After a regular season filled with ups and downs, the Fightin' Texas Aggies are headed to the postseason for the 8th consecutive season. Texas A&M officially received an NCAA Tournament berth this morning, being slotted in as the 3 seed at the Rice regional in Houston. The NCAA Selection Committee was unable to pass up the opportunity to pair the Aggies against the Texas Longhorns, a matchup which will open the regional on Friday. This will be the first edition of the former Lone Star Showdown between the Aggies and Longhorns in a major men's sport since A&M departed the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
The Aggies took the final series between the in-state rivals back during the 2012 season, winning a game in College Station and then splitting the pair of games in Austin. 3 current players on the A&M roster started in the series-clinching victory against the Longhorns, and all 3 of them collected hits - Blake Allemand went 2-4 with 3 RBI, Troy Stein went 2-3 with 2 runs, and Krey Bratsen was 1-5 with 2 RBI. That series win was actually the first for A&M over Texas since 2003, as Rob Childress' teams have historically not fared well against Augie Garrido's bunch from Austin.
I expect tickets to sell out extremely quickly for this regional, as Aggies and Longhorns will rush at the opportunity to see their teams play each other again. Rice is likely to be outnumbered in their own stadium in every game except for their first one, so it should be a fun weekend of baseball in H-Town. ESPN will be all over getting this one televised as well, knowing that they're likely to get some nice ratings despite it being baseball, so if you're not able to get tickets you can feel confident on being able to watch easily.
(1) Rice Owls
Season Record: 41-18
Conference (C-USA) Record: 23-7
Notable Wins: TCU, Old Dominion (3/4), SHSU, Stanford (2/3)
Notable Losses: Houston (2/2), Texas A&M, Texas (2/3), Texas Tech, East Carolina (2/3), Middle Tennessee State (2/3)
Players to Watch: LHP Blake Fox (12-0, 1.38, 65 K)
RHP Matt Ditman (5-5, 1.72, 77 K)
1B Skyler Ewing (330/496/398, 14 2B, 8 HR, 46 RBI)
LF Michael Aquino (323/500/358, 16 2B, 2 3B, 7 HR, 44 RBI)
Quick Analysis: Rice has certainly mastered the art of scheduling. The Owls play in a weak conference, so they win the majority of their conference games and then schedule strong midweek opponents in order to boost their RPI. Rice's best series wins of the season are over Old Dominion (#36 RPI) and Stanford (#47 RPI), and they also dropped series against East Carolina (#75 RPI) and Middle Tennessee State (#88 RPI). Their team is pretty well-balanced between pitching and hitting, sporting a team ERA of 2.50 (2nd in C-USA) and a team batting average of .294 (1st in C-USA). Sophomore LHP Blake Fox was undefeated in the regular season, winning 12 games in 14 starts and throwing shutouts in 4 of those. The Owls have 5 regular starters who sport a batting average over .300, but they're not exactly a power team having hit 23 home runs on the season (A&M has 24). They will probably enter the regional as the favorites to advance, but this is probably one where folks wouldn't be shocked to see either the 2 or 3 seed get through to the supers.
(2) Texas Longhorns
Season Record: 38-18
Conference (Big 12) Record: 13-11
Notable Wins: Rice (2/3), Houston, SHSU, Stanford (2/3), Texas Tech (3/4)
Notable Losses: Oklahoma State (4/6), TCU (3/3), Kansas (2/3)
Players to Watch: RHP Nathan Thornhill (6-2, 1.51, 49 K, 2 SV)
LHP Dillon Peters (7-3, 2.13, 53 K)
CF Mark Payton (319/446/457, 13 2B, 5 3B, 1 HR, 35 RBI)
LF Ben Johnson (279/441/385, 9 2B, 3 3B, 6 HR, 31 RBI)
Quick Analysis: Texas appeared to be on track towards hosting a regional and perhaps even earning a national seed back in mid-April after series wins over Oklahoma and Texas Tech and a sweep of Baylor. The Longhorns, however, faltered in a big way to close out the Big 12 season, and in the process knocked themselves out of the right to host a regional. Series losses to Oklahoma State and West Virginia and a sweep at the hands of TCU (in Austin) ultimately doomed the Longhorns to a 13-11 record to close Big 12 play. Pitching is the strength of this Texas team; the Horns rank 2nd best in the Big 12 in terms of team ERA at 2.45, and they have 7 pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings with an ERA of under 3. Scoring runs has been an issue, however, as they rank second to last in the Big 12 in both runs scored (261) and batting average (266). It's worth noting that they have drawn the second to most walks in the conference this season, though, and they also have the third fewest strikeouts. It's a classic Augie Garrido small-ball offense - just 19 home runs on the season for Texas - so we'll see if they're able to manufacture enough runs when it matters.
(3) Texas A&M Aggies
Season Record: 33-24
Conference (SEC) Record: 14-16
Notable Wins: Florida (2/3), LSU (2/3), Vanderbilt (2/3), Rice, SHSU (2/2), Mississippi State (2/3)
Notable Losses: Ole Miss (2/3), Kentucky (2/3), Alabama (2/3), Georgia (2/3), Auburn (2/3), Fresno State (3/3)
Players to Watch: RHP Grayson Long (6-2, 3.07, 52 K)
RHP AJ Minter (2-0, 1.31, 21 K, 2 SV)
1B Cole Lankford (333/429/359, 10 2B, 4 HR, 42 RBI)
RF Nick Banks (348/461/409, 10 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 25 RBI)
Quick Analysis: If I'm looking at the historical numbers correctly, this marks the first time that Texas A&M has entered regional play as lower than a 2 seed. The Aggies had opportunities late in the season to improve their resume, but losing the last regular season series of the year to Ole Miss and going one-and-done in the SEC Tournament slammed the door on that possibility. A&M has a number of impressive series wins in 2014, including 3 over teams that are hosting regionals and 2 of which will likely be national seeds. There are also more than a few head scratching losses, though, to the likes of Auburn and Fresno State, that sum up the inconsistency of this year's team. The hitting has actually improved quite a bit from some early season struggles, but A&M's success or failure in regional play is going to hinge on the pitching. Can the Aggies actually win the first game of a regional - something they did just once all season in SEC play - against a team like Texas? That's probably going to determine whether this team has a chance of advancing, as there likely isn't enough depth on the roster to come through the loser's side of the regional.
(4) George Mason Patriots
Season Record: 34-20
Conference (A-10) Record: 16-
Notable Wins: Illinois
Notable Losses: North Carolina, Maryland (2/2)
Players to Watch: LHP David Speer (7-2, 1.86, 75 K)
2B Will Savage (338/428/401, 8 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 14 SB)
CF Jordan Serena (302/385/404, 9 2B, 3 3B, 13 RBI, 25 SB)
RF Gus Craig (276/493/339, 9 2B, 3 3B, 6 HR, 25 RBI)
Quick Analysis: George Mason enters NCAA Regional play after sweeping through the A-10 Tournament, including a pair of wins over VCU. The Patriots finished 3rd in conference play in the regular season, and feature a team ERA of 3.14 and a team batting average of .271. They've got a few guys who can hit for average and get on base, but are lacking in the power department. They've had solid starting pitching, however, which can certainly be a strength in regional play. If George Mason can manage to upset the Owls in their first game, things could get pretty interesting.
Friday, May 30
Gm1: (3) Texas A&M vs (2) Texas - 3pm
Gm 2: (4) George Mason vs (1) Rice - 7pm
Saturday, May 30
Gm3: Loser Gm1 vs Loser Gm2 - TBD*
Gm4: Winner Gm1 vs Winner Gm2 - TBD
Sunday, May 31
Gm5: Winner Gm3 vs Loser Gm4 - TBD*
Gm6: Winner Gm4 vs Winner Gm5 - TBD
Monday, June 1
Gm7, if necessary: Winner Gm4 vs Winner Gm5 - TBD*