Tallahassee, Fla.- The 2014 NCAA Baseball tournament kicks off Friday afternoon. Following their strong regular season the Florida State Seminoles were selected as a regional host and national seed. Joining the Seminoles in Tallahassee for regional play are Alabama, Kennesaw State, and Georgia Southern.
The Florida State Seminoles enter the 2014 NCAA tournament as the No. 5 overall seed. The Seminoles won their eighth consecutive ACC Atlantic Division title during the regular season and they are making their 37th consecutive regional appearance. FSU has won its last 19 regional games and the team will be looking to advance to super regionals.
X-Factor: The return of Brandon Leibrandt
Entering the 2014 season the strength of FSU’s roster looked to be the pitching rotation. Luke Weaver, Brandon Leibrandt, and Mike Compton combined to provide FSU with one of the top rotations in the country and they helped the Seminoles to ascend to the top spot in the polls earlier this season.
A deep bone bruise on his knee forced Leibrandt to miss the second half of the season though and Florida State’s rotation has been patch worked together ever since. Bryant Holtmann served as Leibrandt’s replacement for five series before suffering a strained forearm against Virginia. Four different pitchers have filled the role since then and only Billy Strode has lasted more than two innings.
The added stress has decimated FSU’s bullpen as pitching coach Mike Bell and head coach Mike Martin have struggled to find reliable arms out of the pen. The team’s fortune changed for the better last week in Greensboro though when Leibrandt finally made it through a bullpen session without incident.
“The first maybe little bullpen was UNC. Maybe got like five ten pitches off it,” Leibrandt said about his recovery process. “Then the next week kinda 20, wasn’t completely gone. Then this last week in Greensboro the pain subsided and was ready to go.”
He followed that up by pitching a simulated game on Monday in which he impressed teammates and coaches alike.
“He’s been looking fantastic,” said Compton. “Just a couple of days ago he’s back to the old Leibrandt.”
Leibrandt will be available to pitch this weekend although it has not been announced in what capacity he will be used. Compton will pitch in the first game against Georgia Southern and Luke Weaver will start game two against either Kennesaw State or Alabama. The starter for a possible third game has not been announced though.
Biggest Question Mark: Can the bullpen hold it together
Leibrandt’s return gives the Seminoles a major boost, but the team will still need to work through the problems its pen has had lately. If either Weaver of Compton struggle the team is low on arms to come in and save the day. Gage Smith has been Mr. Consistent in his 38 appearances this season. Except for closer Jameis Winston the rest of the staff is anything but consistent. Billy Strode will most likely be needed to pitch in game three leaving Dylan Silva, Alec Byrd, Brandon Johnson, Taylor Blatch and Peter Miller to pick up the slack. All of them have been strong at times, but they have each struggled with command and the ability to perform in pressure situations. Silva has been the best of the bunch, but if FSU needs to go deeper in the pen it could spell trouble for the Seminoles.
The Crimson Tide enters the Tallahassee regional as the No. 2 seed. Alabama finished eighth in the SEC during the regular season and lost to Kentucky in the first round of the SEC tournament. Alabama will play in the Tallahassee regional for the third time in the last four years.
X-Factor: Power Surge
During the regular season and conference tournament Alabama was one of the top homerun hitting teams in the country. The Crimson Tide finished with 40 home runs which ranked second in the SEC and 14th nationally. The team was led by outfielder Ben Moore who has hit a career high nine home runs so far this season. Every regular starter for the Crimson Tide has hit a home run this season and they have eight players that have hit multiple home runs.
Biggest question mark: Can they rebound from the late season skid
Alabama rose as high as No. 8 in the Baseball American poll earlier this season, but following a late season performance drop-off the Crimson Tide enter the tournament unranked. They have lost 11 of their last 17 games dating back to April 20th. During that time Alabama has faced some stiff competition with weekend series against LSU, South Carolina, and Florida- all of whom were ranked in the top ten at the time of the series. The Tide’s biggest problem during their recent struggles has been their offense. They have scored three of fewer runs 11 times in the last 17 games (not all loses) including in their last game against Kentucky when they could muster all of one run.
If Alabama hopes to have an extended stay in Tallahassee they will have to find a way to recapture the magic and start producing runs once again. They face Kennesaw State Friday afternoon to open the tournament.
Kennesaw State will be making its first ever regional appearance this weekend after joining Division I in 2006. The Owls enter the post-season ranked No. 27 by Collegiate Baseball, marking the first time they have been ranked in program history. Kennesaw received an automatic bid to the tournament after winning their first even A-Sun championship last weekend.
X-Factor: Max Pentecost
Florida State has the ACC player of the year in D.J. Stewart, but the best player in the Tallahassee regional may be Kennesaw catcher Max Pentecost. Baseball America has him ranked as the 12th overall prospect in the upcoming draft and their latest mock draft has him going fourth overall to the Cubs.
Pentecost was named A-Sun player of the year after finishing the regular season with a 104 hits, top in the nation, and a .423 batting average, the second highest in the nation. Pentecost also has 16 stolen bases, nine home runs, and 32 extra base hits on the season.
Kennesaw State head coach Mike Sansing said Thursday that Pentecost has carried the team on his back all season. In order for the Owls to keep their season going Pentecost will have to continue to carry them even as the level of competition increases greatly.
Biggest question: Is their winning streak all smoke and mirrors
Kennesaw State has been one of the hottest teams in the country for the second half of the season. The Owls have won 23 of their last 24 games with the only loss coming mid-week against Western Carolina. The biggest question about the team is whether the winning streak is simply a product of facing inferior competition.
According to Warren Nolen. Com Kennesaw State ranks 102nd in the country in strength of schedule and 20 of the Owls’ 23 wins during their recent winning streak have come against teams with an RPI of 150 or higher. Kennesaw State will have a chance to answer this question in the first round of regional play. The Owls face off against Alabama who currently sits at 21st in RPI according to Warren Nolan.
Georgia Southern will make their first regional appearance since 2011 when the face off against Florida State Friday evening. The Eagles received an automatic bid to the tournament after winning the Southern Conference tournament.
X-Factor: Jason Richman
Relief pitcher Jason Richman will be one of the most important players for the Eagles during the regional. Florida State’s batters are notorious for being patient at the plate and forcing starters to leave early due to high pitch counts. This makes reliable arms out of the pen a necessity and Richman has been one of the best in the country this season.
He leads the nation with 45 appearances and he ranks second with a 1.06 ERA on the season. During last week’s SoCon tournament Richman appeared in all six games even after his mother passed away during the tournament. His ability to pitch well on an almost daily basis will be key for the Eagles during regional play.
Biggest question: Can their offense produce against tougher competition
The Eagles have been one of the top offensive teams in the country all season. They rank fourth nationally with 59 home runs on the season and eighth with 401 runs scored. The question is can they produce against the level of competition they will face in Tallahassee.
Florida State boasts one of the top staffs in the country and Kennesaw and Alabama each have multiple quality starters. The Eagles scored 18 runs against Georgia at the beginning of the season and 14 against Clemson, but they have been held in check at times during the season.
Here is the complete schedule for the Tallahassee Regional: