big time-and-time again for South Carolina this season, and I believe he’ll elevate his game come tournament time. Make sure you tune in to see him play if you want to watch quality baseball.
36-22 (14-10 Big 10)
Ohio State finished towards the middle of the pack in the Big 10 this season, and are on a slight down-trend entering the NCAA tournament. After beginning the season at 27-11, the Buckeyes lost 11 of their of their last 20 games, with a run differential of -34 during that span. Spoiler Alert: that’s not good. Even though the Buckeyes are the No. 3 seed in Greenville, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them eliminated first this weekend.
Player To Watch
RHP Seth Kinker (6-1, 1.49 ERA, 15 saves)
⚡️ Big Ten leader in ERA (1.49)
⚡️ 6-1 with 15 saves
⚡️ Third in 🇺🇸 in K-to-BB (11.8)
⚡️ Senior CLASS Award Finalist
⚡️ Second Team All-B1G
⚡️ B1G All-Tournament Team
⚡️ Academic All-B1G
Senior closer Seth Kinker has been extremely reliable at the backend of the bullpen in Columbus for four years, and I don’t expect anything to change this weekend in Greenville. He won’t be overpowering anyone with his 86-88 MPH fastball, but he knows how to locate pitches and mix up speeds against solid competition, as he finished the season leading the Big Ten in ERA at 1.49. Kinker is the kind of guy who can make a huge difference in closely contested late-inning games. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Head Coach Greg Beals stick him into an Andrew Miller type of “super reliever” role for the tournament.
No. 4 UNC Wilmington Seahawks
37-21 (14-9 Colonial)
UNCW is not your average No. 4 seed. They have the pitching depth and just enough offensive firepower to make life difficult for the teams they’ll face in Greenville this weekend. The Seahawks won their conference tournament last weekend thanks to strong pitching performances from numerous contributors, and have shown the ability to compete with top-level programs. Something that could help or harm the Seahawks is that they’ve faced both Ohio State and regional host ECU twice each this season, but failed to pick up a win against either team. I have a feeling that could change this weekend.
Player To Watch
RHP Austin Warren (8-0, 1.75 ERA)
While many would suspect Jr. RHP Alex Royalty to be the x-factor for the Seahawks heading into the NCAA tournament, I have my money on his Senior counterpart Austin Warren. Warren is second on the team in ERA among pitchers with 15 or more appearances, and has racked up 46 1/3 IP on the year out of the bullpen. I expect to see him early and often against quality hitters this weekend, as UNCW will be counting on him to deliver some big outs in tight situations.
While UNCW and Ohio State could be formidable foes as 3 and 4 seeds this weekend, I believe the Greenville Regional will ultimately come down to either South Carolina or regional host East Carolina. If it does come down to a decisive winner-take-all game on Monday, I’ll have to give the edge to ECU. South Carolina has an extremely talented team that won’t quit for a second in postseason play, but I’m not sure they have the pitching depth to get them to the Super Regionals. Be prepared for a few intense battles from these two teams this weekend.