Friday marks the start of the NCAA baseball national postseason. For the third consecutive year, UNC will host a regional as they welcome Tennessee, Liberty, and UNC-Wilmington to the Bosh. The Heels will be looking to ultimately make it back to Omaha after two late game collapses against Mississippi State and Oregon State eventually ended their season last June.
The winner of this weekend’s double-elimination mini-tournament will play the winner of the Atlanta Regional, which is hosted by Georgia Tech. That Super Regional will be a best-of-three. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, here’s a quick look at the four teams taking the field in Chapel Hill on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
(Chad and I also discussed this very topic on the podcast that dropped this morning.)
North Carolina (#14 overall)
42-17, 17-13 ACC, #3 seed in ACC Tournament
What to Know: North Carolina started the season on a torrid streak, reaching ACC play with a 12-1 record. Then reality set in as they were swept at Clemson, then dropped series at Georgia Tech, at Pittsburgh, and at home against NC State. Along the way they lost key starting pitcher Luca Dalatri to a hip injury, This past weekend’s ACC Tournament title may be evidence that the Heels are peaking at the right time, but with a paltry 8-10 record on the road, hosting a regional is a fortunate development that seemed unlikely a week ago.
Who to Know: By now, fans should be familiar with junior Michael Busch. The Heels’ first baseman was named the ACC Tournament MVP after batting .421 with 9 runs, 3 HR, and 5 RBI in UNC’s four games. For the season, he leads UNC with 15 HR and 72 runs. He is second on the team in OPS (1.016), hits (64), RBI (55) and total bases (124).
If that seems too easy, then ACC Freshman of the year Aaron Sabato could become a name to listen for. Those categories where Busch ranks second on the team? Sabato is number one in all of them. Oh, and those categories that Busch leads the team? Sabato is second.
First Game: #4 UNCW (32-29), 2 p.m.
38-19, 14-16 SEC, #9 seed in SEC Tournament
What to Know: Tennessee hasn’t been invited to a Regional since 2005, so experience (or lack of experience) may be a factor. Like UNC, the Vols raced out to a fast start, going 17-1 before conference play. They were promptly swept by Auburn on their way to a sub-.500 conference record, though that record is slightly misleading. The SEC received 10 bids to the post-season in a loaded conference.
Also similar to North Carolina, the Tennessee struggled on the road with a 7-9 record and are coming off two straight losses. There are certainly stronger #2 seeds in the field. However, if you are the superstitious type, it’s hard to ignore the SEC has not been kind to UNC in recent years – regardless of the sport.
Who to Know: Sophomore outfielder Alerick Soularie is a name to remember. Recently named a first-team All-SEC selectee, Soularie was among the best hitters in the conference. He leads the team in batting average, runs, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. The sophomore also ranks second in hits, home runs, and total bases. A model of consistency, Soularie has hit safely in 16 of his last 17 games.
First Game: #3 Liberty (42-19) 7 p.m.
42-19, 15-9 Atlantic Sun, #2 Seed in ASUN Tournament
What to Know: In their first season as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Liberty Flames won the conference tournament to earn the league’s automatic berth. Their reward is the #3 seed in the Chapel Hill Regional, and a possible rubber match with the Heels after splitting a pair of regular season contests.
As a mid-major, it’s hard to get a gauge on how much trouble Liberty could cause in a double-elimination setting. With wins over North Carolina, South Carolina, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech (twice), Virginia, and Duke (twice), the Flames won’t be intimidated. Combine that success with a respectable 14-13 record on the road, and Liberty is a threat to end UNC’s season similar to Davidson in 2017.
Who to Know: Catcher Jonathan Embry was named the 2019 ASUN Player of the Year. He led the conference with 51 RBI and 50 walks, and leads the team in home runs (9), doubles (15), and slugging percentage (.571). Embry also was named ASU Tournament MVP, after hitting .474 with five RBI and four runs. He has reached base safely in 17 straight games.
First Game: #2 Tennessee (38-19) 7 p.m.
32-29, 12-12 Colonial Athletic, #4 seed in CAA Tournament
What to Know: If there’s one team running high on emotion it’s the Seahawks from Wilmington. Their coach, Mark Scalf, will be retiring at the end of the season. After 28 years, they’ll be looking to send him out on a memorable note as the Seahawks have ever advanced past the opening weekend.
Without any marquee wins on the season (they dropped both games against UNC) and a pedestrian conference record, the Seahawks’ only path to the postseason was the CAA automatic berth. They achieved that with an extra-inning win over in-state rival Elon – their second extra-inning game of their tournament. The win earned UNCW their second consecutive regional appearance. Last year, they ultimately fell to South Carolina, but not before twice defeating regional hosts East Carolina.
Who to Know: Sophomore shortstop Greg Jones was named the CAA Player of the Year. His 69 runs, 9 triples, 53 walks, 40 steals, and an on-base percentage of .491 led the conference. Jones’ .343 batting average and 74 hits were also second in the conference.
He enters this weekend on a tear. In five conference tournament games, Jones hit .444 with seven runs, four RBI, and three stolen bases. He has reached base safely in nine straight games and currently owns a seven-game hitting streak.
First Game: #1 UNC (42-17), 2 p.m.