The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Nashville Regional Preview: A Clash of Champions

After earning the No. 6 seed on Monday, the Commodores will host three conference champions in the Nashville Regional.
Vanderbilt will begin their postseason journey with a matchup against Eastern Illinois. (Hustler Multimedia/Arianna Santiago)

June is here. The 64 teams remaining are now a minimum of 10 wins away from winning the College World Series. The journey to Omaha starts this weekend at the 16 different regionals scattered across the country.

Each regional is a true double-elimination tournament bracket. That means that in each four-team regional, there will be either six or seven games total. The 16 regional winners have been paired off according to the seeding done at the Selection Show so that they will meet in eight Super Regionals, which are each best-of-three series. The eight super regional winners will move on to the College World Series in Omaha.

The four teams at the Nashville Regional this weekend will be Vanderbilt, along with Oregon, Xavier and Eastern Illinois. Oregon and Xavier are the only teams that have met this season: Oregon swept Xavier in a four-game series in mid-February. However, three and a half months later, that’s well in the past.

While the Commodores are the favorites this weekend, they’re facing three strong teams, all of whom won their respective conference tournaments. With that in mind, here’s a look into the state of all four teams who will play at Hawkins Field this weekend.

No. 1 Vanderbilt Commodores

The SEC Champions must be feeling optimistic heading into their host regional. After the VandyBoys looked hopeless just two weeks ago, seemingly even at risk of not hosting at all, the Commodores put together their best stretch of baseball since their incredible 10-0 start to the SEC season. Key to that success has been Vanderbilt’s pitching staff, which suddenly looks stable. Tim Corbin and Scott Brown managed to navigate games on five straight days in Hoover with a depleted pitching staff. Part of that necessitated stretching out Sam Hliboki into a starter, and it also required Patrick Reilly stepping up. With Hunter Owen and Devin Futrell both available for longer starts, Vanderbilt should have plenty of arms to cover the three-game minimum they’re hoping to play this weekend. If something goes wrong and the Commodores end up playing a Game 7 on Monday, freshman JD Thompson could get the nod as he did against Florida on May 27. 

At the plate, Vanderbilt has the deepest lineup of any team in this Regional. While star outfielder RJ Schreck has cooled off in recent weeks, infielders RJ Austin, Jonathan Vastine and Parker Noland have more than picked up the slack. Meanwhile, freshman Chris Maldonado has put together a solid case for an All-SEC team with a .964 OPS. While there may be stumbling blocks along the way, the VandyBoys are the strongest team in this Regional. They’ll aim to prove that their depth is too strong for their opponents and advance to the super regionals.

No. 2 Oregon Ducks

Despite finishing sixth in the Pac-12 with a conference record of 16-12, the Ducks caught fire in their conference tournament. After proving resilient in their first three games of the tournament, a 5-4 victory over Arizona in the championship game clinched their first-ever Pac-12 Championship. The Nashville Regional will present a familiar challenge to much of Oregon’s coaching staff, as the Ducks fell in the regional final to the Commodores in 2014 in a field that also included Xavier. Offensively, the Ducks are led by the star infield duo of Sabin Ceballos and Drew Cowley, who are tied for the team lead in both home runs (15) and runs batted in (61). Aside from the power they get from their top two batters, the Ducks boast star power throughout their lineup, with five of their regular starters batting above .300. As a team, Oregon ranks third in the Pac-12 in batting average (.300) and total home runs (89). For all of their offensive prowess, however, the Ducks are much more pedestrian on the bump. Perhaps the biggest story for Oregon heading into the regional will be the health of ace Jace Stoffal, who has been out for over a month. Head coach Mark Wasikowski said Stoffal, who boasts a 2.83 ERA and was named to the Pac-12 All-Conference Team, is still not at “100 percent.” Without their ace, the Ducks will likely rely heavily on their bullpen, as they did in their conference tournament. For the Ducks to advance to the super regional, Wasikowski will need his bats to produce at a high level, as they have all season long. 

No. 3 Xavier Musketeers 

With a 7-3 comeback win over UConn in the final, the Xavier Musketeers earned their fourth Big East Championship and an automatic qualification to the postseason on Saturday afternoon. The Musketeers have more recent history in the Nashville Regional than the Ducks, as they trounced No. 1 Vanderbilt 15-1 in the first game of the 2016 Regional. They later fell in the final to No. 2 UC Santa Barbara. Xavier boasts a balanced roster that features four all-conference selections, headlined by senior Andrew Walker. The outfielder has started all 60 games for Xavier and leads the team in batting average (.329), runs (56), runs batted in (53) and stolen bases (29). The lineup surrounding Walker is equally as formidable, with five players eclipsing 10 home runs and slugging over .500. On the bump, the Musketeers are led by ace Brant Alazus, who earned a 3.87 ERA across 100 innings pitched en route to an all-conference selection. Alazus was instrumental in helping the Musketeers secure their conference championship, making two starts across the four games and surrendering just two runs in his second start. Behind Alazus, star reliever Justin Loer is likely to appear frequently for the Musketeers, with the sophomore earning an impressive 1.96 ERA across 55 innings pitched. For the Musketeers to advance to the next round, the pitching duo of Alazus and Loer will likely need to carry a heavy load. The path to Xavier’s first super regional berth in program history starts with a revenge game versus Oregon. 

No. 4 Eastern Illinois Panthers

Vanderbilt’s first opponent will be Eastern Illinois, a team that snuck into the regionals after winning a surprise autobid from the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The Panthers entered the OVC Tournament as the No. 5 seed after finishing with a 13-11 conference record. However, don’t let that fool you: Eastern Illinois is on a heater. The Panthers won six straight conference games to conclude their regular season before going 5-1 in the conference tournament to take the title.

“We couldn’t go [into the Regional] with more momentum,” Eastern Illinois head coach Jason Anderson said after his team won the OVC Championship. “We’re excited to see where we’re headed.”

The offense is led by the power-hitting, two-way player that is Ryan Ignoffo. The fifth-year senior has clubbed 15 homers, owns a .603 slugging percentage and has thrown 42 innings with 4.71 ERA, mostly as a closer. The Panthers’ starting pitcher will likely be ace Ky Hampton. Hampton, an Australian right-hander, was one of three members of the Eastern Illinois squad to be named to the All-OVC First Team. He also won the Ohio Valley Conference Pitcher of the Week award twice. While Eastern Illinois is an underdog, they’re a stubborn team on a hot streak that is essentially playing with house money at this point. Dismiss them at your own risk.

The Nashville Regional will open with Oregon versus Xavier on Friday, June 2 at 12 p.m. CDT. Following that, Vanderbilt will take on Eastern Illinois at 7 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributors
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
Frankie Sheehy
Frankie Sheehy, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Frankie Sheehy ('24) wrote for The Hustler Sports section and graduated from the College of Arts and Science with majors in economics and law, history and society. He was also the president of the Vanderbilt Chess Club and a superfan of the Chicago White Sox. You can reach him at [email protected].
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