With the 2021 college baseball regular season winding down, the pressure to perform for Pitt baseball is ramping up. The Panthers had been in prime position to host at the regional stage of the NCAA Tournament — the first round of annual postseason competition — before a COVID-19 outbreak derailed their season’s progress.
The Panthers only missed a total of seven games, but three of them — a series against then top-10 Louisville — presented a tantalizing opportunity for tournament resume bolstering. They held steady in most national rankings but fell out of the top-25 of D1Baseball’s RPI.
Still, these big cats ultimately landed on their feet. They dropped their first game back, a midweek contest at rival West Virginia, but rebounded soon after by taking two of three games from ACC cellar-dweller Boston College last weekend.
Despite the layoff, national media still holds the Panthers in high regard. Both Baseball America and D1Baseball have Pitt projected as the No. 15 national seed and host in the regional round. These projections assume that the Panthers will collect convincing wins in series vs. unranked ACC foes NC State and Wake Forest over the final two weeks of regular season play.
Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke said Wednesday on a call with local media that she considers baseball’s success as one highlight of the athletic department’s year, but that the team can still climb higher.
“Baseball is having a heck of a year,” Lyke said. “It’s early, obviously, but we’re 16th in the country. Coach Bell has done an unbelievable job with that program as well. They’re playing with great confidence. … We are putting a bid in to host an NCAA Regional, which obviously we’ve never done before and an opportunity to talk about hosting regionals … is really great.”
Head coach Mike Bell believes that Panthers’ resume will speak for itself when laid in front of the selection committee. He said that their play prior to the COVID-shutdown should be good enough to earn them the right to play postseason games on their own turf.
“I think they’re gonna see that we play in one of the best conferences in the country,” Bell said following a series win vs. Boston College. “And I think you’re looking at a team that has, I think seven series wins. I think if you look up and down the wins, that’s all you can do…. I think we’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position.”
The persisting COVID-19 pandemic has altered how the NCAA will choose locations for the regional tournaments, which are scheduled to begin on June 4.
Typically these hosts aren’t revealed until the day before Selection Monday, which falls on Memorial Day, but given the oddities of this year, the NCAA is expected to release a shortlist of 20 candidates later this week. Giving advance notice to teams in the running allows for them to prepare facilities in case they are selected and take the proper steps to ensure that the NCAA-mandated COVID testing sites are ready when regional tournaments begin.
Pitt submitted a bid, according to Lyke, and is working through how to handle increased capacity at Charles L. Cost Field, the home of Panthers baseball. The NCAA will allow host sites to fill stands up to 50% capacity, with each school reserving the right to cap attendance under that figure.
Attendance at Cost Field had been held to 210 spectators for regular season games in 2021, roughly 23% of the listed total capacity of 900. Lyke said during a Zoom call with local media on Wednesday afternoon that Pitt would opt to open things up, should it host a regional tournament come June.
“All year we’ve followed the advice of our governor and our state and of course what’s allowed on campus,” Lyke said. “We will be at that 50% capacity [for a regional tournament].”
But even with the hypothetically expanded capacity, Lyke does not expect that many from the general public will be allowed in Cost Field for a regional tournament. She said that after tickets are allocated for the friends and families of players, coaches and staff from each team, there will not be much room left for everyone else.
“It doesn’t allow for a ton of extra tickets to be honest, given that you have to look at all of the extra teams, plus the student athletes’ guests will be included in that number,” Lyke said ”So that doesn’t leave a lot of room for extra fans. ”
Public attendance has been largely nonexistent this season, and is expected to remain that way, thanks to the size of Pitt’s home stadium.
If the Panthers earn a spot as regional host, their home field would be far and away the smallest facility to do so since the tournament field expanded to include 16 hosts in 1999. UC Santa Barbara’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium Field — which can house up to 1000 spectators — currently holds that title.
While the amount of fans allowed in could be limited by the facility’s size, Lyke was nonetheless excited about the possibility of packing Cost Field while keeping safety in mind.
“I think the opportunity to play at home, to play in Pittsburgh is a great thing for us,” Lyke said. “As many people as we can let in, we will.”