Weekend Preview — April 23, 2015

With our first conference tournaments underway, the weekend previews be focusing on the games that matter most to the title races and playoff chases from here on out. Since I’m doing separate previews for every conference tournament, I’ll keep that material out of the regular weekend preview post. This week, for example, you can find my look at the GNAC and NEWMAC Tournaments elsewhere.

I’ve gotta admit, it feels good not to start every piece with how bad the weather is. We’re still feeling its effects in the form of packed schedules (tripleheaders, anyone?), but the sun’s come out, and the playoff races are heating up. It’s looking like a heck of a year for New England Division I teams at the moment, with UConn and BC in the mix for at-large bids and league leaders in the NEC, MAAC, and Patriot League. In Division II, Franklin Pierce is having a historic season, and somehow I doubt they’ll be the only team making noise this May. In Division III, conference tournament season is upon us, and it looks to be even more exciting than usual, with few if any teams preparing resumes the committee can’t say no to. It’s a stressful time for the players, coaches, and fans involved, but it’s also a ton of fun. Here’s a look ahead to this weekend.

Division I

D1Baseball’s Mark Etheridge, Aaron Fitt, and Kendall Rogers podcasted the tournament field this past week, and when they discussed the MAAC’s autobid, they went back and forth between Quinnipiac and better-known Canisius before settling on the latter. In and of itself, it’s a testament to how far QU’s come, from missing the NEC Tournament in their last year in the conference, to a MAAC Tourney bid this year, to getting national facetime as one of the best teams in their conference this year. My first thought, with last year’s 40-win Golden Griffin team in my mind, was that they got it right, but the more I look at things, the more I think Quinnipiac’s got the better resume. Canisius is below .500 (19-22) against an atrocious non-league schedule (#290 of 301), good for an RPI of #257. They might boast a win over Coastal Carolina, but even for a northern conference, those numbers aren’t good. Quinnipiac, on the other hand, has an RPI inside the top 200 (#198) against a better non-conference SOS (#181). They own the better record against the common non-conference opponent (at James Madison, QU split, and Canisius got swept in four), they’ve done better lately (12-3 in April to Canisius’s 7-7), and they’ve yet to lose a series in conference. Quinnipiac hosts Marist this weekend in a series I’d favor them to win, while Canisius drives seven hours for a tough roadie at Monmouth. We’ll await those results, of course, but at the moment, I think Quinnipiac’s the better projection.

In the ACC, Boston College has played themselves into at-large contention with an 8-4 mark in their last four conference series, and they’ll look to keep that going in Chapel Hill this weekend. These may not be the Tar Heels of a few years ago, when they were everyone’s safest bet for Omaha, but they’re still talented and ranked. The Eagles will need to keep up the excellent pitching of the Georgia Tech series to take a game or two here. Mike King made the Techsters look silly in a complete-game one-hitter last week, and if he pitches up to his 2.03 ERA and 36:8 K/BB ratio, look for BC to take at least one here.

Sitting only a game back of first in the A-10, Rhode Island faces perhaps its toughest remaining test in VCU down in Virginia. VCU may be sitting at just 7-5 in the league, but they’re coming off a midweek sweep of regional host contenders Maryland. The series will be played at Randolph-Macon (due to a scheduling conflict with the Richmond Squirrels, I’m guessing), something that should help URI. The left arm of Tyler Wilson will help too. Rhody’s freshman lefty has been lights-out in his first season at Rhody, going 5-0 with a 1.14 ERA. Opponents are hitting an paltry .126 off him. There’s a month still to go, but if that’s not Rookie or even Pitcher of the Year material, I can’t imagine what would be.

UConn wasn’t the preseason favorite in the American, but no one’s shocked to see them doing well. Their weekend opponent Memphis, on the other hand, has been a surprise. The voters picked them 7th in the preseason, ahead of only lowly Cincinnati, but sitting at 27-12 and tied for second, they’re showing exactly how meaningful preseason polls are. UConn, meanwhile, has had something of an odd start to conference play. In Division I home/road splits are usually pretty dramatic– there’s a reason the RPI counts a road win almost twice as much as a home one. This season’s UConn team has been the exception, winning 7 of 8 road series but going 0 for 2 at home, both in AAC series. They’ll look to change that when they host the Tigers this weekend. Sophomore Anthony Kay, fresh off accepting a national team invite, has been their best pitcher of late, giving up just three earned runs in the last three weekends combined. The Huskies are sitting pretty at #30 in the RPI, and they won’t want to let another home series loss start dragging that number down.

It’s no secret that Hartford hasn’t had the same season this year as in 2014, but heading into the last weekend of May, Justin Blood’s Hawks are sitting third in the America East at 6-7. They’ll punch a ticket to LeLacheur if they hold there, but the rest of the conference is right there with them. Maine, down in last place for the moment, is only a game behind them. Even if things weren’t that close, this weekend’s series with UMass Lowell would be crucial. After it, Hartford’s got only two more chances to put up wins in AEC play, both of them on the road. They visit first-place Stony Brook next weekend, then take the long trip to UMBC after a bye week. Going 2-4 in those series would be a good mark, so the Hawks could really use a sweep here to help them get to the 10 or 11 wins you usually need for a playoff spot. A hot Chris DelDebbio (3B, HR, 5 RBI in their last two games) should help, but don’t expect UML to roll over. The River Hawks may only be able to play spoiler for a couple more years of playoff ineligibility while they transition to Division I, but they’ve won two series on the trot in the AEC. With Ian Strom hitting .356 and stealing home these days, it’s got the makings of a great weekend at Fiondella.

Division II

Things have really settled out in the NE-10 Northeast in the past week, with Franklin Pierce’s win over SNHU all but sealing up the division and Stonehill’s sweep of Saint Anselm putting some real distance between them and fourth place. That still leaves us with two interesting races, though. SNHU-Stonehill for second place and home field in the opening round of the tournament, and the rest of the pack for the final playoff spot.

As far as that home field goes, Merrimack‘s visit to Southern New Hampshire is the biggest series. Merrimack has had a very average 14-14 season so far, but they still have weapons like Frank Crinella (.364/.469/.533) and Joe Carnevale (4-2, 1.61) who’ll cause problems for even a team of SNHU’s caliber. At home, though, the Penmen have an edge, especially when you consider their sweep of a non-conference doubleheader the two teams played back in March. On top of that, they come in as winners of 12 of 13 going back to early April. With Stonehill visiting last-place Saint Mike’s, SNHU needs at least a series win here to keep some breathing room between the two ahead of their final-weekend showdown.

Anything other than a Merrimack sweep would leave 6-6 Bentley as the only team in the bottom five with fewer than ten losses. If that scenario pans out, the Falcons likely seal their their fourth straight playoff appearance with a series win at Saint Anselm. At 8-16, their record may not seem like much, but they’ve played reasonably well since a 2-10 start, notching wins over SNHU, Merrimack, and Stonehill. Sophomore Evan Walsh has been on the mound during four of those wins, getting credit for the win in three of them. Most recently, he went eight against Stonehill to earn that all-important win for the Falcons. For Saint A’s, meanwhile, at 5-12 with a game against FPU remaining, a home series sweep here is likely a must for their playoff hopes.

In the Southwest, it’s still anybody’s ballgame. No one’s won at above a .650 clip, no one’s lost at worse than .350. For Southern Connecticut, sitting at 6-8 (a division-high loss total), a home sweep of last-place Saint Rose is a must if they want to keep their destiny in their own hands. It’s quite possible a below-.500 makes the tournament here, but the Owls would feel much better at 10-8 or even 9-9. A road series win at Le Moyne last weekend was good for momentum, as were seven-inning outings from Jason Harper and Mike Yerina. Now it’s time to keep that going.

Division III

With two conference tournaments underway and three more still a couple weeks away, it leaves the CCC, MASCAC, and NAC as the leagues with the most on the line heading into final weekends of play.

Endicott has guaranteed themselves at least a share of the CCC crown, but seeding is very important in a six-team tournament that spends at least two days at the campuses of the higher seeds. The 11-3 Gulls need just a split with Roger Williams to beat out Western New England, who’s in the clubhouse of 11-5. After that, however, things get tricky. In third and fourth, Gordon and Curry are both at seven wins with four to go. They play each other, but even so, let’s assume they split their remaining four to go above .500 and safely into the tournament. That leaves Roger Williams (8-6), Salve Regina (6-8), and Wentworth (5-7). RWU is safely in, I think. They took a tiebreaking sweep over Salve if the Seahawks finish 8-8, as well as the edge in a three-way 8-8 tie with both Salve and Wentworth, by virtue of a split with second-place WNEU. (Now might be a good time for you to check out the CCC’s tiebreaking rules. Head-to-head, followed by conference opponents in descending order. Basically, it helps to have beaten the team you’re tied with, or to have done better than them against the top teams in the standings.) That leaves us with Salve and Wentworth for the final spot. The Seahawks have a sweepable doubleheader with Nichols remaining, so let’s put them at 8-8. If Wentworth wins just three of its last four to force an 8-8 tiebreak, it’s likely Salve that gets the nod. That scenario would mean Wentworth will likely have swept ENC and split with Curry, which would also likely cost them a tiebreak with Salve, who swept Curry.

Now for the MASCAC, another six-team field, except they’ve got a play-in to a four-team double-elim. It’s a comprehensible playoff format, in contrast to the CCC’s pure six-team double-elim. (How the Division I Tournament got away with that for so long is beyond me.) Anyways, the MASCAC has three teams at 8-4, Salem State, Mass Maritime, and Worcester State. They’re assured of playoff berths, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume they finish as the top three, in some order. (They still have that first-round bye and the hosting rights to contend for, though, so don’t expect them to mail it in.) Let’s also count out MCLA, who’s already got 9 losses and hosts Worcester to finish their slate. That leaves Westfield State (5-5), Framingham State (6-6), Fitchburg State (4-6), and Bridgewater State (4-8). Westfield and Fitchburg both have two games in hand, but those come against each other, with the other doubleheader against one of the first-place teams, so it’s not as big of an advantage as it looks. To add another wrinkle, Framingham and Bridgewater’s final games are against each other. In one scenario, the simplest, 6-8 is good enough to make the tournament, and one team doesn’t get there, likely Fitchburg struggling with a tough run-in or Bridgewater failing to sweep Framingham on the road. There’s plenty of other ways it could pan out, but let’s assume a four-way 6-8 tie to assess their relative strength in a tiebreaker. (Couldn’t find anything official on the website, but I’ll guess it’s head-to-head, followed by record against conference teams counting down.) Every one of these teams has split with every one of the others it’s played so far, so the only advantage in the 6-8 tiebreak would go to Bridgewater, who our scenario assumes sweeps Framingham. If a tiebreak came down to best record against best conference opponents, Westfield and Framingham are both in good shape, having both split with likely champions Salem and Worcester. The moral of the story is a competitive MASCAC that’s made for a tight final weekend.

The last conference who’ll wrap things up is the NAC. These guys play six sets of four 7’s, so there’s a bit more separation between teams vying for the four-team tournament than, say, the MASCAC. The tightest race here is for the title– usual supects Husson and Castleton are tied at 16-4. A 20-4 mark is doable, but certainly not assured in road series against teams vying for the last playoff spot. (Castleton won the season series and holds the tiebreak if it comes to that.) Those two teams are UMF and NEC, and UMF has the decided edge. At 9-9 with a doubleheader against 1-27 Colby-Sawyer remaining, UMF’s safely in at 11-13. NEC, at 7-13, would need an unlikely sweep of Husson to match this. The wildcard here is Lyndon State. The Hornets have eight NAC games remaining, four of them against Lyndon State, four against third place Thomas. It’ll take a herculean effort from the pitching staff, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for them to get to an 11-13 or 12-12 mark that might trouble UMF (though the Beavers do hold the tiebreaker).

With two weekends remaining in the LEC, NESCAC, and NECC, I won’t go into as much depth, but here’s a quick look over their playoff races. In the Little East, Southern Maine and UMass Dartmouth are tied for first at 7-3, but they’ve yet to face each other. Rhode Island College, a game back at 6-4, will hope for a split there and slip-ups elsewhere. Further down the standings, 3-7 Plymouth State would have two games to make up on a trio of teams at 5-5 to earn the last playoff spot. The NESCAC West (top 2 qualify) is pretty much settled, with Amherst at 9-0 and Wesleyan four games ahead of the next team at 6-0. In the East, Tufts is looking good for another division title at 6-3, but after that, it’s wide open. The upcoming Bowdoin-Colby and Bates-Trinity series are big. Finally, in the NECC, red-hot Mitchell is in the driver’s seat at 11-1, but a series with second-place Becker awaits in the final weekend. The Hawks have an extra series in hand, but that means nine conference games in a week, a heavy load for any pitching staff. Elms, sitting in third place at 8-7 with a series with 1-10 Daniel Webster remaining, should have no trouble getting to the 10-8 it needs to guarantee a berth. After that, Newbury has set the mark in the clubhouse at 9-9 and likely gets the spot with tiebreakers over the next two teams down. Southern Vermont needs a 7-2 finish to get to 10-8 to beat out the Nighthawks. They’d love to see DWC take a series from Elms, with whom they do hold the tiebreak.

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