Pair of aces: Seth Miller and Caleb Saari lead Augustana baseball into Division II Super Regional
Vikings are two wins away from a berth in the Division II College World Series, and their top starters are the key to getting there
SIOUX FALLS — When Augustana headed to Missouri for the Division II Central Region baseball tournament, coach Tim Huber was direct when asked what his 5th-seeded squad needed to do to win:
Seth Miller to deliver a strong start in Game 1.
Caleb Saari to do the same in Game 2.
That's exactly what happened, with Miller setting the tone in the win over Ouachita Baptist, and Saari then shutting down top-seeded host Central Missouri. Miller then came back to earn the save in the regional championship as the Vikings swept the tournament with a pair of wins over UCM, the 4th-ranked team in Division II.
Now the Vikings are back home, two wins away from their second-ever trip to the World Series. The key to another two wins? Yeah, it's the same as last week.
"They've got to do it again," Huber said. "Don't do too much. Just be really good, just like they were in Missouri. If they just be who they are we'll be in a really good spot."
That might sound like a lot of pressure for the pitchers themselves, but Miller and Saari are taking it in stride.
Saari established himself as the Vikings' top starter when the weather was still cold, before missing a month with a shoulder injury, at which point Miller stepped in and picked up the slack. Now they give the Vikings a 1A/1B atop their rotation, a duo that pitched them into the Super Regional, which begins Friday at Ronken Field against conference rival MSU-Mankato, the team that knocked them out of the NSIC tournament.
Miller is 10-1 with a 3.06 ERA. Saari is 6-3 with a 2.73 ERA.
If they throw this weekend like they have all season, the Vikings should be headed back to Cary, N.C. for a shot at their second national championship (they won it in 2018).
"We have a gameplan and we'll have a scouting report for their hitters, but you're not gonna change your approach just because you're going against a team that has seen you before," said Vikings pitching coach Clay Collison. "We want Seth to be Seth and Caleb to be Caleb."
Miller, a stocky senior at 5-foot-10, 230-pounds, is the kind of innings eating workhorse who will come right at opponents. His fastball sits in the high 80s and sometimes reaches the 90s but he relies heavily on his curve and slider, and has been known to 'pitch backwards', setting up his fastball with his off-speed. He hasn't necessarily been dominant, but he's been remarkably consistent. Since getting touched up for six runs against Quincy in early March, Miller has posted nine consecutive starts of six innings or more with three or fewer runs allowed. In 85 innings he has 86 strikeouts and 21 walks.
"Of anybody we've ever had, if we had a game against the Yankees tomorrow he's the guy I'd go with," Collison said. "He's just such a competitor. He'll give you his best and give you a shot every time out."
Miller has faced the Maverick hitters so much that he admits it's probably an advantage for them. But he's not worrying about it.
"I'm gonna do my best to mix things up," Miller said. "It'll be a mental game for sure. But I really try not to put any pressure on myself on the mound. When I came in to close (the regional championship) Huber looked at me and just said 'go do what you do, make pitches'. That's what I try to do every time."
Saari made huge strides last year as a sophomore, going 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA. This year he's been even better. The 6-5, 225-pound right-hander has an upper-80s/low-90s fastball he commands well to all quadrants of the strike zone, a changeup and slider/curve combo Collison said has continued to improve. And he also throws a knuckleball. No, really. Like every kid who ever pitched he messed around with the pitch while playing catch on the side, but when Viking coaches saw the movement it had and realized Saari could control it decently, they encouraged him to use it. He throws it hard — in the 75-mph range — and has relied on it heavily at times.
"Once I got to college and they saw it they were like, yeah, you should throw that more," Saari said. "It's not a floater — it's in the mid-70s and it kind of does what it wants, but it's an effective pitch for me."
In 69.1 innings this year Saari has whiffed 79 batters while walking only 17, and opponents are hitting just .208 against him.
Throughout the season, as a Vikings team that opened the year thinking it was going to be something of a rebuilding year continued to improve, Saari and Miller have pushed each other. They play catch with each other daily and give each other instant feedback on their pitches, chart the pitches for each other during games, and when one has a good outing, the other tends to follow.
"It's a lot of routine and it works for us," Saari said. "We throw similar stuff so there's a lot of, hey, that pitch looks good today, or, how does this one look? We definitely feed off each other. It brings out an air of confidence. When one guy on your squad goes out there and takes control it gives you confidence you can do the same thing."
Game 1 of the best-of-3 Super Regional is set for Friday at 6 p.m. Game 2 is at 1 p.m. Saturday, with the if-necessary rubber game to follow. The Vikings are hoping to break the Ronken Field attendance record of 712 for a game, and are encouraging pregame tailgating.
The Vikings were in the Super Regional last year, too, and lost a pair of close games to Southern Arkansas. Miller took the loss in the first despite pitching six strong innings of relief, and the Vikings took an 11-6 lead into the 9th inning of Game 2, losing thanks to a 7-run outburst that was capped off by a 3-run homer off of Saari.
So needless to say, both pitchers are coming into this weekend motivated.
"All of these guys are extremely motivated," Miller said. "We know there's still 18 innings left to be won to get where we want to go. We just need to keep playing like we have been."