Columbia Regional Superlatives
Most Exciting Player: Zack Gelof, 3B, Virginia.
Gelof, the top position player prospect for the 2021 draft in this regional, struggled offensively in the first half but heated up down the stretch. Now he’s hitting for average and power, controlling the strike zone, stealing bases and playing dramatically improved defense at third base.
Best Hitter: Kyle Battle, OF, Old Dominion.
A gritty fifth-year senior who has battled his way back from three shoulder surgeries over the course of his career, Battle has gone on a major power surge this spring, smacking 18 homers and showing a flare for the dramatic. He blasted a game-winning homer in extra innings at the C-USA title game. And he leads all players in this regional with a 1.177 OPS, thanks to his power and his superb control of the strike zone (52 walks against 33 strikeouts).
Best Defensive Player: Tommy Bell, SS, Old Dominion.
A wiry shortstop with slick actions, a quick transfer and a strong arm, Bell has fielded a sound .968 this spring for the Monarchs. If South Carolina shortstop George Callil is healthy, he probably gets a slight edge for this spot, but Callil has missed time with an oblique issue and his status for this weekend is uncertain.
Best Pitcher: Brett Kerry, RHP, South Carolina.
Kerry (5-1, 1.90, 83-9 K-BB in 52 IP) was a dominant closer for most of the season but moved into the rotation in the final two weeks of the regular season, throwing a four-hit shutout at Kentucky and then seven strong innings in a win against Kentucky. However the Gamecocks use him, he’s a weapon, with a 92-95 fastball and three swing-and-miss secondary pitches (led by a vicious slider and cutter combination) along with premium pitchability and competitiveness. He gets the nod by a hair over Virginia’s Andrew Abbott and ODU’s Hunter Gregory.
X-Factor: Wes Clarke, DH, South Carolina.
When Clarke is hot, he is capable of putting the Gamecocks on his back and carrying them for stretches, as he did early right out of the chute (eight homers in his first six games) and again in late March (five homers in a seven-game stretch). After going homerless for about a month in April, Clarke heated up again in May, hitting seven more to give him 22 on the year. His righthanded power is a game changer if he can stay locked in.
Best Starting Rotation: Virginia.
South Carolina’s once-formidable rotation has slumped down the stretch, but Virginia’s has only gotten stronger. Lefthander Andrew Abbott and righty Mike Vasil form a power-armed and experienced one-two punch, and emerging fireballer Zach Messinger or high-profile lefty Nate Savino give the Cavaliers two more good starting options behind them.
Best Bullpen: Virginia.
The top three seeds all have deep, versatile experiences and plenty of power arms, but the Cavaliers have the best group of the bunch, particularly with Kerry likely to start for South Carolina. Preseason All-American Stephen Schoch (2.70 ERA, 7 SV) is a beast at the back-end for Virginia, with twin towers Blake Bales and Kyle Whitten serving as hard-throwing setup guys with out-pitch sliders, and Brandon Neeck working as the go-to lefty. Messinger and Matt Wyatt can also light up the radar guns out of the bullpen.
Best Offensive Team: Old Dominion.
This is an easy one. The powerful Monarchs are a perfect fit for hitter-friendly Founders Park, as they rank third in the nation in home runs per game, second in slugging, and ninth in scoring. For reference, South Carolina ranks 152nd in scoring and Virginia ranks 155th, although both teams have faced power-conference pitching all season.
Best Defensive Team: Virginia.
The Gamecocks (.977) have a slightly higher fielding percentage than the Cavaliers (.975), but Virginia has the more athletic defense with better range at most positions. If Callil is back in action, the Gamecocks have an argument here, but Virginia still has the more athletic defense regardless.
No. 1 Seed Win Probability (1-10): 4.
This one feels like a true toss-up between Old Dominion, South Carolina and Virginia. Since the Gamecocks and Cavaliers must throw their shutdown aces against each other in the opener, let’s make ODU a slight favorite, with a 40 percent probability compared with 30 percent for South Carolina and 30 percent for Virginia. At 16-32, Jacksonville does not feel like a real threat here, even though it is coming off two great weeks.
This article first appeared on D1Baseball.com and continues there with a team-by-team breakdown of every regional.
For more stories like this one, you can use coupon code NCAA2021 to get a 20 percent discount for an annual subscription to DIBaseball.com or D1Softball.com.