Fun In The Sun: 2013 Baseball Championship Preview

 

It's another Chamber-of-Commerce type of day in Clearwater, Fla., as the finest beaches in the nation are soaked by bright sunshine and cooled by the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
 
But for eight Big East baseball teams, the fun in the sun turns into a business trip Wednesday with the start of the 2013 Big East Baseball Championship at Bright House Field.
 
If there's a theme with this year's tournament, it's the notion that any of the eight teams here in Clearwater has a realistic shot at winning the title. 
 
Conventional wisdom says that Louisville would be the favorite to take home the 2013 crown. The Cardinals won the Big East regular-season title by two games, are ranked in the top 10 of the national polls and bring the nation's longest active winning streak - 16 games - into Clearwater.
 
Louisville appears to be the conference's most balanced team. Righthander Jeff Thompson was the Big East's only 10-game winner in the regular season and he leads a pitching staff that has a 2.43 earned-run average. At the back end, closer Nick Burdi registered a Big East-leading 14 saves and has a 0.64 ERA.
 
The Cardinals also have proven that they can hit for average (a collective .292) and power (27 home runs). But the real strength on offense is the ability to aggressively manufacture runs. Louisville has four players with at least 20 stolen bases entering the Big East Championship, including shortstop Adam Engel, who has 39. As a team, Louisville has swiped 140 bases and allowed opponents just 36 steals on the year.
 
If the seeds hold through the double-elimination round, Louisville would find a near mirror image on the other side of the bracket. Seton Hall, which is the No. 2 seed in the tournament, parlayed its strengths of pitching, defense and timely hitting to the league title in 2011, and many players from that squad are back in the fold this time around.
 
Jon Prosinski (7-3, 2.37 ERA) leads a strong pitching staff, while shortstop Giuseppe Papaccio (.362, 4 HR, 52 RBI) provides punch in the lineup. The Pirates have stolen 125 bases this season and have the best fielding percentage in the Big East (.978). Seton Hall enters the tournament on a streak in which it has gone 36-8 in its last 44 games.
 
If Louisville and Seton Hall are the battle-tested favorites, then Pittsburgh could emerge as a more-than-capable spoiler. The Panthers closed the regular season with four straight losses, but that doesn't diminish the impact of a school-record 40 wins and a tie for second place in the Big East standings.
 
The Panthers have what might be the strongest top-to-bottom lineup in the Big East. Pitt has hit 49 home runs and seven of the regular starters have hit .300 or better. But Pittsburgh also has a trio of starting pitchers to match any in the nation. Ethan Mildren is 9-3, Matt Wotherspoon is 9-2 and Rhys Aldenhoven is 8-1 entering the Big East Championship. If those three can deliver as they have during the season, Pittsburgh will be a strong contender to reach Sunday's final.
 
USF, which is the No. 4 seed, enjoyed a run as the Big East's hottest team  in April as the Bulls went 17-1 during an 18-game stretch. The Bulls have a veteran group that reached the championship game last year and hope that the added depth provided by freshman Jimmy Herget (5-2, 1.77 ERA) will be enough to deliver their first Big East title.
 
Beyond the top four are four more teams that have realistic shots. Rutgers comes in at 26-28 overall, but the Scarlet Knights played one of the nation's toughest schedules and finished fifth in Big East play. Notre Dame and St. John's tied for sixth in the standings, but neither can be counted out. The Irish were ranked in the national polls for most of the season, while the Red Storm have won a Big East-record seven titles. Connecticut is the No. 8 seed, but Jim Penders' club has been no stranger to success in the tournament, with three championship-game appearances in the last six years.