OMAHA, NE - JUNE 28: "The Road To Omaha" statue before game 2 of the men's 2011 NCAA College Baseball World Series between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Florida Gators at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha on June 28, 2011 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The Pac-12 has been a better conference than it was in 2012. It has also been a deeper conference before. But it would be hard to find a year in the last decade when the conference was as good at the top as it was in 2012.
The selection committee reaffirmed the strength of the top half of the conference on Monday when it released the brackets for the NCAA Tournament. UCLA was awarded the number two national seed and Oregon was awarded the number five national seed, while Arizona and Stanford were both named Regional hosts. Had Arizona St. not been ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA violations under former head coach Pat Murphy, the conference very well could have been looking at five hosts spots.
The Bruins, Ducks, Wildcats and Cardinal still give the Pac-12 plenty of strength at the top of the conference and four legitimate national title threats. And they are joined in the postseason by one more Pac-12 team, Oregon St., the Jekyll and Hyde team of the conference that could very well go out quick in the Regionals, but could also find their way to the College World Series.
Omaha, here comes the Pac-12.
UCLA Bruins (Los Angeles Regional)
With a 42-14 record against the fourth toughest schedule in the country, a Pac-12 co-championship and a slew of impressive series wins, it was no surprise to see the Bruins nab a Regional host and a national seed. In fact, there was talk that they could get the number one national seed, but the second will do just fine. UCLA has the important part down -- a national seed that will keep them at Jackie Robinson Stadium in both the Regionals and Super Regionals.
This is the third consecutive year that UCLA will host a Regional and this is probably the easiest Regional they have had in those three years. It is not an easy Regional by any means, but after getting LSU shipped out in 2010 and arguably the deepest Regional in the country last year, the Bruins are happy to have what is widely agreed to be a fair Regional. San Diego, New Mexico and Creighton join the Bruins in Los Angeles, giving UCLA a test, but one that most expect they will pass.
UCLA will be challenged from the very start against Creighton, who have the exact thing the Bruins didn't want to see from their fourth seeded opponent -- a left-handed ace. Ty Blach has had dominant outings before and can have another one against the left-handed heavy Bruin offense, but the Blue Jays don't offer much else. San Diego is the all-around solid team in the Regional, adding their best offense in years to their typically strong pitching, while New Mexico has the fourth best offense in the country. Granted, they play at elevation in a hitter friendly park, but the Lobos can hit and they are red hot, having won their last nine.
The one thing that could be the different for the Bruins is their bullpen. Scott Griggs, Ryan Deeter, David Berg and Grant Watson give them a set of relievers that no other team in the Regional can match. Along with an offense hitting .310 as a team and a red-hot Adam Plutko leading the rotation, the Bruins are the undoubted favorites at their home ballpark.
Oregon Ducks (Eugene Regional)
Five years ago, Oregon didn't even have a baseball program. Now they are the number five national seed getting ready to host a Regional. The only explanation for this is that George Horton is a wizard.
What Horton and the Ducks have managed up in Eugene is incredible. Fans may be lamenting their sweep at the hands of Oregon St. last weekend that saw them lose out on the conference title, but they still finished the season 42-17 with a team that doesn't have overwhelming talent. They don't have many huge arms and have very little power at the plate, but they throw strikes, field the ball and manufacture runs and the number five national seed is proof of its effectiveness. Horton the Wizard.
Horton will have a familiar bunch in Eugene this weekend with Cal St. Fullerton the two seed in the Regional. Before taking the Oregon job, Horton was the head coach at Fullerton and led the Titans to a national title in 2004. The Horton and Fullerton reunion is one of the best story lines this postseason, but it may not be a pleasant one for the Ducks. The Titans just missed out on a Regional host spot and will rally challenge the Ducks for a Super Regional spot. Nether Indiana St. nor Austin Peay figure to threaten for the Regional title, but with the Sycamores' pitching and Governors' offense, they could pull an upset and send either the Ducks or Titans to the loser's bracket.
The Ducks and Titans are very similar teams, which is to be expected considering that Fullerton is led by Horton's former top assistant Rick Vanderhook. Neither team has hard throwing pitchers, but they throw strikes (Fullerton walks fewer batters than any team in the country) and have excellent defenses (Oregon led the Pac-12 in fielding percentage). Neither team offers a lot offensively and both rely on a lot of bunts and free passes to get things going. This one could come down to whether the understudy, Vanderhook, can keep up with the master, Horton.
Arizona (Tucson Regional)
The last time that Arizona won a conference title was way back in 1993, or at least that was the base before this season. With a series win over rivals Arizona St. last weekend, the Wildcats grabbed a share of the Pac-12 title and with it, the chance to host their first Regional since 1992.
The Wildcats will be welcoming New Mexico St., Louisville and Missouri to a new home, too, having moved to the former spring training home of the Rockies, Hi Corbett Field, for this season. It is a park that has served Arizona well, allowing the Wildcats to take advantage of the stadium's big gaps and quick infield with their athleticism en route to a 25-10 home record.
The committee treated Arizona almost as well as their new stadium has, gifting them a Regional that the Wildcats should win. New Mexico St. has a nice offense, but they were a bubble team that was inexplicably given a two seed. Louisville is the biggest threat to Arizona in the Regional with Justin Amlung and Jared Ruxler leading an outstanding starting rotation and a solid bullpen backing them up, but they are an average defense at best and struggle with the bats. Meanwhile, Missouri got hot last week and won the Big 12 Tournament to get into a Regional, but they are short on pitching and hitting.
Kurt Heyer is a bona fide ace and had a strong argument for Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and Alex Mejia did get some silverware, earning Pac-12 Player of the Year honors and Johnny Field led the conference in hitting. The Wildcats have some very high end talent and they are led by the Pac-12's Coach of the Year, Andy Lopez. At home, with a gift Regional and loaded with talent, the Wildcats should have some more baseball to play next weekend in the Super Regionals.
Stanford (Palo Alto Regional)
At what point do you say that Stanford just doesn't have "it"? They are undoubtedly the most talented team in the Pac-12, yet they finished tied for fourth. They looked sensational in beating Rice, Vanderbilt, Arizona St. and UCLA this year, but with a chance to win the Pac-12 and maybe even snag a national seed in the season's final weekend, they lost two of three to a reeling Cal squad. Talent doesn't mean a hell of a lot when you can't be counted on to show up regularly.
The reality is that Stanford is a good team. They wouldn't be hosting a Regional if they weren't, but they are graded on a curve. The talent on the team is incredible and can really only be matched by Florida. They earned their Regional host, but they are going to have to show some consistency if they want to have a chance to make it to Omaha, where their talent dictates they should be.
The Cardinal weren't particularly lucky in their Regional draw though. Fresno St., the four seed and Stanford's first opponent, already took a game from the Cardinal earlier this year and beat up on Mark Appel in the process. The offense finally showed up for the Bulldogs last weekend, but it can't really be counted on. The offense hasn't been particularly impressive for two seed Pepperdine either, but they have some depth on the mound, led by the fantastic Jon Moscot. Michigan rounds out the Regional, but they shouldn't have even gotten a postseason bid.
Let's keep things simple: Stanford should win this Regional without much of a problem. Appel could be the number one overall pick in June's MLB Draft and there is plenty of depth behind him. Eric Smith is a .329 hitter and Stephen Piscotty, Brian Ragira, Austin Wilson and Jake Stewart are all impact, power bats. This team should have no problem with three teams who all have holes, but they've had trouble when they shouldn't have before.
Oregon St. (Baton Rouge Regional)
You don't want to face the Beavers at their best and your local high school team might be able to beat them at their worst. That is to say that they could make it to Omaha as easily as they could go two and BBQ this weekend and there is no indicator as to which Oregon St. team you will see this weekend. Then again, that's what you get from extraordinarily young teams, which the Beavers are.
The Baton Rouge Regional is one of the easier ones in the country so the Beavers did catch a break in that respect. Louisiana-Monroe and Belmont should not pose much of a threat, leaving it to just Oregon St. and LSU. Oh, yeah, LSU. And at Alex Box Stadium to boot? Good luck.
The Tigers are one of the most well-rounded teams in the country and will challenge the Beavers in every aspect. Jace Fry and Dan Schultz give the Beavers two outstanding starters, but what Oregon St. has behind that is a major question mark, especially in the bullpen. There is also the matter of how they handle one of the most raucous home crowds in the country. The Beavers have the talent to pull off an upset this weekend, but the odds are against them. That won't be the case next year when they are a top 10 team and favorite at the College World Series.