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NCAA Baseball Tourney Preview: Bethune-Cookman

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Each day leading up to Friday's NCAA Regionals, we'll take a look at another team in the Coral Gables Region.  We start at the bottom...4th seed Bethune-Cookman.

Bethune-Cookman has been the class of the MEAC for what seems like ages now. Every year, they qualify for the NCAA's, and every year they bow out (somewhat) gracefully by Saturday. They've found themselves in the Field of 64 every year but one since 2002, and they've won one game in the process. Occasionally they're competitive (they lost to Ole Miss 3-2 in Oxford in '06), occasionally not (they were bounced from the NCAAs 12-0 last year by...Stetson).  With the nation's ERA leader in tow, they had to like their chances of pulling an upset this year...until they drew #1 overall seed Miami, anyway.

Season to Date

Beth-Cook has racked up a 36-20 record so far this season, slightly better than normal for the perpetual MEAC Champs.  Pitching has carried the show for the slap-hitting Wildcats.  An early-season trip to LA for the MLB's Urban Invitational Tournament highlighted the non-conference slate.  B-C showed well against USC and UCLA, but the lack of offense doomed them in back-to-back 2-0 losses.  Stud pitcher Hiram Burgos was impressive against USC, putting up 7 innings of 3-hit ball before handing the game (unsuccessfully) over to the bullpen.  The Wildcats proceeded to take series from the likes of Temple, Illinois State, Mercer, and Florida A&M (and split a state of PA series, beating Penn State and losing to Pitt) before making a mid-week trip to Coral Gables in late-March.  You can't tell a lot from mid-week series (just ask all the Big 12 teams who seemingly lose to Dallas Baptist on Tuesday nights throughout March), but the Wildcats were quite competitive against the then-#2 Hurricanes, losing Game 1 by a score of 10-5 (it was 6-4 before Miami put up 4 in the 8th) and Game 2 by a tight 7-6 (B-C was actually up 6-4 before another disastrous 8th).  Granted, it's never good when a couple of losses represent the biggest achievement on your schedule, but such was the case for the Wildcats.  They stormed through the MEAC slate at 17-1 and went 3-0 in the MEAC Tournament to lock up their trip back to Coral Gables.  The competitive losses to UCLA and Miami show that B-C can do some damage if you're not ready to play them, but it surely would have helped their confidence a bit to actually have won one of those games.

Pitching

As I mentioned earlier, pitching is the name of the game for B-C.  The 1-2 rotation punch of juniors Burgos (9-1, 1.20 ERA) and Eric Thomas (9-0, 2.04 ERA) have been damn impressive, as has the other weekend starter, junior Joseph Gautier (6-2, 2.00 ERA).  Beyond those three, only one other pitcher has an ERA under 5.00, and Mizzou fans can certainly sympathize with what seems to be a generally shaky bullpen (not that the 'pen's needed to do much over the last couple months) that isn't too deep beyond one guy, in this case Phil Enright (2-2, 2.25 ERA, 8 saves).  Beyond those four guys, the team ERA is above 6, but...well, this is college.  Few teams have a staff with more than four truly stable guys.

In general, if I were a B-C fan I'd be a little worried about this pitching staff's chances over the weekend for one main reason (beyond the obvious "they're a 4-seed from the MEAC, playing in a region with the #1 overall seed", anyway): they don't strike too many guys out.  As impressive as Burgos' numbers look from the outside (and a 1.20 ERA is certainly impressive), he only strikes out 8.04 guys per 9 innings.  That's not what you want to see out of an ace, especially considering most of his starts have come against pretty poor competition.  He doesn't walk many either, and he's only given up one HR all year, which is quite impressive, but still...you need to be able to avoid allowing guys to put the ball in play when you're going up against Miami.  They'll put it in play all night against you.

In all, though, this is a pretty gritty staff, and I'd say they're infinitely more likely to lose a 6-2 game than a 15-6 game.  As far as Missouri's concerned, they're most likely to face B-C in the loser's bracket on Saturday (hopefully we won't lose, and this becomes a moot point), and it appears that Gautier is their typical Saturday starter.  He has an almost 7-1 K-BB ratio, and he's struck out 73 in just 67.2 innings.  Opponents actually have a worse batting average against Gautier (.197) than Burgos (.213), though they've hit for at least a smidge more power (9 doubles and 4 HRs, as compared to Burgos' 8 doubles and 1 HR).  Mizzou's hit good pitchers and been shut down by bad ones, so lord only knows what to expect here.

Hitting

If a team manages more than 5-6 runs in a game against B-C this weekend, they'll have to feel pretty good about their chances.  For the season, B-C only slugged .443.  Again, that's not very good considering over half their games have been against the MEAC.  They get on base quite well (team OBP: .400), but they rely on singles and steals to get runners home.  Senior SS Jose Lozada leads the way with a .514 OBP and .660 SLG.  He has 15 doubles, 7 HRs, and 57 RBIs.  Get him and senior 1B/OF Osvaldo Torres (.459 OBP, .624 SLG, 12 HRs, 72 RBIs) out, and you've pretty much killed any chance they have to score.  If anybody else gets on base, they'll likely be trying to steal second.  Five guys stole at least 10 bases, including Lozada and the team leader, OF Neal Jones.  Jones had a huge series against Miami in March, going 5-for-8 with 4 runs, 4 RBIs and a stolen base.  Running as much as B-C does always puts pressure on the defense (the catcher in particular) to not freak out and fire a ball into centerfield.  Mizzou catcher Trevor Coleman threw out a decent 32% of attempted base thieves this year, but he won't intimidate B-C out of running if these two teams meet on Saturday.

Overall

In all, you'd obviously rather face a team like Bethune-Cookman than a 4-seed like...oh...say, Mizzou circa 2006.  They played against the big boys and didn't embarrass themselves, but it will take a team doing them some favors for them to advance deep into the weekend.  Having Burgos go against Miami on Friday gives them a fighting chance, but I would say their best chance of stealing a game will come against the Mizzou-Ole Miss loser on Saturday.

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