Holliday: Baseball pools create debate in the ACC

Back in the 1980s when I first began covering ACC baseball, the league played a double-elimination tournament that required four games per day for most of a week to crown a champion. This was a thoroughly fair process, but it exhausted some teams and burned through pitching staffs. No one – at least that I recall back then – found that format to be a problem, because in that era few ACC teams contended for the College World Series in Omaha.

ACC baseball improved dramatically in the 90s. Florida State joined the league, and most of the other eight schools upgraded their programs. And so for the past 20 years, the ACC has played some of the best baseball in the country. And during these past two decades, coaches have become much more outspoken about the need to stage the kind of ACC Tournament that best prepares the largest number of teams for the NCAA Tournament and Omaha.

For that reason, the ACC switched from double elimination to pool play, to create a smaller and more predictable number of games. Initially, the league tried working with two pools and ten teams. The two pool winners played for the ACC Championship. However, the ACC continued to expand. When the number of baseball playing teams reached 14, the two-pool format left out four schools – too many in the eyes of several coaches. So two years ago, coaches voted for a new approach: 12 teams, playing in four pools.

The new format is definitely more inclusive. Only Virginia Tech and Boston College missed this year’s festivities at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Coaches like the fact that every team is guaranteed at least two games at a time when everyone wants to play quality opponents to tune up for the NCAA Tournament. They really like the fact that even the two finalists play no more than four games, saving those pitching staffs for a chance at the CWS.

‘There‘s no perfect format, really‘

Yet a number of coaches have issues with the new format. When there are just three teams in a pool, one game can decide the future, even for the team that did not play in that game. Wake Forest lost to Louisville, which dictated that the Deacons’ game against Duke meant nothing to the question of which team would win the pool with seeds 4-5-9 and advance to the ACC semifinals. Wake coach Tom Walter expressed his frustration with the new format post game: “I think there‘s probably a consensus among the coaches that we won‘t stick with it,” Walter said. “I don‘t think anybody is in favor of it quite honestly. The problem is there‘s no perfect format really.”

Walter decried the number of meaningless games created by the three team/four pool format. Georgia Tech’s Danny Hall concurs: “It makes it tough in our situation this year in that you play the first game of the tournament and you lose, and you know after one game that you‘re out of this tournament, and then we don‘t play again until Friday.” Hall says waiting three days to play a meaningless game was tough on the Georgia Tech players.

Georgia Tech came to Durham as the 8th seed, playing in the 1-8-12 pool. The Yellow jackets lost to 12th seeded Pitt. Under current tie-breaker rules, which reward the top-seeded teams if all three pool participants finish 1-1, the loss to Pitt meant GT was knocked out of the tournament on Tuesday. They still had to hang around until Friday to play #1 UNC with no chance of playing on the weekend.

The three-team pool format also put UNC in a difficult spot. The Tar Heels had to play a winner-take-all game in their ACC Tournament opener against upset-minded Pitt. The Panthers, though the 12th seed, had gained some momentum and confidence by taking down the 8th seeded Yellow jackets. UNC started well against Pitt. But Frank Maldonado’s bases loaded catch in the third inning, made in spite of a head on collision with the centerfield wall, denied the Tar Heels three runs and Pitt took over the game thereafter. Over the final five innings, the pressure mounted on the top seeded Tar Heels, who knew they had to win or miss out on the weekend, and they ultimately lost 5-4.

Friday, a much looser UNC team buried Georgia Tech 9-0. UNC was the only top seed that faced a single elimination game. Clemson, NC State and Duke all got to play a non-elimination game before playing a second game that determined the pool winner.

UNC’s Mike Fox, however, would not use the odd twists of this format as an excuse for missing out on the weekend fun at the DBAP. He relishes the NCAA Tournament style pressure his team faced: “I told our kids afterwards, I think that game could possibly help us down the road because at some point in your season, if you‘re fortunate enough to go on, you‘re going to play in a game that if you lose it‘s going to end your season,” Fox observed. The UNC coach urged his players to take a hard look at the Pitt loss and rethink their mindset for the pressure games ahead: “You‘ve got to go back and look and see how you felt, how you approached it, how calm you were, relaxed you were, because we could very well be in that same position this coming weekend except the stakes are going to be a little bit higher.”

Preparing for the NCAA Regionals

It’s all about the NCAA Regionals now in most coaches minds.

That’s certainly the case for Duke’s Chris Pollard, whose team has at least a chance for a history making double-getting a spot in the NCAA Tournament field and possibly hosting a regional. Make no mistake, Pollard likes the new three team/four pool format.

Wednesday, Duke played Wake Forest in a game that had no bearing on what team would ultimately win the 4-5-9 pool, which also included Louisville. It took almost 4 ½ hours but Duke won a 13 inning game with Wake Forest, helping its NCAA standing. But, afterward, Pollard described the marathon game as “exhausting,” even though it meant nothing in ACC Tournament pool play. So I asked him, is this format a good thing, now that you have to play Louisville in less than 20 hours-in a game that does matter in this ACC Tournament? His response: “I think that this formula, it gives us the best option in a couple of different areas. Number one, it always ensures that we have meaningful games on Saturday. In the previous pool play situation, we had two teams potentially playing on Saturday that had no chance to win their pool, and that‘s a tough situation for everybody, but certainly for the atmosphere of the tournament. Now we always have meaningful games on Saturday. You‘re never going to play more than four games in the week, so you‘re not in a position where you‘re going to cash your pitching staff potentially for the next week. And so I — granted, we‘ve played well in this format over the last — 3-1 in pool play in this format over the last two years, so it‘s been advantageous for us. But I like it. Is it perfect? No. But I think the pluses far outweigh the cons in this format.” Pollard’s tired team lost to Louisville Friday so their record in this format is now 3-2.

NC State opened ACC Tournament play with Virginia. The Cavaliers had already lost to Florida State, so the Wolfpack did not need to beat the Cavs to win the 3-6-10 pool. As it turned out, the Pack didn’t beat the Cavs. However, the Friday night game against Florida State was the one that decided the pool champion.

But back to the meaningless game with Virginia – and remember no game is truly meaningless prior to the announcement of NCAA selections, but meaningless in terms of influencing which team wins the ACC – NC State coach Elliott Avent says his team tried hard to win.

But Avent said in response to my question, he would have managed a few situations against Virginia differently had the game been the one to decide the pool champion. “May have tweaked the lineup a little bit because I‘m still trying to search some things for next week to see what‘s our best lineup on the field right now against a righty, what‘s our best lineup against a lefty,” Avent noted. “Bringing the infield in in the fourth inning, even though it worked out, not sure I would have done that, although I realized Casey may keep us from scoring a lot of runs today, so I may have done it. But yeah, I probably did a couple things differently, trying to figure out some stuff had this been an elimination game, but not with coming out to play. Not with the starter we used. Maybe with the bullpen we used possibly, but no. I did a couple things different.”

Louisville, which has played some of the week’s best baseball, struggled under this format last year, when the Cardinals were hosting the ACC Baseball Championship and very much wanted to play on the weekend. The coach’s take on the format? “I didn‘t mind the three games in the pod,” the Cardinals’ Dan O’Donnell responded. “ But we‘re trying to do what‘s best for the league, so I think we just need to evaluate at the end of the day, and how many teams we get in the NCAAs and how well do we do in the NCAAs I think is probably most important when it‘s all said and done.”

When I asked O’Donnell if he thought the format should be tweaked, he said coaches discussed the possibility of an eight-team, single-elimination tournament growing out of the four three-team pods. O’Donnell: “Two teams advanced from the three-team pod, so the top two teams advance. But if you win it, boy, I think that could lead to maybe five or six games. That‘s probably just too much – especially for the talented team to win it could be hosting a regional the following weekend, you don‘t want to crush the pitching and everything.”

In September the league’s coaches will review how well the format is working. Does it provide a fair test to decide the ACC champion? Above all, does it prepare the maximum number of teams to make the NCAA Tournament and then play their best so that the ACC puts as many teams in Omaha as possible?

The current format is flawed to be sure. But given the importance of the NCAA Tournament, which begins just 5 days after the ACC Tournament, can the coaches come up with a better idea?