Weekend Preview — April 30, 2015

May is college baseball’s equivalent of September and October. This weekend will see NCAA Tournament tickets punched and playoff races wind down, and by the end of the month, we’ll have national champions crowned in Divisions II and III. With a few exceptions, winning the conference tournament will be teams’ only path to getting a shot at that, which is what makes the next couple weekends so much fan. You don’t have to wait around hoping that one of a handful of series will get to a decisive game five or seven, you get to see baseball played with everything on the line almost every day. It’s one of the many things that makes this sport great.

Division I

With third-place George Washington visiting this weekend, Rhode Island has a chance to clear the toughest hurdle remaining on its A-10 title bid. At 11-6, the Colonials are just percentage points back of Rhody at 10-5, but after losing two straight winnable weekends, GW seems ripe for a road series loss. URI, of course, is trending in the opposite direction. Last weekend’s series win down at VCU made it four from four in the month of April. Freshman lefty Tyler Wilson continued his stellar season with a series-clinching win over the Rams. He’s now 6-0 on the year and lapping the field in the A-10 in ERA (1.01 to the next-best 2.22) and OBA (.130 to the next-best .197). With nothing but bottom-half matchups against UMass and La Salle remaining, Rhody would position itself very well for the run-in with a series win this weekend.

Even before UConn dropped two of three to Memphis in Storrs last weekend, I worried that too many home series losses would start to dent the Huskies’ at-large resume. Now, sitting in 6th in the AAC and yet to win a home series, their RPI has slipped to the mid-40s and they’ve dropped out of D1Baseball‘s tournament projections. With a visit to Houston still looming in the final weekend, this weekend’s series at East Carolina seems vital. The margins have been fine in UConn’s three conference series losses (the last two coming in extra-innings rubber games), but they don’t go in the books any differently than blowout losses. The American probably doesn’t get more than four teams into the tournament, tops, and UConn has some work to do to get back to that level. Through all this, we shouldn’t forget they have the pitching to take the autobid in Clearwater, but this weekend is key for their at-large hopes.

The marquee in-New England matchup comes in the NEC, where Sacred Heart hosts Bryant. With a strong run from Wagner pulling the Seahawks ahead of both clubs, a series win here is key for either team to stay in the title race. Key contributors have emerged in each team’s early conference play. Bryant’s gotten big innings from freshman James Karinchak. Against NEC opponents, he’s 3-0 with a microscopic 0.86 ERA. SHU’s been led by their own young gun, shortstop Zack Short, who’s hitting .368/.529/.868 with four home runs in just 12 conference games. Here, a series win keeps you firmly in title contention, but a loss drops you towards a trio of teams in fourth.

Down south, Northeastern has a chance to solidify a playoff spot with a series win over Towson. Taking two of three from 2013’s Cinderella’s would guarantee the Huskies a .500 CAA record, presumably enough to get them into the tournament where 6 of 9 teams qualify. At 13-30-2, Towson has the lowest win total in the league. Their pitching staff’s 6.84 ERA and 44 home runs allowed are both worst in the conference. Northeastern’s 4.02 mark in league games, on the other hand, ranks among the CAA’s best. Mike Fitzgerald’s 0.68 league ERA out of the pen has been a big reason for that. The Tigers have played slightly better at home than on the road, but with the Huskies having won three weekends in a row, I’ve gotta feel they’ve got a good chance to take this series.

Division II

You couldn’t dream up a more exciting final weekend in the Northeast-10. The standings are tight, and the schedules ensure a lot of things will be decided head-to-head. A single game separates the top four teams in the Southwest, and the Northeast has neck-and-neck races going for home field and the final playoff berth.

In the tightly packed Southwest, things could go a lot of different ways, and the key series pits AIC against New Haven. Tied for 3rd at 8-7, the Yellow Jackets will want 9-6 Pace to dispatch 7-8 Le Moyne at home this weekend to give them some breathing room for a playoff spot. Provided the Dolphins don’t do anything dramatic, a win likely sees AIC into the playoffs. If you’re New Haven, you want the opposite. For Le Moyne to grab a road series from Pace would help UNH (also at 9-6) in its pursuit of the top seed and the chance to host the final weekend of this year’s conference tournament. Any way you slice it, there’s a lot at stake in Springfield this weekend. With AIC looking for its first postseason appearance in more than a decade against the storied program of Frank Vieira, it’s tough to imagine a more compelling series.

Further east, the playoff races are just as close. After taking a game off SNHU last weekend and winning a big midweek showdown with Bentley, Merrimack is percentage points ahead of the Falcons in the race for the final playoff spot. At 8-11, the Warriors are a game back of 7-10 Bentley in the loss column, but their final two games come against Assumption, who hasn’t won since April 12. Bentley, meanwhile, has four shots at racking up the needed wins, but three of those come against Franklin Pierce, who hasn’t lost since March 25.

Further up the standings, a first-round matchup between Stonehill and Southern New Hampshire looks all but assured, and the two teams will decide who gets home-field advantage this weekend in Easton. Even though they’re a game back of SNHU, a home series win would leave the Skyhawks tied with the Penmen with a better head-to-head record in hand. A series win for the Penmen, conversely, would give them 2nd outright. And that’s not to mention the chance it gives both teams to strengthen their at-large resumes should the NE-10 Tournament not go their way.

Division III

This weekend’s main attraction is the four conference tournaments that will crown champions by Sunday. For more on those, check out my previews of the NEWMAC, CCC, MASCAC, and NAC Tournaments. Elsewhere, three conferences are still in the thick of playoff races.

In the Little East, the six-team field is set, but there’s still plenty up for grabs. The biggest showdown will come in Gorham, Maine, where Southern Maine hosts UMass Dartmouth in one of the biggest matchups Division III has seen this season. Both teams have reached the 20-win plateau against top-60 schedules, and both come into the weekend with a shot at the LEC title and hosting rights for next weekend’s tournament. At 8-4, the visiting Corsairs need a sweep, while 9-3 USM could clinch with a split, but both teams need to be wary of 8-4 RIC, who could finish at 10-4 with a sweep of seventh-place Plymouth State. Not by accident, those three teams also boast the conference’s top three pitching staffs, so there should be some great baseball played in pursuit of this conference title.

In the NESCAC, Wesleyan, Amherst, and Tufts have all clinched playoff berths, but the second bid from the East Division is still very much up for grabs. Bowdoin got a big win over Bates in the midweek to get in the clubhouse at 6-6, but they’ll need a favorable result in the BatesTrinity series this weekend to make the playoffs. Both teams enter a game and a half back of Bowdoin at 4-5. For the visiting Bantams, who took the season series from the Polar Bears, taking two out of three is all that’s needed to see them into the playoffs for the first time under Bryan Adamski. Bates, on the other hand, dropped the season series with Bowdoin by virtue of that midweek loss, and they’ll need a sweep to get to 7-5 to make it in for the second year in a row. Bowdoin will be hoping to see Bates take two of three for them to punch a ticket to Nashua.

The top two seeds are set in the NECC, but after that things get tricky. At 14-1, Mitchell has locked up the top seed, and Elms is safely in at 10-8. Three teams are in the mix for the final two spots: Becker at 8-7, Newbury at 9-9, and Lesley at 8-9. The Lynx currently sit in last in this group, but a Monday win over last-place Daniel Webster would get them to 9-9. That’s not enough to surpass Newbury, who took the season series from them, but depending on how this weekend’s Mitchell-Becker series goes, it could make things interesting. Mitchell has nothing to play for, but they’ve also lost just one game since the start of April. A series win or better puts the Hawks in the postseason, but a series loss puts them into a potential three-way tiebreaker, where last weekend’s sweep at the hands of Lesley certainly won’t be a plus. All in all, surprisingly tense times for a Becker team that started the year 7-2 in the league.

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