The East Tennessee State baseball team finds itself in some rare air tonight in Nashville as it makes its first NCAA tournament appearance in 32 years.
The Bucs hope they’re still breathing come Sunday.
The Atlantic Sun Conference champions have the daunting task of playing second-ranked Vanderbilt on its home field on the opening day of the four-team regional. ESPNU will televise, beginning at 7 o’clock.
Georgia Tech (34-25) and Illinois (34-18) open the double-elimination tournament at 2.
All the Commodores have done so far this season is win 51 games and dominate the Southeastern Conference. They compiled a 26-3 league record while winning every series, but were knocked off by LSU, 5-4 in 11 innings, in the tournament final.
The Bucs, meanwhile, scrapped to their first A-Sun championship as the 4-seed. The run included three straight victories with last-at-bat heroics before they eased past Kennesaw State 7-2 in the final behind pitching ace Kerry Doane.
The senior right-hander is the A-Sun pitcher of the year, and he’ll have to be at his finest, and then some, tonight at Hawkins Field against a team that has outscored its opponents 439-199.
Doane, who has rallied from a mild case of strep throat in the last few days, is typically low-key about the assignment.
“Obviously they have some good hitters, but it’s the same game,” he said. “We have a scouting report on all their hitters. I’ll see how they’re swinging, how they react to different pitches, and go from there.
“Once it starts, you just play the game.”
Doane, the team’s starting shortstop his first three years at ETSU, has played it better than anyone could have imagined before the season began.
He’s 13-1 with a 1.99 ERA, and he hasn’t lost since March 16. His 13 wins have tied the school record, and his 12 complete games and 140 innings pitched lead the nation. He has surrendered only two home runs.
Simply put, the Bucs believe they’re going to win every time Doane takes the mound.
“That’s our one saving grace: Kerry gives us a chance,” said ETSU coach Tony Skole. “I don’t think anybody is going to beat the ball around the park on him.”
Of course, the Commodores aren’t just anybody.
They have seven all-conference players, led by junior second baseman Tony Kemp, the SEC player of the year. Kemp has produced a monster season, leading the conference in batting average (.408), on-base percentage (.490), runs (58) and stolen bases (27).
Senior rightfielder Mike Yastrzemski was also a first-team selection after hitting .407. Senior centerfielder Connor Harrell and sophomore pitcher Tyler Beede were second-teamers.
Skole chuckles when asked whether his team has faced an opponent in recent memory that is as deep and talented.
“Not really,” he said. “We’ve obviously got our hands full, especially from a pitching standpoint. They’ve been so dominant, it’s almost like video game numbers. And they’ve probably got six or seven guys who will pitch in the big leagues one day.”
With only nine losses, coach Tim Corbin’s team hasn’t even been in a vulnerable position many times this season. And that’s the first challenge for the Bucs: making the Commodores believe an upset is possible.
“If we can put some pressure on them, make them understand we’re not going down without a fight,” said Skole. “We’ll be in a hostile environment, with a national TV audience, and if they punch us in the mouth, we have to respond. The great thing about baseball is that anything can happen on a given day.”
Clinton Freeman, the Bucs’ first baseman and closer, would love for Doane to get an early lead to work with and see what happens.
“Some games Kerry has had to fight for nine innings to get us a win,” said Freeman. “When he’s on the mound, we know we’ve got a chance. We just need to get him some run support and play good defense behind him. He can’t do it all himself.”
Freeman is ETSU’s most formidable hitter, with a .336 average, 56 RBI and 10 home runs. No one else on the team has driven in more than 34 runs.
Andrew Green is batting .335 and has reached base safely in 23 straight games, while Derek Neisman has a 16-game hitting streak going.
Notes: This will be the fourth NCAA regional appearance for the Bucs. They lost to Mississippi State 6-5 in the championship game of the Atlantic Regional at Clemson in 1981, and haven’t been back since.
Their overall record is 3-6 in NCAA play. …
The Bucs and Commodores have tangled only three times previously, and not since 2003. The Commodores have won all three games.
Looking ahead to possible Saturday matchups, ETSU is 1-23 against Georgia Tech and has never played Illinois. …
The A-Sun has two teams in the NCAAs for the second time in three years. Regular-season champion Mercer is playing South Alabama in the first round of the Starkville Regional.