ACC Tourney preview: A look at the draws for UNC, NCSU and Duke
What a year in the Triangle for college baseball. North Carolina, NC State and Duke are three of the top four seeds in the ACC Tournament this week (along with Atlantic Division champion Clemson), each atop their pool.
UNC won the Coastal Division for the second year in a row and secured the ACC’s overall No. 1 seed for the first time since 2013, NC State rode as high as No. 2 in Baseball America’s Top 25 for two straight weeks and was one of just three ACC teams to finish with 40 wins and Duke reached record rankings en route to a record 18 conference wins and record-tying 39 total wins.
At this point, that hopefully isn’t news but the schedule of this week might be. The ACC Tournament format changed last year (and locally, that might have been missed as it was in Louisville courtesy of HB2).
Instead of three pools and three Tuesday play-in games, there are now simply four pools of three teams and all 12 teams get the opportunity to play at least two games, plus no team has to play three games before getting to Saturday. Still, none of the top four seeds play on Tuesday, though.
The downside to the change is that games meaningless to advancing in the ACC Tournament still will be played: all a top seed in any pool needs to do in order to advance to Saturday’s semifinal round is go 1-1 in pool play. For the locals -- the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and Blue Devils -- pool play is double elimination and Friday’s games (in which all three teams are in action) very well may not factor in to Saturday’s schedule at all.
Of course all games matter to teams still trying to solidify a national seed after the conference tournament wraps. Going 2-0 in pool play is what teams want as they look to host an NCAA Regional and position themselves for a Super Regional -- things which are still in play for the teams in the area.
Nevertheless, here’s a look at the opponents in each of their three pools (we’ll see if there’s disruption in the Tigers’ pool later in the week).
North Carolina (37-17, 22-8 ACC) overcame a .500 start (7-7 through 14 games) and dropping two of its first three conference series to win six of its last seven ACC series, falling only to Duke and sweeping Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, NC State and Virginia Tech to win the division and earn the top spot.
The climb back into national rankings happened when junior (transfer) RHP Cooper Criswell worked into the vacant third weekend spot, giving the Tar Heels longevity in his outings as season-starting ace Gianluca Dalatri rehabbed a stress reaction in his right arm and the bats started heating up. Mike Fox’s club played defense and fielded well enough to get itself through struggles at the plate and UNC found what it needed on the mound right around the same time hitters found their swing.
Junior third baseman Kyle Datres leads the team with a .344 average (fourth highest in the league) and sophomore first baseman Michael Busch’s .450 OBP, 51 RBI and 55 runs scored helped pace a lineup that doesn’t have merely one star. Consistency one through nine helped steady the ship.
The phrase, perhaps, is peaking at the right time. Oh, and Dalatri is available now too.
(*But catcher Cody Roberts’ status is still shakey and pitcher and designated hitter Ben Casparius is on crutches with a stress fracture. Both casualties of the semifinal series versus Duke.)
Georgia Tech (31-25, 14-16 ACC) and Pittsburgh (27-25, 11-19 ACC) will meet in the first game of the tournament Tuesday as the No. 12 seed Panthers try to end their six-game losing streak, courtesy of back-to-back series’ versus Louisville and Clemson.
There isn’t much that jumps off a stat sheet about Pitt, but the team did win four ACC series 2-1 (against No. 10 Virginia, Boston College and No. 7 Miami) including taking the Saturday and Sunday games it played versus the Yellow Jackets during the regular season.
GT’s strength is its hitting power, without a doubt. The team boasts a league-best .296 batting average and is paced at the dish by junior catcher Joey Bart leads the ACC in batting average (.368), slugging (.651), OBP (.481) and is tied for third with 16 home runs this season. Bart is consider the best catching prospect in the upcoming MLB Draft by many and is expected to be a Top 10 pick.
Chase Murray and Wade Bailey help power the team, too, which just took two of three from Duke (including scoring a season-high 20 runs Friday).
UNC swept both Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech during the regular season.
Schedule:<br /> 11 a.m. Tuesday: No. 8 Georgia Tech vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh<br /> 7 p.m. Wednesday: No. 1 UNC vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh<br /> 3 p.m. Friday: No. 1 UNC vs. No. 8 Georgia Tech
NC State (40-14, 19-11 ACC) won nine straight series to start the season and had arguably the hottest hitting lineup in the conference leading into the last weekend of April, but didn’t do enough on the mound or at the plate to avoid being swept by UNC. The Pack lost the series by a combined total of just four runs. Elliott Avent’s team fell just shy of pushing needed runs across (even with the go-ahead run in scoring position) and fell in extra innings on back-to-back days in Tallahassee this past weekend, but avoided the sweep in the finale.
The Pack didn’t miss winning every ACC series of the season by much, but doesn’t seem to be a lock for a national seed after the drop off.
Looking at the postseason, the offense has rebounded from Brett Kinneman’s (who once led the nation in RBI) sudden drop off in production and he seems to be hitting more consistently again. NC State is still the second-best team in the league (led now by Josh McLain batting .335) but the Wolfpack’s pitching hasn’t been as good as NC State needs it to be for a postseason run that reflects what the start of the season looked like.
Florida State (39-17, 16-13 ACC) celebrated head coach Mike Martin becoming the winningest coach in college baseball as it hosted the Pack over the weekend. Martin passed the late Augie Garrido -- who amassed 1,975 wins during his career -- with an extra-inning win versus Clemson on May 5.
The Noles have been a consistent Top 25 program this season but leaving runners on has been a bit of a buggaboo for the team throughout.
A rough season for Virginia (28-24, 12-18 ACC) looked perhaps its worst -- at least from a pitching perspective -- Saturday as the Cavaliers set a program record for longest/slowest nine inning game at four hours and 50 minutes. The Wahoos used eight pitchers in the 18-12 loss at Wake Forest, seven of them gave up a run as the Wake Forest garnered 16 hits including five home runs. Brian O’Connor’s team has dealt with injuries this season and has been below the recent standards of the program, now has to rebound after a grueling loss in just two days time.
Schedule:<br /> 3 p.m. Tuesday: No. 6 Florida State vs. No. 10 Virginia<br /> 3 p.m. Thursday: No. 3 NC State vs. No. 10 Virginia<br /> 7 p.m. Friday: No. 3 NC State vs. No. 6 Florida State
The Duke Blue Devils (39-14, 18-11 ACC) have a veteran roster -- both in rotation and in the lineup -- and it shows. The exception is freshman Joey Loperfido, who holds his own with a team-high batting average and anchors the infield at first base. Clean defense and pitching helped Chris Pollard’s team through early-season slumps by juniors Jimmy Herron and Griffin Conine, who had high expectations surrounding them entering the year. Herron settled in at the plate as the season went on and he also has the highest OBP on the roster, and Conine has seven homeruns in the last 10 games and 48 RBI (ninth-most in the league).
Pollard felt his team played its best ball of the season two weeks ago, taking two of three from UNC, as the team got exactly what it needed from its bullpen in holding on to consecutive early leads. The trip to Atlanta wasn’t as successful, but the Blue Devils’ best likely isn’t far gone.
Taking on a Wake Forest team that gave Duke its first ACC series loss of the year and the next-best team in the conference won’t be easy.
Louisville (40-16, 18-12 ACC) is a much younger team than the one that landed the ACC’s No. 1 seed in this tournament and earned a trip to Omaha, Neb. a season ago, but the Cardinals have still managed to play their way to the fifth seed this year.
The pitching trio of Bobby Miller, Nick Bennett and Adam Wolf give the Cards the best ERA in the league. Graduate transfer closer Austin Conway is a shutdown guy, a perfect 18-0 on the season out of the bullpen with a 2.14 ERA.
Josh Stowers (.335, .470 OBP) and Logan Wyatt (.330, .481 OBP) lead the Cardinals offense.
Wake Forest (25-30, 13-17 ACC) has a losing record, sure, but the Demon Deacons beat both the Cards and the Devils in their regular season series. The Demon Deacons also took their series against Florida State earlier this year.
Call this one the matinee pool.
Schedule:<br /> 11 a.m. Wednesday: No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 9 Wake Forest<br /> 11 a.m. Thursday: No. 4 Duke vs. No. 9 Wake Forest<br /> 11 a.m. Friday: No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Louisville