ACC baseball tournament: Taking the first step to Omaha

calexander@newsobserver.comMay 21, 2013 

  • Framing the situation

    Wake Forest, in 1955, is the only ACC team to win the College World Series while in the league. (Miami won four titles before joining the ACC.) Here’s a look at how the major conferences with at least one title have fared in the past 20 seasons:

    SEC (7 CWS titles): LSU (5), South Carolina (2)

    Pac 12 (4 CWS titles): Oregon State (2), Arizona, Southern Cal

    Big 12 (3 CWS titles): Texas (2), Oklahoma

    Close calls

    ACC teams have finished second four times:

— Officially, it’s the 2013 Atlantic Coast Conference Baseball Championship, but N.C. State coach Elliott Avent has another name for it.

“Omaha East,” Avent said.

Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall laughed when told of the “Omaha East” line.

“It’s Murderers Row,” he said.

That, it is. There are eight teams in Durham for the ACC tournament and everyone seems to agree any of the eight are strong enough to be the ACC champion come Sunday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

More so, the belief is any could make it to Omaha, Neb., this year. That, of course, is everybody’s favored destination, the place where they play the College World Series.

It’s also a place where only one ACC team has won a national championship – Wake Forest, in 1955.

“That’s the only thing we’re missing as a league,” said Hall, who has taken three Georgia Tech teams to Omaha. “I fully expect that to change sometime soon.”

Miami has four CWS titles but all were won before the Hurricanes joined the ACC. Canes coach Jim Morris has been to the Series 11 times and won twice, in 1999 and 2001, but said there’s no deep secret to doing it.

“Those two years it wasn’t necessarily our best teams but we’re were getting big hits, playing solid defense, having pitchers throw strikes and played the game really good as a team,” Morris said Tuesday. “The 1998 team might have been my most talented team, but the best teams were the ones that got hot at the end.”

All eight teams in Durham hope to be that hot team. All eight are ranked among the top 22 in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index – North Carolina (2), Virginia (3), Florida State (5) and N.C. State (9) in the top 10. Six are ranked in the top 25 in the national polls.

“I don’t know when it has been stronger,” Florida State coach Mike Martin said of the ACC. “What the teams have accomplished this year is as impressive as any league in the country.”

The ACC, in terms of league RPI, is rated just ahead of the Southeastern Conference, which has won three of the past four CWS titles. Among the teams not making the tournament field were Maryland (35th in the NCAA RPI), Wake Forest (53) and Duke (69).

“It has been a really balanced league,” Hall said.

Boston College has the ACC’s worst RPI ranking at 164. The Eagles won just four ACC games but beat Miami twice.

“If I was a fan, which I am, I would watch a lot of these (tournament) games,” Martin said. “You’ve got possible first-round draft choices on the mound, possible first-round draft choices in the field, and it’s just going to be a challenge for every team here to get it done.”

Clemson junior Shane Kennedy beamed when asked about the quality of the eight teams and the kind of tournament it should make for this week.

“It’s just the vibe when you come to the field,” said Kennedy, a designated hitter and utility player. “You’ve got some of the best teams in the country. It’s another type of energy you haven’t had all year.

And that was said Tuesday, after a routine team workout at DBAP. The tournament begins Wednesday, with Florida State playing Georgia Tech, Virginia taking on Virginia Tech and then N.C. State and Clemson.

The four-team pods have the Pack, Tigers, Miami and UNC on one side of the bracket. On the other side: the Seminoles, Cavaliers, Hokies and Jackets.

“I was thinking which side of the bracket would you like to be in,” Pack shortstop Trea Turner said. “Pick your poison.”

Virginia, which won ACC titles in 2009 and 2011, may be playing the best baseball entering the tournament. The Cavs have won 14 of the past 17 games, beating North Carolina twice in their final ACC series.

“Fundamentally and at the plate we’ve been consistent,” said sophomore outfielder Mike Papi, the ACC’s leading hitter at .408.

While the eight teams are after an ACC title, there’s also the goal of hosting an NCAA regional next week. Then a Super Regional. Then getting to Omaha.

The Wolfpack, which has won 42 games, has been to Omaha just once, in 1968. In contrast, FSU’s Martin has taken 15 teams to the College World Series and had 21 trips to Omaha as a player, assistant coach and head coach, and never won.

“That’s how hard it is to do,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “It’s a crapshoot when you get to the College World Series, a complete crapshoot. And I don’t think it takes anything away from our league or from any program.

“I think Mike Martin is one of the best college baseball coaches that’s ever coached the game, and he’s been there 20-something times. If he goes there 25 and doesn’t win it, is that what people are going to say about his career? I surely hope not. I just hope somebody in our league wins it sometime soon so I don’t keep having to get asked about it every five years.”

The Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 much of this season before losing ACC series to Georgia Tech and then Virginia. Ranked sixth by Baseball America, the Heels know what it takes to get to Omaha, making it to the CWS five of the past seven years.

Clemson coach Jack Leggett has been to the Series six times. Virginia’s Brian O’Connor has been twice. The opportunities have been there.

“We’ve had teams there,” said UNC’s Kent Emanuel, the 2013 ACC pitcher of the year. “It seems like this conference has been knocking on the door for a long time and I guess it’s not something I really want to talk about – I don’t want to jinx anything. But the teams have been there and I think they’ll continue to be there. It’s only a matter of time ...”

The SEC has not wasted time. LSU won the CWS in 2009, then South Carolina in 2010 and 2011.

“They get a lot of credit because they’ve won and we haven’t won a national championship in a while,” the Pack’s Turner said. “You can’t argue that. The facts are there. The ACC obviously has to take the next step and win a championship.”

Maybe this year.

Scanning the field

A quick look at the eight teams in the ACC tournament:

1 UNC (48-8, 21-7) Inside pitch: Heels spent almost entire season ranked No. 1 in nation before slight late-season slide. Colin Moran, ACC Player of Year, soon will be first-round pick.

2. FSU (44-12, 20-10) Inside pitch: Won Clemson series on final weekend to clinch Atlantic crown. Swept by Virginia in April. Marcus Davis can swing it (9 HRs, 53 RBIs).

3. Virginia (45-9, 22-8) Inside pitch: CF Brandon Downes leads prolific offense, ranked top 2 in ACC in average (.317), runs (447) and extra-base hits (184). Cavs staff ranked fourth in ERA (3.11).

4. N.C. State (42-13, 19-10) Inside pitch: Sophomore ace Carlos Rodon led the ACC in strikeouts (137). Pack was 3-8 against the top 5 seeds (swept by Virginia and lost series against Clemson and FSU).

5. Clemson (39-17, 18-12) Inside pitch: Catchers beware: Tigers lack pop (18 HRs) but led the league with 102 steals. Three players stole more than 15 bases.

6. Virginia Tech (35-19, 15-14) Inside pitch: 3B Chad Pinder was POY candidate and a likely second-round draft pick in June.

7. Georgia Tech (33-23, 15-15) Inside pitch: Five players in Baseball America’s Top 250 draft prospects, including entire OF and two pitchers. OF Daniel Palka led ACC with 17 HRs. OF Zane Evans second with 14.

8. Miami (35-21, 14-16) Inside pitch: Handed UNC first loss and won series vs. Clemson. Little offense. Ranked 10th in ACC in runs, tied for last in HR (13). David Thompson best player (6 HRs, 42 RBIs).

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