Second-Seeded Northridge Won't Be a Sleeper in West Regional : College baseball: Matadors need not have worried about making NCAA tournament. Top-ranked Arizona State is top-seeded on its home field.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Sims didn't sleep well Sunday night. He was too nervous. Like many of his Cal State Northridge teammates, he felt that the Matadors deserved to be in the 48-team field for the NCAA Division I tournament, but he feared that they would be overlooked.

As it turned out, Sims had nothing to worry about. Not only were the Matadors granted an at-large berth for the third consecutive year, they were seeded No. 2 in the West Regional at Tempe, Ariz.

Northridge (34-18) plays fifth-seed St. John's (25-18) at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. In the 11 a.m. game, third-seeded Pepperdine (40-15), the defending NCAA champion, meets fourth-seeded Minnesota (43-16). At 7 p.m., Arizona State (42-18), the host team and top seeded in the regional, takes on sixth-seeded George Mason (33-13).

The winner of the double-elimination tournament advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., June 4-12.

Almost all of the Matador players who gathered together to see the announcement of the field on ESPN were surprised by their No. 2 seeding. After all, Northridge is ranked 23rd in one poll and unranked in another after finishing in a tie with Cal State Sacramento for second in the Western Athletic Conference West Division.

The WAC was represented by Northridge, WAC West champion Fresno State and Hawaii, the third-place team in the WAC West. Sacramento and WAC East winner Brigham Young were left out of the tournament.

Northridge's high seeding stems from its rating power index, a formula based on record and strength of schedule. Surprisingly, Northridge's RPI was fourth-highest among teams in the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast, trailing only Arizona State, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, Arizona and Big West runner-up Cal State Fullerton.

Unlike Sacramento, the Matadors did not play any Division II teams, and they split against all of the best teams in the area: Fullerton, Big West champion Cal State Long Beach, UCLA, USC, and West Coast Conference champion Pepperdine.

Although the sixth-ranked Waves have been ranked higher all season, the Matadors ended up with a higher seeding because they went 7-1 against WCC teams and they won eight of their last 11 games.

The Matadors' high seeding didn't allow them to avoid Arizona State, however.

"Well, they have to scatter the No. 2 seeds everywhere," Northridge Coach Bill Kernen said. "The easiest regional is at Tennessee; the rest are hard, too. The top three teams in all of the regionals are pretty good."

Since they rallied to defeat Pepperdine, 10-9, in 10 innings last Tuesday, the Matadors have been in limbo.

"The whole aura was mystical," pitcher Keven Kempton said. "We weren't really sure, but coach sat us down and told us to practice like we're in. So we took that and ran with it and practiced really hard, real crisp and quick."

The break between games has given Northridge's pitchers a much-needed rest.

"Now they have no excuses for not doing their job," Sims said. "And our batters have stayed in tune by swinging the bat all week. We'll be ready."

Team hitting leader Greg Shepard said he has a much better feeling about this team's chances in the post-season than the 1992 team which lost four of its five games before the regional tournament.

"This is a much tighter group," Shepard said. "We came together at the end. Last year, we were just fighting among ourselves. Sometimes you get on each other's nerves when you are together for six or seven months."

Northridge's at-large berth is its third since the Matadors moved to the Division I ranks in 1991. The atmosphere at the viewing lacked the suspense of years' past because the players learned from teammate Jason Van Heerde that they were in the field moments before the cable TV show began. Van Heerde arrived early and overheard ESPN's announcers rehearsing the show on the satellite feed.

Sixth-ranked Pepperdine is the only team in the West Regional that Northridge has played this season. Last season, the Matadors defeated Arizona State, 5-1, in the first round of the Midwest Regional. Minnesota knocked the Matadors out of the regional, 7-6.

Kernen expects high scoring games because 7,875-seat Packard Stadium (340 feet down the lines, 370 in the power alleys and 395 to center field) is a home run hitter's park.

"It's a tough place to play," Kernen said. "You have 10,000 people going berserk and they (Arizona State) play well there. They have a lot of power and when they get it going it gets ugly."

Kernen will start Marco Contreras (7-4), Kempton (9-4) or left-hander John Bushart (10-3) against St. John's.

Bushart is the least likely candidate because Kernen said his arm does not recover as quickly as that of Contreras and Kempton.

Kempton has been bothered by pain in his elbow and has not finished his last two starts after completing his first 12.

"The rest has been really good for me, not just physically, but mentally," Kempton said.

Steven Morales, who has been limited to two appearances this season because of an arm injury, also might fit into the pitching picture.

"He's gotta show me that he's through thinking about if his arm is OK and if he's ready to compete," Kernen said. "If he can (compete), it'll help us. We could use him."

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