Time to step up
Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 23:07
This is what every ball player works and dreams to achieve.All the sweat, blood and tears; the extra hours in the weight room, the extra sprints to get that much faster in an effort to make it here. In the postseason, teams rise above the odds with the eye on becoming a national champion.
The Texas A&M baseball team fell out of contention early from the Big 12 Tournament but remains a favorite to make a deep post-season run as the Aggies, looking for a rarified consecutive trip to the College World Series, host a regional Friday as a Top-16 NCAA seed.
The Aggies’ appearance in the NCAA Tournament is the 28th overall and sixth straight, a school record. Previous regular-season opponent and former Southwest Conference rival Texas Christian University joins the field as well as future SEC foe Ole Miss and Atlantic 10 conference tournament-winner Dayton.
A&M head coach Rob Childress lauded the competition in this season’s regional and praised Dayton, the No. 4 seed and the Aggies’ first opponent, for the aggression on the base paths.
“This tournament is going to be as good a challenge as any across the country. Dayton wins their conference tournament and, from an offensive standpoint, they’re very similar to us – they’ve got [more than] 140 stolen bases and they’re hot,” Childress said. “The other side of our bracket, Ole Miss and TCU, they’re perennial powers and both head coaches are doing amazing jobs.”
The Dayton Flyers’ 162 stolen bases are the most in Division I baseball, reflecting their will to perpetually apply offensive pressure on opposing pitchers. A&M, who plays a similar style, ranks fourth in stolen bases with 127. The Flyers, led by consistent sluggers Brian Blasik, Bobby Glover and Zach Stewart, rank 20th in hits, making their offense all the more potent.
A&M senior first baseman Jacob House said Dayton should arrive with confidence despite the significant leap in competition.
“I don’t think they’ll be intimidated. I think they’ll be ready to go,” House said. “So we’ve got to bring our A-game and throw strikes and be ready to compete with the bats.”
A&M’s Friday evening showdown with Dayton follows a 12:35 p.m. bout between TCU and Ole Miss. The winner will likely be the Aggies’ biggest threat in usurping A&M as the College Station Regional winner.
The Horned Frogs, who fell to the Aggies 4-1 in April, are not as formidable as in previous years. They have the pitching, however, to give teams fits. TCU’s offense, a strength of the team in 2011, fell to mediocre levels in 2012. A No. 119 ranking in batting average and No. 136 ranking in scoring hardly intimidate, but a No. 27 ERA highlights the strength of the Horned Frog hurlers.
Ole Miss finished fourth in the SEC West division behind LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State, respectively, but has the offense to blow up pitchers on any given day. A mirror image of TCU, the Rebels win with their offense. Their No. 34 batting average and No. 24 hitting rankings, led by Alex Yarbrough, are impressive. Their pitchers are avid strike throwers, but give up more runs on average.
Either way, the Aggies are going to have a stiff fight ahead of them. Playing at home, however, will provide a much-needed edge as the stakes grow increasingly higher. A&M is 30-10 on its own turf in 2012.
“It’s going to scare Dayton for sure. I bet they haven’t played in anything like this, ever. Ole Miss, who knows. It’ll be a little intimidating just because of our fans, not many places have a student section like we do,” said senior pitcher Ross Stripling. “It’s going to be a little challenge for them. They have to get through the nerves first…it definitely gives us an advantage early in games and early in the regional.”
Though A&M should be the favorite, Childress said he warned the team of complacency and looking ahead. A similar mentality led to an early exit á la the team’s swift departure Saturday from the Big 12 Tournament.
“The players certainly didn’t enjoy that bus ride home on Saturday and I didn’t either…it’s an eye-opener for how fragile a season is,” Childress said. “We need to get through this weekend and, who knows, somebody will get an upset out there and we’ll get the chance to play at home again. But [thinking about] those Top-8 seeds are for naught unless you take care of business the first weekend.”
From the first day the Aggies took the field, their sights have been set on Omaha, after making the trip last year only to fall to the eventual national champion South Carolina.
“We returned a lot of people from last year’s run through the postseason so that’s going to be big,” Stripling said. “We have a lot of bats that returned a lot of pitching that returned. We need to play to our potential and just take it one game at a time.”
And so it begins. After all the ups and downs of a grueling regular season, this is make-or-break time for A&M. Win or go home. The Aggie players and coaches see the opportunity before them.
The time to step up is now.