Gold: Pac-12 baseball tournament preview
There may be only one legitimate question entering this week’s Pac-12 Baseball Tournament, which will be held from Tuesday-Saturday at Scottsdale Stadium, in Scottsdale, Ariz.: Can anyone slow down the quick bats of mighty Stanford?
But there are other questions, too, including what is this thing going to look like?
Here’s a look at what’s on our minds heading into Tuesday’s…
What exactly is the format again?
Last year, 8 teams competed in Scottsdale in a double-elimination tournament, the first conference tournament for the sport since 1978, with Stanford emerging on top after outscoring opponents 35-20 in 4 games, including a 9-5 championship game win over No. 2-seed Oregon State.
This year, the tournament will expand to 9 teams and introduce pool play. Only Washington State and Utah, which finished 10-19 and 9-20 in the Pac-12, respectively, were left out of the tournament field.
Each of the 3 pools will participate in round-robin play, with 3 games per day, and each of the 3 pool winners advance to Friday’s single-elimination semifinals, along with a wild card team, which will be determined by the best record of the non-advancing teams.
In Pool 1, the top-seeded Cardinal must contend with No. 6 Oregon and No. 9 Cal; in Pool 2, No. 2 Oregon State joins the Territorial Cup duo of No. 5 Arizona State and No. 8 Arizona; while in Pool 3, upstart No. 3-seed Washington and the soon-to-be-departing Los Angeles schools, No. 4 USC and No. 7 UCLA.
“Even with the great success of the inaugural Pac-12 Baseball Tournament, we feel like these adjustments will make the event even better for both our student-athletes and our fans,” Pac-12 Deputy Commissioner Teresa Gould said in an announcement about the format change in October. “The move to a maximum of 3 games per day will allow start times to be staggered to times that will create the best playing conditions for the student-athletes as well as the best atmosphere for our fans. Adding a ninth team to the tournament also expands the postseason experience for another university while also giving that team potential access to an NCAA Tournament berth. This also allows allows as many teams as possible to be well prepared to compete in the NCAA Tournament the following weekend.”
Who are the players to watch?
Stanford’s big bats (and big arms): Stanford’s otherworldly offense was out in full force in the team’s regular-season finale at Washington State. The Cardinal closed out a 3-game sweep — its 7th this year — with a 15-5 rout of the Cougars. And all the big bats were on display.
The heart of the Stanford lineup — 2-hitter Tommy Troy, Graham Carter, cleanup hitter Braden Montgomery, potential Pac-12 Player of the Year Alberto Rios and stud catcher Malcolm Moore — went a combined 15-for-23 on Sunday with 12 RBIs, 7 runs, 3 doubles, 2 home runs and 2 steals.
Meanwhile, Stanford’s Sunday starter Joey Dixon moved to 6-0 with a terrific performance, making up for shaky weekend outings by Quinn Mathews and Brandt Pancer, who should bounce back in a big way this week.
Oregon State’s veteran trio: Oregon State’s Travis Bazzana, Micah McDowell and Garrett Forrester rank among the league’s best hitters, even if their power numbers are a bit down.
Bazzana is having a POY-type year, leading the league in stolen bases, walks and in runs scored (by a 9-run margin), while also ranking 5th in the league in batting, 2nd in hits, 3rd in doubles and 11th in RBIs.
Arizona and ASU’s dangerous duos: Both sides of the Territorial Cup coin have a pair of sluggers who lead the way.
Ryan Campos and Luke Keaschall are two of the biggest outliers in the Pac-12, far-and-away the Sun Devils’ top producers. While no other ASU player is batting better than .316, Campos ranks 4th in the league with a .395 average and Keaschall ranks 10th at .349. Campus also ranks 2nd in on-base percentage, while Keaschall leads the league in doubles with 25 and is tied for 3rd in home runs (17) with Arizona’s Kiko Romero.
Romero and teammate Chase Davis are 2 of the great mashers in the league, with Davis pacing the Pac-12 in home runs with 19 and both ranking in the top 3 in RBIs. Romero has knocked in 80, 17 more than Stanford’s Rios.
The Pac’s powerful pitchers: Aside from Stanford’s Mighty Quinn (Mathews), UCLA’s Kelly Austin (4-4, 3.26 ERA, 92 strikeouts in 77.1 innings), USC’s Caden Aoki (4-2, 2.78, 48 Ks), Oregon State’s Trent Sellers (6-5, 5.13 ERA, 101 Ks) and Washington’s Stu Flesland III (6-2, 3.97 ERA, 75 Ks) and Kiefer Lord (6-4, 4.99 ERA, 74 Ks) are among the top pitchers to keep an eye on.
Can anyone knock off Stanford?
Well, probably not.
Stanford is ranked 4th nationally by Baseball America, and only 1 other Pac-12 team was ranked (No. 17 Oregon State). The last time the Cardinal played a ranked conference team, the Cardinal swept the then-No. 20 Sun Devils in Temple in early May. Stanford dropped 2 at Oregon and 2 at USC earlier this year, but aside from that, they’ve won or swept every league series.
It would be a surprise to see them knocked out in a double-elimination format, once pool play ends.
Who can lock up an NCAA Tournament berth?
As it stands, Baseball America has only 1 Pac-12 program among the last four in (USC) or first four out, so this week in Scottsdale might not mean a ton.
Stanford is a lock to host a regional, and Oregon State is making a case, as well. Washington, Oregon, and Arizona State should feel very good about their tourney chances. USC should feel optimistic as well.
With sub-.500 conference records, it would be a surprise to see UCLA or Cal get in.
Can any bottom 3 seeds pull off a deep run?
The Bruins have been decimated by injuries and Cal’s offense has struggled, with the 2 teams ranking at the bottom of the league’s hitting categories.
But Arizona has the best-hitting offense in the Pac-12, with a league-leading .317 team batting average. If the Wildcats can limit their strikeouts — and get some from a pitching staff that ranks 2nd-worst with a 5.90 ERA — they could pull off a run.