The Sacred Heart Pioneers earned an automatic bid by winning their second consecutive Northeastern Conference tournament championship and head south for the Raleigh regional having won 8 of their last 10, including 4 straight. However, all of those wins came against NEC foes and the NEC is weak sauce according to warrennolan.com, which pegs the conference 28th out of 32 NCAA D-I baseball leagues. The NEC managed just a .342 winning percentage against non-conference opponents, and Sacred Heart was even worse, going 3-17 against non-league foes. The Pioneers' "best" win was over conference foe Bryant University (see obscure fact below), a team which ranks 150th in warrennolan.com's RPI. Sacred Heart's RPI: 212th.
That RPI, non-conference record, and the fact that the Pioneers haven't even played a top 50 RPI team since a particularly unmemorable trip to New Mexico State in February-they were outscored 71-22 in a 4-game set-should give Pack faithful plenty of faith for Friday. Continue below the jump to see why my faith is at least a little shaken.
Sacred Heart can steal a base. The Pioneers, led by John Murphy* (24) and Keaton Flint (18), stole 71 bases on the season and posted an impressive 76% success rate as a team. State catchers, whether because they simply do not throw well or because their battery mates do a poor job of holding runners, gunned down just 20% of would-be base thieves. As the old saying goes, you can't steal first, and Sacred Heart is not a good hitting team. Ryan Mathews has out-homered their entire squad 14-to-10, and the Pioneers rank 175th in the NCAA in on-base percentage. But they do have the team speed to steal a few runs, and that could keep things too close for comfort against a slumping Pack squad.
Offense, or the lack thereof, is the major reason for concern for Wolfpack fans heading into the tournament. State slides into the regional having lost 4 of its last 5 games, scoring a scant 10 runs in the process. Sacred Heart's 237th ranked 5.52 team ERA is hopefully the bad medicine the Pack bats need. Troy Scribner (7-5, 4.04) or Nick Leiningen (6-5, 4.12) is likely to toe the rubber for the Pioneers, and whoever starts will likely get all Carlos Rodon-like in the pitch count department. Leiningen has completed 8 of his 13 starts (second best in the NCAA for the second straight season), Scribner has gone the distance in 6 of his 13 starts, and the Pioneer staff has completed 19 games as a whole. In comparison, Carlos Rodon has completed two games, the only two by Pack hurlers all season.
Prediction: Scribner and Leiningen complete all of those games for a reason; the Sacred Heart bullpen is bad. Really, really bad. The team has a total of 3 saves and one of those belongs to Leiningen in his only relief appearance. The most used guys in the bullpen have ERAs resembling major earthquake readings: Jeff Stoddard at 7.01 and John Hermanson at 9.10. Hermanson is one of four Pioneers allowing a run or better an inning. Yikes. The Pioneers will scratch out a run or two early, making for some anxious moments for Pack fans, but State will eventually solve the opposition's starter, knock him out of the game later than is probably good for his arm, and run away with it against the meatball tossing pen. Hopefully they boost their batting confidence for the rest of the weekend in the process.
*Lists favorite team as "Duke Basketball" in his bio. Dude, Sacred Heart has a basketball team.
Obscure fact: Located in Rhode Island, Bryant University sits on land donated by Earl Tupper, inventor of Tupperware.