DII baseball: Let's break down every region in the tournament
The 2018 DII Baseball Championship is upon us. Six of the eight teams that made it to Grand Prairie, Texas return for a shot at the title, with reigning champion West Chester on everybody’s radar after earning a top seed in its region.
With the regional selections announced and ready to commence this Thursday, May 17, let’s take a look around the country at teams to watch.
Team to beat: West Chester
Team to watch: Seton Hill
The Atlantic Region is stacked with Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference teams, and the defending champion Golden Rams have to be considered the favorite. West Chester got off to a bumpy start to 2018, coming out of its first tournament 2-2 and losing big to a St. Thomas Aquinas team that made it to the semifinals last season. If West Chester survives this region, look to Jared Melone to be the MVP. The junior first baseman hit a PSAC-best .480 with 10 home runs this season. Shortstop Nick Ward is a player to watch as well. Ward not only improved offensively this season but made some memorable defensive plays in the championship last season.
The problem is this is one of the toughest regions in the tournament. Millersville is dangerous with Eli Nabholz (8-3, 2.34 ERA, 76 strikeouts) and Cordell Shannon (8-2, 2.86 ERA, 65 strikeouts) atop the rotation. Heading into the season, NCAA.com called Seton Hill a sleeper in this region, and that hasn’t changed. The Griffins won their second-straight PSAC tournament and have a nice balance of pitching and hitting. If they figure out how to play their best baseball in May, they are a dangerous force.
Team to beat: Southern Arkansas
Team to watch: Augustana (SD)
With Lindenwood not in the postseason, there will be a new Central Region champion in 2018. Augustana (S.D.) comes into the postseason as a bit of a dark horse with the No. 5 seed, but the Vikings' pitching is deep. Starter Jacob Blank opened the Vikings' Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament title run with eight innings of three-hit, shutout baseball and will be looked to start the regional tournament the same way. The offense won't beat you with the long ball, but it grinds out doubles and hits and can put up runs.
Central Missouri won its conference tournament in walk-off fashion. The Mules have been in the top 25 for much of the season and that late spark may help them roll to this region's title. Southern Arkansas is the No. 1 seed, automatically putting them on watch. Closer Eric White may be an X-factor here, his 1.98 ERA and eight saves looming large at the back of the bullpen. This should be a competitive region, and the Muleriders advantage of being named host could prove big.
Team to beat: St. Thomas Aquinas
Team to watch: Merrimack
New Haven is the top seed in a brutal East Region, but St. Thomas Aquinas still has a lot of the key pieces that propelled them through the region last year. Giovanni Dingcong and Joseph Pena are two of the more exciting offensive weapons in DII baseball and Frankie Moscatiello is as much an ace as any in the tournament.
That will be the key to winning this region: pitching. Three of DII baseball’s top team ERAs – New Haven, Southern New Hampshire and Franklin Pierce — hail from the East. No. 1 New Haven will be a handful, as three of its starters posted sub-3.00 ERAs. That’s why Merrimack is the sleeper in this region. Throw away stats, throw away elite players. Merrimack defeated Franklin Pierce, Le Moyne, Southern New Hampshire and New Haven twice on the way to its first Northeast-10 title in 22 years. Sometimes the hottest teams find a way to ride the wave.
Team to beat: Illinois-Springfield
Team to watch: Northwood
The Prairie Stars stumbled in their conference tournament, getting bumped by a very tough Southern Indiana team. But UIS set a program record for wins in 2018, and that was thanks to a nice blend of power and pitching. The Prairie Stars have a pair of sluggers in Michael Rothmund and Nick Stokowski that belted 21 home runs apiece and their 2.81 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine both ranked in the top 10 of DII baseball. This team has balance, and that is a dangerous weapon in the postseason.
One of the feel-good stories from last season, Northwood had an abysmal February, starting the season 1-5 before righting the ship. The Timberwolves closed the season going 37-9, claiming their second-straight Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title along the way. David Vinsky is proving to be one of the best hitters in DII baseball and Tyler Jandron is a handful for opposing hitters on the bump. This team fell short of the final eight last season. You can be sure they remember that feeling from last year and will use it as motivation.
Team to beat: Delta State
Team to watch: All of them
The South Region tournament will be one for the ages. Four top 25 teams face off and all four are legitimate threats for the national championship.
Delta State has arguably the most dangerous offensive power in DII baseball for two years running. Zack Shannon improved on his 2017 Player of the Year campaign, nearly winning the DII baseball triple crown with a .425 batting average and DII-best 29 home runs and 86 RBIs. As usual, Tampa has one of the best pitching staffs in the nation, its 2.67 ERA and 1.13 WHIP second-best in the division. Nova Southeastern’s offense is explosive with slugging catcher Jake Anchia and the Sunshine State Conference all-time hit king Dylan Harris leading the way. Florida Southern is led by Golden Spikes finalist and two-way superstar Logan Browning and the perfect J.T. Hintzen (12-0) on the bump.
Those four teams alone have combined for 24 appearances in the national final series, coming away with a combined 18 national championships. There is not only some good baseball coming out of this region, they have history on their side.
Team to beat: Colorado Mesa
Team to watch: Tarleton State
Both the Mavericks and West Texas A&M will be tough to beat. The Buffs have an advantage as the host team, but the Colorado Mesa offense is always scary. West Texas A&M junior righty Joe Corbett has had a fine season in the Buffs rotation and gives them reliable innings every time out, going at least seven in his last seven starts. Mesa’s offense has been paced by Hunter Douglas who leads the team in average (.420) and on-base percentage (.528), but everyone on this team can hit. Mavericks’ arms like Chris Ramirez and Kyle Leahy gained valuable experience down the stretch last season and that may give them the slight edge.
Tarleton State enters the tournament as the No. 6 seed, but certainly is a team to watch. The Texans have scored double-digit runs in five of their last six games, including a 15-7 victory over West Texas A&M in the Lone Star Conference championship game.
Team to beat: North Greenville
Team to watch: Columbus State
The Southeast is always a fun region because of the offensive firepower. Often times, the team with the hottest pitching survives. That was the case with North Georgia last season, who advanced all the way to Grand Prairie, but did not make the postseason this year. That means the Southeast will have a new champion in 2018.
North Greenville has the luxury of hosting the tournament as well as a first round bye in the seven-team region. That will come in handy after traveling to Florida in a non-conference battle with Nova Southeastern after locking up the Conference Carolinas championship. Connor Grant and John Jones lead the offensive charge, combining for a .393 average and 17 home runs. Tucker Burgess has made an incredible 17 starts, going 14-2 with a 2.84 ERA. North Greenville hopes he has a few more innings left in that arm.
As always, the Peach Belt Conference was a run-producing factory, as Georgia College, UNC Pembroke and Columbus State were amongst DII baseball’s best, all scoring over 400 runs. Georgia College had the best average in the division, and Logan Mattix has become one of the most dynamic players in DII baseball, hitting .401 with a team-best nine home runs and 66 RBI. Something about the Cougars says sleeper in this region. Maybe it is Austin Pharr and his .350 average and 14 home runs. Maybe it is Kolton Ingram and his 2.35 ERA and 122 strikeouts. No matter the case, the Cougars are a team to watch here, especially if they can come out of their first-round matchup against UNC Pembroke’s tricky offense with a win.
Team to beat: Cal State Monterey Bay
Team to watch: California Baptist
Cal State Monterey Bay gets the nod as the team to beat simply because it is the No. 1 seed. The bottom line is in the Wild West, anything can happen.
UC San Diego proved that last year, coming out of a stacked region and advancing all the way to the championship game. With seven wins in a row, including victories over the Otters and Chico State on the Tritons run through the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, UC San Diego could find its way to Cary, N.C. The CCAA’s top offense has big bats like Zander Clarke (.399, 15 home runs) in a lineup full of them, with names like Tyler Durna and Alex Eliopulos looking for their second trip to the final eight.
The Otters are led by TJ Dove and the slugging duo of Jacob Tonascia and Hayden Duer, who tied for the conference lead with 16 home runs each. They will have their hands full with a Chico State team that had the CCAA’s top pitching staff. Speaking of top staffs, California Baptist, one of two teams in this region set to jump to Division I, looks to end its DII era on top. The Lancers had the PacWest’s top pitching staff with a deep arsenal of pitchers like Logan Rinehart, Justin Montgomery, Andrew Bash, Andrew Bernstein and Dylan Stowell to name just a few. Paired with an offense that can get the bat on the ball consistently, the Lancers could make some noise. They have a tough opening round matchup against an Azusa Pacific team that made program history in 2018, reaching No.1 in DII baseball. We should know a lot about this region right out of the gates.