May 25—It was inevitable all along that many bubble teams across the country would pay the price with the format change in this year's NCAA Division II Baseball Championship.
Pittsburg State ended up being one of them.
With the Central Region Tournament field being reduced from eight teams to six this year because of COVID-19, PSU — a 30-win team that placed second in the MIAA Tournament over the weekend — missed the cut on Monday as the field was announced by the D2 Baseball Committee.
The MIAA had just one national qualifier in second-ranked Central Missouri, which is the No. 1 seed heading into this week's regional in Warrensburg after going 39-6 and claiming conference regular-season and tournament titles.
Missouri Southern, ranked in the top 25 nationally for most of the season and ending the year with a 30-13 record, also missed out on the regional after suffering a first-round exit in the conference tournament at the hands of Central Oklahoma.
It's an especially tough break for a Pittsburg State ball club that did almost everything it could — besides beat a proven World Series contender — to beef up its season resume late in the year.
In the MIAA tourney, PSU claimed a 2-1 first-round series win over Washburn as well as wins in elimination games over Rogers State and Central Oklahoma. UCM was the only team to defeat the Gorillas once the tournament shifted over to Joplin, picking up a 9-5 win in the quarterfinals and an 11-2 win in the championship.
Overall, the Gorillas were playing their best baseball at the end of the year, having won four of their last five MIAA series in the regular season prior to their conference tourney run. One series triumph came in the form of a 3-0 home sweep of then-No. 8 MSSU in late April.
Following the MIAA championship setback, PSU coach Bob Fornelli was hopeful when asked about his team's chances of advancing in the postseason, saying, "Central Missouri is a great team, great program. We wish them well, and we just want to find a way to join them next week. I think we've earned it."
But it turned out that PSU's late-season surge wasn't enough to warrant an at-large bid for the MIAA.
It was a different story for the Great American Conference.
The final three teams to make the Central Region Tournament were all from the GAC in 4-seed Arkansas Tech (28-15), 5-seed Southern Arkansas (27-14) and 6-seed Henderson State (26-17). It was the only conference in the region to land two at-large bids.
Part of the reason the GAC managed to land three teams in the national tournament was due to the wrinkle that Henderson State threw in the mix during its conference tournament. HSU entered as the tourney's 7-seed and took out 2-seed Southern Arkansas, 3-seed Oklahoma Baptist and 1-seed Arkansas Tech en route to the tournament championship, which made it an automatic qualifier for the regional.
Whether Arkansas Tech and Southern Arkansas both deserved an at-large bid over PSU is up for debate. Against ranked competition, Pittsburg State went 3-5 while ATU went 2-1 and SAU 1-1. The Gorillas had one common opponent with Arkansas Tech in Central Missouri, which picked up a 5-3 win over the Wonder Boys in Houston on Jan. 30.
Maybe "deserved" isn't even the right word. Maybe there's not a perfect science to these comparisons.
But again, if not for a format change, there's a decent chance PSU would be joining this season's Central Region field as a 7- or 8-seed. That's one reason to hope the league returns to eight-team regionals next year.
This year, unfortunately, the Gorillas simply got the short end of the stick.
Jared Porter is a sports reporter for The Joplin Globe. His email is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.