Sun Belt Baseball – Down the Stretch – From the Bird’s Nest
Twelve games left. Four weekends.
That's still a lot of baseball to be played in the Sun Belt Conference. And, so far what we've learned is, the championship is Florida Atlantic's to lose.
And the tightest race is near the bottom, where five teams are fighting for three spots in the conference tournament in Bowling Green, KY.
With four weeks remaining in the regular season, here's how the teams shape up
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (13-3) Remaining: @Troy, WKU, @UALR, FIU
You have to hand it to John McCormack's club. They lost their leading hitter, Alex Hudek for six weeks. They lost speedy left-fielder Nathan Pittman for eleven games. They lost #2 starter Jeremy Strawn two weeks into the season. Yet, the Owls have simply rolled on. They're playing the best defense in the league and, in league games, their pitching is second in the league in a ball park where the wind blows out more often than not. They've got a de-facto four game lead with twelve to play.
BIGGEST SERIES REMAINING: FIU, May 17-19p---More good news for the Owls. Three of their final four series are against teams in the bottom five in the league. That leaves the season finale against FIU. Win that series at home and you get to dogpile.
ARKANSAS STATE (10-6) Remaining: @Middle Tennessee, South Alabama, FIU, @UALR
Tommy Raffo's team really needed to play that entire series last weekend to have a chance to catch FAU and two of the three got rained out. Now, ASU has to find a way to hold second place and it won't be easy. Three of their last four series are against the upper division (although two of them are at home) and the road trip to UALR won't be easy at all.
BIGGEST SERIES REMAINING: FIU--The Panthers could be one of the bigger threats down the stretch to move up in the standings. Having them at Tomlinson Stadium certainly helps ASU, especially from a hitting standpoint, as the winds in Jonesboro should negate any power advantage FIU has. It's a series ASU has to win if they want to hold their spot.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (10-8) Remaining: @ ASU, @ FIU, Louisiana, @ WKU
Middle Tennessee has lost two straight series (both to teams in the second division) and now they're on the road for three of their final four. The Raiders' pitching staff, which was their mainstay when they got off to the hot start, has given up 54 runs in their last two series against Troy and ULM. Middle needs to worry more about falling too far than trying to move up. The last twelve games won't be easy, especially the next six.
BIGGEST SERIES: At Western Kentucky. Unless Middle can right the ship, this series could be for survival. It's possible the Raiders may need to win this series...unless the pitching comes back around.
FIU (10-8) Remaining: @South Alabama, Middle Tennessee, at Arkansas State, at FAU
The Panthers were starting to get it together and then stumbled, losing the series to UALR in Miami last weekend. I think this team is good enough to survive a tough schedule down the stretch. And, if they put two facets of the game together (their defense is a lost cause), they could get into position where the last series actually might mean something<
BIGGEST SERIES REMAINING: AT ARKANSAS STATE
With this game at Tomlinson Stadium, this isn't a really good matchup for FIU. The wind will negate their power and the natural turf won't help that terrible defense. ASU's team is built for that park. FIU's is not. If they want to be in Boca with something on the line, they'll need to win at least two here. Good luck.
SOUTH ALABAMA (10-8): Remaining FIU, @ASU, WKU, @ Troy
The Jaguars' hitting got cooled off just a tad last weekend, as South Alabama, despite winning the series against Louisiana, averaged a little over four runs per game. That might work against the Cajuns' bats, but not against the teams left on the schedule. Of course, with exception of FIU, none of the teams remaining pitch anything like the Cajuns, either.
BIGGEST SERIES REMAINING: THE LAST TWO
Frankly, I don't think USA is good enough to challenge for the top two spots, nor do I think they're bad enough to finish in the bottom two. But USA could have a lot to say about who makes the tournament in the last two weekends. If they win both series (and, they very well could), they could really ruin someone's season. And, since they're playing the host school and a big rival in the last two weekends, that would suit the Jaguars just fine.
WESTERN KENTUCKY (8-10) Remaining: ULM, @ Florida Atlantic, @ South Alabama, Middle Tennessee
The Hilltoppers managed to win the series at home against Troy last weekend, getting an 11th inning walk-off single to beat the Trojans for the second straight game after losing on Friday night. They really needed that one, because the schedule, especially on the road, is going to be really tough.
BIGGEST SERIES: ULM
Winning either series in Boca Raton or Mobile is going to be a tough one. That means they have to take care of their home business. That starts this weekend with the Warhawks, who haven't won a road series in the league, but is hitting the ball better than they were earlier in the season. A series win is a must for the Hilltoppers. They're a game ahead of the pack in the race for a tournament spot, but simply can't afford to lose this series at Nick Denes if they want to avoid what happened to ULM last year. It's no fun to be the host if you can't compete.
LOUISIANA (7-11) Remaining: a@UALR, Troy, @ Middle Tennessee, ULM
The Cajuns had been struggling mightily offensively, but hit nearly .300 as a team last week. If that becomes a trend, the Cajuns' pitching is good enough to get them in the tournament. However, if last week was just a temporary thing, this team will have to fight like crazy to get to Bowling Green. There isn't a large margin for error for this team, who needs to play well in all three phases in order to win.
BIGGEST SERIES REMAINING: at UALR
Although they've beaten the Trojans sixteen straight times, this Cajuns' team doesn't match up very well at tiny Gary Hogan Field. UALR has shown they can swing the bat, especially at home, where they have yet to lose a series this season. The Cajuns' pitching staff has to keep the ball in the ball park and the bats need to hit like they did last weekend against South Alabama. If the Cajuns can win this series, they're in great shape down the stretch to make it to Bowling Green. Lose the series and there's work to be done. Get swept and they're in deep trouble.
LOUISIANA-MONROE (7-11) Remaining: @Western Kentucky, UALR, @Troy, @Louisiana
The Warhawks got a nice series win over Middle Tennessee last weekend and they're hitting the ball much better than they were earlier in the conference season. Les Aulds has come alive and is back in the leadoff spot. And, Shelby Aulds had a tremendous start against Middle last weekend and, while he can't be expected to pitch a shutout every time, some consistent work from him gives ULM a great compliment to lefty Randy Zeigler. But now, the road beckons.
BIGGEST REMAINING SERIES: UALR
The bad news for the Warhawks is they have to play nine of their last twelve league games on the road. The good news is, they're all against teams in the second division. That's going to make the lone home series against UALR crucial. ULM is capable of winning all three road series. They're also capable of losing all three. Might be a good idea to take care of their home business against the Trojans.
UALR (7-11) Remaining: Louisiana, @ULM, Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State
The Trojans got a badly needed series win at FIU last weekend and now are primed to make a move with nine of their last twelve at Gary Hogan Field. UALR's club is made for this tiny park. Their pitching isn't deep, but they can compete, especially here where the offense gives them great support. The Trojans have yet to lose a series in or out of conference in this ball park in 2012.
BIGGEST SERIES REMAINING: FLORIDA ATLANTIC
The last four series won't be easy, with a road trip to ULM and home series against their arch-rivals, who swept them earlier in the season and a very good Louisiana pitching staff. But, playing at home, you like the Trojans chances......but here comes FAU. Florida Atlantic has the league's best bullpen and a team that can match UALR's offense. It will be interesting to see if UALR can take two on this weekend. If they win the other series, they can get by with one win. They'd better not get swept at home by the Owls, however.
TROY (6-12) Remaining: FAU, @Louisiana, ULM, South Alabama
Okay, can anyone figure out this team? Picked as the co-favorite this season, the Trojans never got untracked. Tyler Ray, unbeatable a year ago, broke a four game personal losing streak with a complete game at Western Kentucky.....and STILL lost two out of three. Logan Pierce and Boone Shear have swung it as well as anyone in the league, but there are a couple of holes in the lineup. But, let's face it, it's the pitching staff that's been the issue, without a single consistent arm in league play with possible exception of Thomas Austin.
BIGGEST SERIES: South Alabama
If Troy doesn't play (read: pitch) better in the next three series, this series may not mean a thing. But, playing at home, you figure the Trojans will be better and they have nine of their last twelve SBC games at Riddle-Pace Field. That could make this series the one that decides whether they can qualify for the league tournament. South took two out of three in Mobile earlier this season. I don't think there's any question Troy will have to win this series to even have a chance. They may need to sweep.