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Clemson regional: Three contenders

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The Road to Omaha has begun and it all starts with NCAA regional play this weekend.

In our latest regional insider, we take a look at the Clemson regional, which should be very competitive with Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma State as the headliners.

Clemson has quietly put together an outstanding campaign, Alabama has one of the nation's best offenses but needs its pitching staff to rise to the occasion and Oklahoma State hopes to prove all doubters wrong with Tyler Lyons and Andy Oliver perhaps leading the way in the weekend rotation.

Also keep an eye on Tennessee Tech, who has one of the best players you haven't heard of in A.J. Kirby-Jones.

We preview the Clemson regional.

THE TEAMS
Team Conference Record Berth Last NCAA appearance
1. Clemson ACC 40-19 At-large 2007 (Starkville super regional)
2. Alabama SEC 37-19 At-large 2008 (Conway regional)
3. Oklahoma State Big 12 32-22 At-large 2008 (Stillwater regional)
4. Tennessee Tech OVC 30-22-1 Won OVC 2001 (Knoxville regional)
THE BREAKDOWN
The favorite: Clemson

1. Clemson

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma State

4. Tennessee Tech
The Tigers have quietly compiled an impressive 40-19 record and are the favorite to win the regional. The Tigers are hitting .301 and have a 3.68 earned run average. Ben Paulson, Jeff Schaus and Mike Freeman are the offensive cogs to watch. Paulson is hitting .368 with 11 homers and 55 RBIs, Schaus is hitting .329 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs and Freeman is hitting .324 with three homers and 37 RBIs. On the mound, keep an eye on Casey Harman, Chris Dwyer and Trey Delk. Harman is 7-3 with a 3.86 ERA in 74 2/3 innings, Dwyer is 4-5 with a 5.30 ERA in 73 innings and Delk is 4-1 with a 2.98 ERA in 45 1/3 innings. Also keep an eye on reliever Matt Vaughn, who has appeared in 19 games and has a 2.67 ERA in 27 innings.
The dark-horse contender: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys could be a very dangerous team. The Pokes have heard all week they don't deserve a regional spot. So, if they're a little like their counterparts at Oklahoma, they will reach the regional final as the Sooners did last season. Tyler Lyons, Andy Oliver and Tyler Blandford lead the weekend rotation. Randy McMurry, meanwhile, has appeared in 25 games and has a 2.45 ERA in 36 2/3 innings. At the plate, keep an eye on Neil Medchill, Michael Dabbs and Tom Belza, among others. Medchill is hitting .337 with 14 homers and 55 RBIs, Dabbs is hitting .335 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs and Belza is hitting .336 with a pair of homers and 33 RBIs.
Best hitter: Alabama OF Kent Matthes
He's one of the leading candidates for our National Player of the Year award. So, yeah, there's no question Matthes is the best hitter in the regional. The hard-hitting veteran enters postseason play hitting .365 with 14 doubles, two triples, 28 homers and 81 RBIs. He also has tallied 174 total bases, has a .883 slugging percentage and a .465 on-base percentage. Matthes has walked 31 times and struck out in 44 at bats. Also worth noting is the fact Matthes has stolen 13 bases. He is a complete player for Alabama.
Best pitcher: Alabama RHP Austin Hyatt
The Crimson Tide is usually in good shape when Hyatt throws well. The veteran right-hander has started 14 games, thrown two complete games and has a 3.14 ERA in 100 1/3 innings. Hyatt also has struck out 86 and walked 13 and opponents are hitting him at a .220 clip. He also has allowed six homers and enters the regional with an 8-2 record. The Crimson Tide needs Hyatt to throw a gem against Oklahoma State in the opener.
The buzz
Clemson certainly has a respectable offense but the pitching staff has been its strength this season. The Tigers enter the weekend with a 3.68 earned run average. Starting pitchers Casey Harman and Trey Delk have been solid this season, but the bullpen also has been very impressive. Matt Vaughn has recorded four saves, Ryan Hinson has a 3.25 ERA in 36 innings and Scott Weismann, Will Lamb and Tomas Cruz have earned run averages of 1.57, 2.05 and 3.51, respectively … Alabama will miss third baseman and reliever Jake Smith because of an injury sustained last week at the SEC tournament, but it should be fine, especially at the plate. Though Kent Matthes is the headliner at the plate, also keep an eye on Taylor Dugas, Ross Wilson and Brandon May. Dugas is hitting .354 with a pair of homers and 27 RBIs, Wilson is hitting .349 with nine homers and 46 RBIs and May is hitting .343 with 12 homers and 68 RBIs … Oklahoma State needs a big weekend from all of its weekend starters, but one interesting note about them is the fact the offense includes six hitters with batting averages better than .320. The Pokes have the talent to take care of business, but haven't lived up to expectations since early March … Tennessee Tech hopes to pull off an upset with offensive cogs A.J. Kirby-Jones and Chad Oberaker leading the way. Kirby-Jones is one of the nation's most underrated players and enters the weekend hitting .344 with 15 doubles, 20 homers and 66 RBIs. Oberaker, meanwhile, is hitting .348 with four homers and 26 RBIs.