MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers have yet to crack from their pressure-packed season that included a loser's bracket rally in the Horizon League tournament that gave them an automatic — and improbable — trip to the national tourney.
While the NCAA doesn't seed every team, the Panthers (33-24) can certainly be considered the last team in this season. Their reward? A Friday matchup in the double-elimination NCAA tournament with top-seeded Arizona State (47-8), one of the favorites to reach the College World Series.
"No one expects us to go over there and upset the No. 1 team," senior catcher Shaun Wegner said. "We don't have anything to lose, but everything to gain."
The Panthers are already missing their team leader and best hitter, Tim Patzman, to a season-ending elbow injury. They needed top starter Chad Pierce to throw 150 pitches on Thursday and bounce back two days later with 84 more to beat Wright State for the automatic NCAA bid.
"We're not just happy that we're making this," Pierce said. "We want to show people that Milwaukee can play baseball.
"We're the only Division I baseball team in the state and people look over us. Our RPI was really bad, but we've played some great teams and some teams in our conference have played some big teams and won. We think that we can do it. We're going to play loose."
It's Milwaukee's fourth NCAA regional bid and first since 2002, when the Panthers lost both games as a No. 4 seed to Nebraska and Southwest Missouri State.
Fourth-year head coach Scott Doffek said the team will be ready for the Sun Devils. Doffek took the Panthers to Arizona State to start last season and they were swept in four games by a combined score of 53-9.
"We're just going to work on pitch No. 1 and try to execute that and just keep doing that as the game and tournament moves on and really not play for the result," Doffek said. "I know that sounds a little bit crazy."
Not as crazy as this number: Milwaukee had 3,455 fans total for all 14 home games. Arizona State averaged 3,410 per game this year.
Pierce (7-4) will likely get the call to face the Sun Devils. The junior right-hander is a bit erratic, with 40 walks, 16 wild pitches and 17 hit batters in 99 2-3 innings. This time, he says he'll be ready after giving up three runs in an inning of relief against Arizona State two years ago as a sophomore at Arkansas before transferring.
"You look at my numbers, I don't strike people out. I probably average four walks a game through nine innings," said Pierce, who touches 92 mph with his fastball. "You see my wild pitches, and they're going to think I'm out of control."
The Panthers started 7-13 this year, losing five one-run games in that stretch. They played their first 18 games on the road to avoid Wisconsin's winter wonderland. It took 21 hours to travel roundtrip by bus to Jonesboro, Ark.; 25 hours to Fayetteville, Ark.; 19 hours to Clarksville, Tenn.; and 22 hours to Manhattan, Kan.
The catch? They were on four consecutive weekends.
"You've got to love everyone," Pierce said of those trips. "Luckily, we were able to get the Internet on the bus. Everyone just tries to stay loose and we probably watch four or five movies."
Even when they're at home, the Panthers haven't gotten many breaks.
They scheduled a doubleheader with Northwestern at Miller Park in April — only to wait forever in the tunnels of the stadium because the big-league Brewers played a 14-inning slugfest with the Pirates that took 4 hours, 39 minutes.
"Most of us our Brewers fans. At one point, we didn't care who won," Pierce said. "We just wanted to get that game over to play ours. Being at any field any day is awesome and if we had to wait, we had to wait. But knowing when your game is going to start is awesome."
Even when it's Arizona State.
"We're going to give everyone everything we have," Wegner said. "We're going to go down fighting because that's what we're taught, and that's what we believe in."