Sun Belt Baseball Tournament Preview – Bracket “A”
It hasn't been a great year for the Sun Belt Conference. In fact, this year the Sun Belt will be a one-bid league for the first time in more than twenty years. But, someone is going to get the automatic bid and play in the NCAA Tournament.
This is the second year the conference tournament is using pool play. There will be a round robin in each bracket and the bracket winners will play for the championship. If two teams are tied in pool play, the head to head winner advances. In the event of a three way tie, the highest seeded team will advance.
Here's my breakdown of the teams:
#1 FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS (31-20, 19-9)
SBC Tournament titles: None All-time SBC Tournament record: 7-11. Coach: John McCormack (4th season).
STRENGTHS: Three solid starting pitchers in Ryan Garton, Kevin Alexander and Austin Gomber. One of the nation's best closers in R. J. Alvarez. Consistent hitting lineup 1-9. Four guys in the middle of the order with some pop in their bats. Mike Albaladejo's leadership alone means more than the average fan would see. Finally healthy offensively after Hudek missed five weeks and Pittman missed eleven games.
WEAKNESSES: After Alvarez and Ahmed Garcia, bullpen is suspect, necessitating their starters go deep into the game. Shaky defensively on the left side of the infield. Not a lot of team speed with only three players really stolen base threats. Surprisingly
not a high scoring team, averaging about 5.5 runs per game. They don't have very many options off the bench, but their lineup is pretty consistent so that might not be a factor. They haven't been a very good tournament team since joining the league.
OUTLOOK: I like the starting rotation on this team. And, their top two guys in the pen can be lethal, especially Alvarez. If he's in the game, it's over. Their lineup doesn't have many real holes, but, other than Albaladejo, none of them really hit for a high average. But, they're one of the few teams in this league with three solid starting pitchers, and Bo Logan can be the fourth, or a long relief guy in this tournament. Although this tournament is wide open, they're going to have the pitching advantage in just about every game they play. Given their history, getting game one against WKU will be huge for them.
#4 SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS (21-33, 15-15)
SBC Tournament Titles: 1980, 81, 83, 84, 87, 92, 96, 97, 2000, 01, 05. All-time SBC Tournament Record: 76-49. Coach: Mark Calvi (first season)
STRENGTHS: This team can swing the bat, especially 1-7 in the lineup. Five guys in the lineup are capable of hitting the long ball. After getting off to a horrible start offensively, has become one of the most dangerous offenses in the league, capable of putting up double digit runs on any given night. Kyle Bartsch has been very good out of the bullpen. Jaguars have overcome a ridiculous amount of injuries and as a result, have 14 players with 50 or more at-bats. Tough team to run on.
WEAKNESSES: The loss of Anthony Izzio makes an already suspect rotation
very shaky, indeed. Phillip Byrd and Jarron Cito have gotten the bulk of their weekend starts, but neither is what you'd call a number one guy. If their starting pitching is suspect, their bullpen is equally so. Andrew Fonzi has been good, but I expect he'll be used as a starter in the tournament. Jaime Dennis has been okay in the pen, but USA has struggled to get to the closer Bartsch because of the inconsistency of their starters. USA doesn't run much and doesn't bunt much and that could be a factor in tournament play. No one would call South Alabama a great defensive team.
OUTLOOK: This is a dangerous team capable of putting up runs. When they're swinging it, they tend to feed off one another and can be really tough to get out. In the old format, where you might play six or seven games, I'd like their chances because of their ability to hit. But in the round robin, they'd better pitch better than they have been if they're going to be around on Sunday. Calvi is a pitching guy. If you're going to get the Jaguars, get them now. I have a feeling it won't be long before they're back as one of the league's elite teams.
#5 LOUISIANA-MONROE WARHAWKS (28-27. 15-15)
SBC Tournament titles: None. All-time SBC Tournament record 5-6. Coach: Jeff Schexnaider-6th season
STRENGTHS: When Randy Zeigler has his good stuff, he might be the best starting pitcher in the league. Cale Wine is more than serviceable as the #2 guy. Joey Rapp has great power to all fields. Jeremy Sy has turned into one of the league's best hitters. ULM can and will run and have multiple guys capable of taking the extra base. They can play small ball when they need to. Caleb Clowers takes a 23 game hitting streak into the tournament. Sy can be shaky at times defensively, but the rest of the defense is solid, especially at second base where Clowers is the best in the league defensively at that position. Kendall Thamm and
Wil Browning are both good arms out of the pen.
WEAKNESSES: On any given day, there are holes in this lineup. This team has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching. No real power except for Rapp. Schexnaider has tried several as the third starter with very little success. Their pitching staff really goes no more than five or six deep, which can be a problem as the tournament progresses. Very few on this club with tournament experience, having missed the postseason the last two years.
OUTLOOK: To me, if ULM is going to have any success, Clowers, Green and Aulds are the keys. All three got off to terrible starts, and only Clowers has really snapped out of it. All three hit left-handed and even Clowers will struggle against a good lefty. Chances are, Zeigler will go in game one, which should be interesting against South Alabama's offense. Their pitching isn't deep, but if their starters can get them into the seventh or eighth in the first two games, Thamm might be a candidate to start game three. This team played better down the stretch, but staying consistent at the plate is paramount if they're going to have a chance.
#8 WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (24-31, 13-17)
SBC Tournament titles: 2004, 2008. All-time SBC Tournament Record 33-34. Coach: Matt Myers (1st season).
STRENGTHS: Tim Bado has done a great job as the #2 starter this year. Taylor Haydel is one of the league's best relievers and can throw multiple innings if he has to. Ryan Hutchison is a solid RBI guy. A hard nosed scrappy team that can give the opposition fits. They never seem to be out of a game because they find a way to keep things close. Not quite as good defensively as WKU teams the past three years, but still good. Everyone on this team can bunt, something paramount for a team that doesn't score a bunch. They're playing in their home city, though not in their home park.
WEAKNESSES: No one on this club even hits .280. Not much power except for Hutchison. Starting pitching, other than Bado, has been inconsistent since losing Tanner Perkins. Haydel has been the only sure thing out of the pen...the rest have been hit and miss, although Ross Hamnonds has been good more often than not. Not a super athletic team. They don't run much and don't have a good percentage when they do, which means they don't force a lot of mistakes.
OUTLOOK: You look at this team on paper and wonder how they got into the tournament. They're last in the league in hitting, sixth in pitching and fifth in defense. But this is a scrappy club that doesn't know when they're out of a game. They don't have a lot of margin for error, though, and not only will they need some clutch hitting to do any damage in the tournament, they need some guys to step up on the bump as well. Austin Clay had a good outing last Thursday night. Can he be the guy?
BRACKET OVERVIEW: In a league where there was no dominant team this year, we really have to feel this tournament is wide open. In this bracket, pitching matchups are going to be important. The bracket sets up well for FAU with their pitching, especially against two teams like ULM and WKU who struggled to score runs. But watch out for South Alabama. If they get some pitching, their offense could get them to Sunday.