CCU defense faces real test this weekend

MYRTLE BEACH | As the L-screen was towed from the infield after batting practice Tuesday, country music that had blared from the loudspeakers at Coastal Federal Field accompanying the Coastal Carolina sluggers was cut.

The team muted all distraction to intensely focus on its next segment of practice a simulated game that stressed pitching and defensive execution. Those two phases of the game are what many believe determine success in post-season play like this weekend's Myrtle Beach Regional of the Division I NCAA baseball tournament.

"Pitching and defense has been our focus all year,'' CCU first baseman Chris Raber said.

That focus paid off in the regular season as CCU led the Big South in ERA (3.41) and fielding percentage (.971). Those numbers also would seem to give the No. 1-seeded Chants reason to believe they can advance to their first NCAA super regional. The Chants have earned berths to the NCAA regionals seven times.

"You have to have great focus and believe in the things you do well,'' Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore said. "[For us] that is pitching and playing defense exceptionally well.''

But while defensive play will be key, the Chants' advantage in those categories will be decidedly smaller beginning Friday against VCU.

Gilmore pointed out that pitching and defense aided most of the field's 64 teams. The Chants rank 11th in ERA and are tied for 35th in fielding percentage. Clemson is 22nd in the country in ERA and 31st in fielding percentage (.972), and St. John's ranks 13th in ERA (3.47).

Clemson's pitching staff has one decided advantage over the other three teams in field, ranking 10th in the country in strikeouts per nine innings (8.5) while no other team in the Myrtle Beach Regional ranked in the top 35. Coastal's staff has averaged 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings, but just 2.3 walks.

The teams know pitching in the first game of double-elimination style play is critical. If a team loses it needs to win four consecutive games to advance, though Coastal believes it has the depth to win the three to four games necessary to do so.

"John [Mariotti] is probably the only starter with an ERA above 3.5,'' CCU starter Andy DeLaGarza said of Mariotti, who has a 4.03 ERA. "And he has had some of the better stuff recently.

"When you have four guys with good stuff. You feel pretty confident going out [each game].''

Pit stop

On its way to Myrtle Beach on Wednesday, Virginia Commonwealth made a pit stop at Methodist College in Fayetteville for infield and batting practice before arriving at 5 p.m. VCU sports information director Scott Day said VCU took Tuesday off, deciding to break up a long busride on Wednesday.