Big East battle comes down to the bitter end
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Baseball Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There's nothing better in sports than a pennant chase coming down to the last week of the season and although technically there won't be any pennants handed out in the Big East, the conference's top squads are giving baseball fans an early taste of the thrill of a race coming down to the wire.
First off, the top-seeds for the 2012 conference tournament are still up for grabs with a single game separating St. Johns (17-7 in conference play), Louisville (16-8) and South Florida (16-8). That doesn't even take into account that Seton Hall (15-9) still has an outside shot at the top seed and Connecticut (14-10) is still in contention for an elevated seed.
Where the real drama comes into play is in the middle of the standings. Only eight teams make the cut for the conference tournament. Going into this weekend seven of those spots are secured by the aforementioned teams in addition to Rutgers and Notre Dame (both at 13-11 in Big East).
That leaves one spot open with four teams still trying to grab it when the final series of the weekend begins Thursday. Villanova (10-14), Pittsburgh (9-15), Georgetown (9-15) and even long-shot West Virginia (7-17) are still battling for a berth with only Cincinnati (5-19) having nothing more than pride to play for this weekend.
Villanova seemingly had a spot wrapped up just a few weeks ago but the Wildcats have swooned of late, losing four of their last five games including dropping two of three in last weekend's series against the last-place Bearcats. The Wildcats have suffered on offense during the recent skid, averaging only 3.2 runs per game, a full three runs shy of their season average, which now stands at 6.2.
A team with normally potent offensive punch, Villanova has seen its best hitters struggle at the wrong time, with Tyler Sciacca (.365), Kevin Wagner (.346), and Matt Fleishman (.327) combining for just 15 hits in 63 at-bats over the last five games with 18 strikeouts. If the Wildcats are going to make a late push into the postseason they will need those three, who hit 2-3-4 for the Wildcats, to pick it up and return the team ranked second in the Big East in RBI (281) and third in batting average (.293), back to form.
This weekend Villanova will be taking on Rutgers, which has been average in terms of pitching this season with a team ERA of 4.29. However, the Wildcats' bats will have some trouble with Ryan Fasano (5-5, 3.35 ERA) and Rob Smorol (7-3, 3.60 ERA), who will most likely make starts for the Scarlet Knights. The key will be getting into the bullpen early. Even if Villanova can do that, Rutgers is still the second best hitting team in the conference (.296) and with its 4.62 team ERA, the Wildcats may not be able to keep the score under control for the offense.
Further hampering Villanova's hopes at the eighth seed is the fact that the Wildcats have losing records against both Georgetown and West Virginia this season.
Pittsburgh is the only team still in the hunt that Villanova has not played yet. The Panthers have been hovering around .500 over their last few series in Big East play, which may end up being just good enough to get into the postseason. The Panthers are 5-4 over the last three series, two of which have been series wins, including an important one over Georgetown at the end of April. That is made even more important in terms of tiebreakers, as the Panthers are 1-2 against West Virginia this season.
Over the weekend Pittsburgh had a stern test in Seton Hall and held its own especially on the mound with the Pirates, despite dropping two of three games in the series. The Panthers won the first game of the weekend 7-4 and then lost low-scoring battles 4-1 and 4-3 in a double-header to close out the series on Saturday. The Panthers got good outings out of each of their three starters led by Matt Iannazzo (7-3, 4.05 ERA), who got the lone win, setting the tempo in which each Panther starter would go at least six innings, while giving up three earned runs or fewer.
Obviously Pittsburgh struggled scoring runs in the final two games of the series and that trend doesn't look like it will be easily broken, even for a team with a respectable .288 batting average this season. In the final series of the season Pittsburgh has the misfortunate of going against Louisville, a team that still has a lot to play for. The Cardinals will be playing for the top seed in the conference tournament this weekend and will be bringing in their conference leading pitching staff (3.23 ERA) and offense, which leads the league in batting average (.298) and runs scored (378).
Georgetown and West Virginia are both coming off a grueling weekend series against one another in which the Hoyas came out on top winning two of the three weekend games. Each game in the series was hotly contested with each game won by two runs or fewer including an 11-inning marathon on Sunday in which the Hoyas won 3-2 on an RBI single from center fielder Justin Leeson.
On the season, Georgetown now owns winning records against both Villanova and West Virginia, as the Hoyas look for their first berth in the Big East Tournament since 1986. Paramount to the Hoyas' solid offensive showing this season (.284 team batting average) is shortstop Mike Garza, who holds team leads in batting average (.376), home runs (7), RBIs (37) and total bases (120). Another one of the stalwarts to the team's success this season has been senior right fielder Rand Ravnaas, who came through yet again over the weekend. Ravnaas was 6-for-11 in the series with two doubles and four runs scored in three games and with his efforts was named Big East Player of the Week.
Georgetown will go only as far as the offense can carry it, as the Hoyas, despite the efforts of Will Harris (4-4, 2.93 ERA in 12 starts), have the second worst pitching staff in the Big East (4.98 ERA). Luckily for Georgetown this weekend the Hoyas will be playing Cincinnati and although it will be a road series it is certainly the easiest series on paper of the weekend giving the Hoyas one of the better shots of getting the final spot.
West Virginia is a bit of a long shot to earn the final spot in the postseason especially after losing two of three over the weekend to a team the Mountaineers are competing for that spot with. However West Virginia does have one huge advantage on it's side. Although it would lose a tie breaker to Georgetown, West Virginia has series victories against both Villanova and Pittsburgh.
Not helping the Mountaineers this weekend is the opponent they will be facing. Needing to win all three games to even have a chance at the postseason, West Virginia will be at home against South Florida, which has been one of the stronger teams in the conference this season, sporting the conference's second best team ERA (3.39 ERA).
This is bad news for a West Virginia team that is ranked near the bottom of the conference in offense, batting just .260 as a team and scoring 242 runs this season both of which are second worst in the conference. Even the silver lining that South Florida has not been a good offensive team this year with a conference worst batting average of .258 is wiped out by the Mountaineers' equally weak pitching, which as a team has compiled a hefty 6.17 ERA.
So who is going to get the eighth seed?
It would seem that West Virginia has the largest odds, as the team's bad pitching makes it seem unlikely that it can capture its first series sweep of the season, especially against a strong South Florida club.
After showing it can hang with some of the better teams in the conference Pittsburgh is clearly no pushover, but the Panthers will be hitting a buzz saw in Louisville, which is the only team in the Big East in the Top 40 in RPI.
Based on records, Georgetown has the easiest road in terms of its weekend series, but unfortunately just winning this weekend will not guarantee a postseason berth. Georgetown will also need at least one loss from both Villanova and Pittsburgh to do so. In addition, the Hoyas have not swept a series this whole season, making it seem unlikely that they can do so now, especially on the road.
Villanova has the edge with the one-game lead on Georgetown and Pittsburgh. The Wildcats will only need two wins to capture the spot outright and may even do so with just one win this weekend.
Smart money has Villanova penciled in as the final team in the Big East Conference Tournament but its far from a certainty.
That's why final weeks in the regular season are so great.
05/17 09:46:26 ET