In 2010, Elliot Avent took a big gamble going into regional play of the NCAA tournament in Myrtle Beach. The gamble didn’t work, and in fact blew up somewhat spectacularly in a disastrous Saturday game that saw the Pack give up six first inning runs and get eliminated by Stony Brook. The Pack went home without ever throwing its second-best starting pitcher, who Avent was saving for a potential match-up with the No. 1 seed that never happened.
But here’s the thing – Avent had the right strategy. And this week in the ACC tournament, Avent should forget the failure of 2010 and try it again.
The ACC tournament format for baseball is relatively new, taking the top eight teams from the regular season and divides them into two pools. The two pools then play each other in a round-robin tournament and the winner emerges to play the winner of the opposite pool on Sunday for the ACC title.
Because each team only plays three games, more often than not a tie-breaker scenario comes into play. If two teams are tied at 2-1 then the winner of the head-to-head match-up advances and if three teams are tied then it reverts back to conference winning percentage (essentially the top seed advances). Here’s how the Pack’s pool shapes up this weekend:
No. 2 North Carolina (42-13, 22-8 ACC)
No. 3 NC State (38-15, 19-11)
No. 6 Miami (34-19, 16-14)
No. 7 Wake Forest (32-22, 13-17)
And the schedule for the Pack shapes up as follows:
Wednesday, 3pm: Miami
Thursday, 7pm: Wake Forest
Saturday, 7pm: UNC
The real dilemma that comes with this format is the same dilemma coaches have been facing for years in the NCAA regional – how to deploy your pitching rotation. The Pack has a clear hierarchy when it comes to its staff, and its best starters in order look something like this:
1. Carlos Rodon – Obviously
2. Ethan Ogburn - Doesn't miss a lot of bats but he's a consistent strike thrower. Clearly the Pack’s No. 2 at this point
3. Anthony Tzamtzis or Logan Jernigan - Tzamtzis holds the better ERA but their underlying performance metrics(things like strikeout-to-walk ration, batting average against) are essentially equal. They both are good pitchers when they throw strikes but they don't throw strikes often enough.
The Pack has to win three games or, failing that, win two games and beat the other team(s) that wins two games in order to hold the tiebreaker and move on to Sunday. Therefore I think you have to assume that Saturday is the game to win because even if you split the Wednesday and Thursday games and UNC goes 2-0 you simply have to beat them on Saturday to advance.
So to me, it seems obvious that Avent should start Jernigan on Wednesday and Tzamtzis on Thursday (holding Tzamtzis simply because it would give him an extra day or rest after starting against Florida State on Saturday). Honestly, the Pack has the perfect rotation to play this strategy because it has two talented and essentially equal guys to start for the weekday games. The Pack can hope to split those two games and turn Saturday into a play-in game for Sunday with its ace on the mound against its arch-rival.
On top of that, Avent keeps Ogburn in his holster for Sunday. If the Pack doesn’t make it to Sunday then Ogburn gets a much-needed week off and if they do get to Sunday Avent can throw out his second-best starter against what is likely to be the opposing team’s fourth best starter.
The goal is to win the title – there’s no prize for making it to Sunday if you lose. This tournament, and the way it’s structured, is about playing the long game. In fact, if you are going to lose, you’re better off being eliminated on Thursday and letting your best players rest up for the NCAA tournament.
Avent’s best bet to win his first ACC title is to trust the back end of his rotation and play the odds.