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Friday, June 21, 2024

#AsForBaseball: On to the NCAA Tournament AGAIN!

Army Baseball will be in Athens, Georgia, this weekend for the NCAA Regionals. This team wrote six unique Patriot League Championship stories over the past six seasons, each with its own struggles. The 2024 edition featured some high drama in the final month of the season. Most notably, Bucknell took Army to the brink of elimination in the Patriot League Semi-finals – twice!  

Army fans, do not take this for granted. We’re in a special and historic era for Army Baseball.

Athens Regional Overview

Army heads to Georgia this weekend to compete against UGA, UNC-Wilmington, and Georgia Tech in a double elimination regional tournament bracket. Army plays a completely different brand of baseball than these “big boys.” The Black Knights will rely on strong pitching, excellent defense, and plenty of small ball to compete. Statistically speaking, Army brings the best pitching staff to this particular Regional match-up. 

The odds undoubtedly favor Georgia to advance to the next round. The Bulldogs compete against some of the baseball teams in the country on a weekly basis. Moreover, UGA comes in as the #7 team in the country, with four other SEC teams ranked ahead of them. Special wins for them include current #1 overall Tennessee and an early-season win over Texas A&M, the #1 overall team at the time. Georgia is one of *11* SEC teams in this year’s 64-team field. 

As the #4 seed in this tournament, Army draws the Georgia Bulldogs at 1 PM on May 31 on ESPN+. 

UNC Wilimington and Georgia Tech are ranked #34 and #49, respectively, in the RPI. As the #2 and #3 seeds in this bracket, UNCW and Georgia Tech will face-off on May 31 after the completion of the Army game. 

On June 1, the two winners face off and the two losers play in the losers bracket. The final two teams will play on June 2 and June 3, if necessary.

How Does Army Win? 

Army is a huge underdog in this bracket, as they would be in any of the 16 regional brackets. At all levels of baseball, it comes down to pitching. Thankfully, pitching and defense are Army’s superpower against these more powerful teams.  

Army wins this first game much like the traditional triple-option wins them football games. 

— Run the clock. In this case, get quickly through the early innings with minimal damage.
— Remain within striking distance, i.e. within a run or two.
— Perform under pressure at the end. Either hold a thin lead or string together a few hits, walks, and stolen bases to manufacture offense when it counts. 

Army’s margin of error in any games this weekend will be razor thins.

The Black Knights’s pitchers will therefore need to minimize walks and keep the ball down in the strike zone. When pitchers keep the ball low, hitters have a tendency to hit more ground balls. Army’s stellar defense can then turn those ground balls into easy outs and double plays, allowing Justin Lehman, Army’s presumed Game 1 starter, out of jams.

If Army leaves too many pitches up zone, though, the Bulldogs’ hitters could put a few into the parking lot of Foley Field. Georgia enters the tournament third in the nation in home runs (HRs) and fifth in on base percentage (OBP). As you might expect, none of the Bulldogs are easy outs. 

UGA will likely start their second- or third-best starter tomorrow. If Army’s offense can eek out a run or two early, this game might just get interesting. 

So You’re Saying There’s A Chance! 

In 2018, Army traveled to the Raleigh regional to face host North Carolina State. NC State saved their ace, 2018 #1 overall draft pick Casey Mize, for a “more formidable” opponent. Army stuck to the plan, scoring one run in the third and another in the fourth. Army pitching then shortened the game, keeping NC State off the board. After chasing the Wolfpack starting pitching off in the fifth inning, the Black Knights added two more runs in the sixth and another in the seventh. All of sudden the upstart Black Knights led 5-0 and only needed to handle the pressure. They did. When the dust settled Army had stolen a win, ruining the season of a baseball powerhouse. 

NC State took the long road to the finals and lost to Auburn, ending their season. 

If a few breaks go Army’s way this weekend, that script could play out again on Friday or Saturday. 

Hurtubise Watch

Army player Jacob Hurtubise (‘19) scored twice in that 2018 upset of NC State. In case you have not been following, Hurtubise is now in the majors and contributing on the Cincinatti Reds. 

The Reds trust him enough to have promoted him to the leadoff spot. While hitting at the top of the order, he put a nice four-game hitting streak together, bumping his average up to .280 at one point. Best of all, in his May 27th post-game presser, he sounded like a seasoned veteran, talking about momentum, a winning streak, and the return of an injured pitcher. 

There is no doubt Hurtubise has the tools and talent to stay in the Majors. In 2023, he led all players in the minor leagues with a .479 OBP. Said differently: in the entire 120-team Minor League Baseball ecosystem, ZERO players were more likely to earn their way on base than Jacob Hurtubise. Once on base, Hurtubise used his blazing speed and baserunning savvy to steal 45 bases in 119 games last season. 

Thankfully, ESPN+ carries a lot of out-of-market Major League Baseball games, making it easier for Army fans to watch Hurtubise on the road. 

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