Everyone is aware of what Tampa is capable of. The Spartans have been the undisputed #1 team for the better part of the last three years, but they have hit a bump in the road recently, going a very un-Tampa-like 11-6 since they beat the Philadelphia Phillies in an exhibition game back on March 1st.
We will let the recent skid slide, because Tampa still has a wealth of high-quality victories on the year. They started the year with eight straight wins and were victorious in 14 of their first 15 contests. Their 2-1 series victory over Southern Indiana looked impressive at the time, but USI has, unfortunately, gone on to prove that they are far from the team that won the national title last year.
Since the beginning of March, Tampa has one series sweep, that being their most recent series against Eckerd, where the Spartans poured on 35 runs in three games. In the stretch before that, however, UT was 8-6, including some very uncharacteristic losses to Cedarville (8-4), Barry (5-4), West Chester (7-6), Florida Southern (11-5), Palm Beach Atlantic (5-2) and Valdosta State (10-3). A few of those teams are quality opponents, but still all opponents that Tampa should have easy dispatched.
Shifting our focus away from their recent struggles, Tampa is still one of the top three teams in the country, without a doubt. The Spartans are smacking the ball all over the field, ranking in the top 20 of nearly every offensive category in the nation. They are 1st in sacrifice flies, eighth in triples, eighth in hits, 11th in batting average, 11th in slugging percentage, 12th in runs, 14th in scoring, 16th in home runs, 18th in walks...you get the point.
The lineup is lead by Nick Flair, a junior third baseman who is hitting to the tune of .395 with 12 doubles, six home runs, 41 RBI, a .653 slugging percentage and a .449 on-base percentage, all of which are among the top two for the Spartans from players which have started at least 2/3rds of their games. Flair is among the national leaders in total bases and RBI.
That is not even mentioning the top returning player from last year, senior outfielder Stephen Dezzi, who is hitting .348 with a team-leading eight home runs, 25 RBI, a .754 slugging percentage and an incredible .525 on-base percentage.
Tampa has 11 regular starters who are hitting over .300. Let that sink in. They are hitting .342 as a team, slugging at .523 and getting on base at a .418 clip. Absurd.
The one spot where Tampa may be looking to improve still this season is on the mound. Last year's team carried a team ERA right around 3, while this year's squad is right around the 4 mark, sitting at 3.81 right now. They are led by junior David Heintz, who is 4-2 with a 2.91 ERA in eight starts, with 33 strikeouts in 46.1 innings, holding hitters to a .233 average. He is followed in the rotation by senior Chase Sparkman (7-0, 3.17 ERA, 34/6 K/BB, 48.1 IP) and junior Brad Hencke (4-0, 4.05 ERA, 34/7 K/BB, 40 IP). While none of them will be competing for pitcher of the year plaudits, the three of them together form a very formidable trio in the toughest conference in the country.
The strikeouts for the team come from the bullpen, as guys like Connor Andrews (1.00 ERA, 10 K in 9 IP, .074 BAA), Dylan Barrow (2-1, 3.09 ERA, 25 K in 23.1 IP), and Jake Mielock (2-0, 4.50 ERA, 25 K in 24.0 IP) are striking out more than one batter an inning to close things down.
On the other side of the diamond, we have Nova Southeastern, a squad which is very comparable with Tampa in the national statistical rankings, a bevy of their own high-quality victories, but a couple of lapses of their own so far this season.
The Sharks began the year 9-0 before losing three straight, two of which were to NAIA opponents. However, NSU did what good teams should, winning their next eight, including a three-game sweep of Saint Leo in an earlier Marquee Match-Up of the Week in early March. After a loss to Adelphi, NSU went on to put up another eight-game winning streak, before dropping two straight to a very talented Lynn team that is climbing up the top-25 rankings themselves.
As a team, the Sharks have speed to burn. They are 11th in the nation in stolen bases (20th in stolen bases per game) and second in triples (10th in triples per game) to go along with leading Division II in walks. They are also ranked in the top 20 in home runs, home runs per game, runs, scoring, and on-base percentage, to go along with top 10 rankings in walks allowed per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio on the mound.
NSU is led by a pair of big bats. Very big bats. Mario Urdaneta, a senior outfielder, leads the team in batting average (.411), runs (38), hits (44), stolen bases (12) and on-base percentage (.528). He also has 11 doubles, three triples, three home runs, 33 RBI and has twice as many walks (27) as strikeouts (13).
The biggest bat of them all on the Sharks' squad is junior first baseman Justin Garcia, who is hitting .362 with 34 runs, nine doubles, a team-leading 11 home runs and 38 RBI and a .793 slugging percentage.
While the Sharks are only hitting .305 as a team compared to Tampa's .342, their .422 on-base percentage eclipses the Spartans, thanks to guys like Andres Visbal, who has one of the more intriguing stat-lines of the season. He is only hitting .202 on the year, but this guy has 30 walks (2nd in Division II) to only 18 hits, raising his .202 batting average to a .411 on-base percentage. If that isn't team baseball, I don't know what is.
NSU has a very talented trio of starts of their own to compete with Tampa, led by Roberto Baroniel, who is 6-1 with a 3.12 ERA in nine starts with 51 strikeouts in 52 innings to only 10 walks. He is followed by Ryan Castellanos (6-2, 3.44 ERA, 44/10 K/BB in 55 IP) and Alex Mateo (5-1, 5.19 ERA, 46/10 K/BB in 43.1 IP). The strongest part of NSU's game might be the control shown by their pitchers, as the entire squad has an absurd 3.8 K/BB ratio with 269 K's and 70 walks on the season.
The edge for the Sharks might come out of the bullpen, where NSU has some of the best in the country. Zachary Westcott (2-0, 3.04 ERA, 27/5 K/BB in 23.2 IP), Devin Raftery (2-0, 1.66 ERA, 30/4 K/BB in 21.2 IP) and Gilberto Torres (4-0, 1.23 ERA, 13 K in 14.2 IP) lead the charge, striking out a ton of batters, not giving up very many hits, and not letting very many runs cross.
Below are links to follow the action all weekend long, and these will be games you will want to follow. Thankfully, they will all be offered on live video, because if there is one series all year in the regular season you want to watch to see the quality of Division II baseball, this is it.
#2 Tampa (24-7, 7-2 SSC) @ #9 Nova Southeastern (26-6, 7-2 SSC)
David Heintz (4-2, 2.91) vs Roberto Baroniel (6-1, 3.12)
Chase Sparkman (7-0, 3.17) vs Alex Mateo (5-1, 5.19)
Brad Hencke (4-0, 4.05) vs Ryan Castellanos (6-2, 3.44)
Note: Starting pitchers are projected based on past series' and subject to change.