2021 NCAA Tournament Starkville Regional Preview
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No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 Samford (3 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 2 Virginia Commonwealth vs. No. 3 Campbell (8 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
No. 1 Mississippi State (40-15)
All-Conference Team Honorees: OF Tanner Allen (1st), OF Rowdey Jordan (2nd), RP Landon Sims (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: Mississippi State consistently found ways to win games throughout the 2021 season, even when it had to win ugly, on the way to a 40-15 overall record and 20-10 mark in SEC play, which was good enough to earn the Bulldogs a top-eight seed in the tournament despite a late-season series loss to Missouri and an 0-2 showing in the SEC Tournament that slowed their momentum late.
Best Pitcher: Will Bednar, RHP—There’s an argument to be made for Landon Sims here, given his dominance as a reliever this season, but when Bednar has been good this season, he’s been excellent. He’s 6-1 with a 3.23 ERA and a 101-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 innings, and nine different times this year he had seven or more strikeouts in an outing.
Best Hitter: Tanner Allen, OF—The recently-named SEC player of the year and the latest cult hero to win over the hearts of the Mississippi State faithful, Allen was exactly the type of cornerstone MSU needed in a lineup that has been spotty at times this season. He’s hitting .384/.455/.611 with 14 doubles, five triples, eight homers and 54 RBIs.
Outlook: This isn’t a perfect Mississippi State team. At various times, its lineup has gone cold and its starting pitching hasn’t always been dependable, but this team’s superpower has been to find ways to win in spite of those things, and there’s a lot to be said for that. With a fairly favorable draw in this regional and the New Dude rocking, the Bulldogs are heavy favorites to advance.
No. 2 Virginia Commonwealth (37-14)
All-Conference Team Honorees: 3B Tyler Locklear (1st), 2B Michael Haydak (2nd), OF Brandon Henson (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: After a series loss to George Washington in early April, VCU sat just 16-14 overall and 1-3 in the Atlantic 10, but since that point, the Rams have reeled off 21 straight wins, including a 3-0 showing in the A-10 Tournament to earn the program’s first regional appearance since it got to a super regional back in 2015.
Best Pitcher: Bradford Webb, RHP—A graduate transfer who finished his degree in three years at Hampden-Sydney (Va.) College, Webb jumped into the rotation a few weeks into the season and really took to the role. He’s 3-1 this season with a 3.10 ERA and 52 strikeouts compared to 12 walks in 52.1 innings.
Best Hitter: Tyler Locklear, 3B—The A-10’s player of the year and rookie of the year, Locklear has been a monster in the Rams’ lineup this season. He’s hitting .344/.516/.705 with 16 home runs and 64 RBIs with 45 walks (and 20 hit by pitches) compared to 37 strikeouts. As the other three teams in the regional gameplan for VCU, this is the guy in the lineup that opposing pitching coaches are tossing and turning at night about.
Outlook: No team in college baseball is flying as high as VCU right now and that can’t hurt as it goes into regional play. A good lineup that can put up runs in bunches should keep the Rams competitive throughout the weekend, with what it gets from its pitching depth being the key to challenging Mississippi State when it’s all said and done.
No. 3 Campbell (35-16)
All-Conference Team Honorees: INF Zach Neto (1st), INF Matt Christian (1st), OF Spencer Packard (1st), OF Connor Denning (1st), RP Logan Heintzman (1st), SP Thomas Harrington (2nd), SP Ryan Chasse (2nd), RP Kevin Westlake (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: Campbell is 35-16 overall and went 20-9 in Big South play, good enough to win the league’s regular-season title, and although it wasn’t able to secure the automatic bid by winning the conference tournament, it did enough in the regular season to earn an at-large bid and its third straight postseason appearance.
Best Pitcher: Thomas Harrington, RHP—Harrington is just a true freshman, but he sure didn’t pitch like one this season. He’ll go into the weekend 6-2 with a 2.71 ERA, 71 strikeouts and a .218 opponent batting average in 69.2 innings. Some of his best work also came in the biggest games on the schedule. After a tough start against USC Upstate, the second-place team in the Big South, in mid March, he threw twice more against the Spartans and combined to throw 14.1 shutout innings in those outings.
Best Hitter: Zach Neto, INF—Even as part of a very deep lineup that is hitting .307/.421/.514 as a group, Neto’s numbers stand out. He’s hitting .414/.492/.752 with 17 doubles, 10 home runs and 55 RBIs. As the icing on the cake, he also holds a relief role on the mound, where he has a 3.43 ERA in 21 innings.
Outlook: Campbell’s chances against top-flight competition were limited this season, but it did win a series against Liberty to begin the campaign and it took six of the seven games it played against Upstate this season. The numbers, particularly on offense, are also impressive and paint the picture of a formidable No. 3 seed. We’ll certainly learn about the Camels’ readiness for big-time competition this weekend, especially if they find themselves in high-profile games with Mississippi State.
No. 4 Samford (35-22)
All-Conference Team Honorees: 1B Sonny DiChiara (2nd), DH Tyler McManus (2nd)
Season in a Sentence: The preseason favorite in the Southern Conference, Samford took some lumps playing in a very competitive league, but did enough to not only go 20-10 in conference play during the regular season but also go 3-0 in the SoCon Tournament to earn an automatic bid and its second postseason appearance in three seasons.
Best Pitcher: Chase Isbell, RHP—A very talented Samford rotation didn’t put up the kind of numbers that were expected going into the season, which only made what Isbell did as the team’s primary closer all the more impressive. In 31 innings, he has a 2.32 ERA, 44 strikeouts, a .173 opponent batting average and seven saves.
Best Hitter: Tyler McManus, DH—McManus was hitting just .219 at the end of March, but he went 3-for-3 in a game against VMI to begin the month of April and really never looked back. Going into this weekend, he’s hitting .335/.424/.609 with 12 doubles, 11 home runs and 52 RBIs.
Outlook: Some of the numbers might not suggest it, such as a 6.12 team ERA, but Samford is one of the toughest No. 4 seeds in the tournament just based on sheer talent. It also challenged itself plenty this season, playing 11 games against SEC competition, including Mississippi State in Starkville on March 16. If its pitching staff can perform up to its true talent level this weekend, the Bulldogs could make a push to make the final.