Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview – Bracket #2 – From the Bird’s Nest
This is the third of a three part series previewing the teams in the Sun Belt Conference Baseball Tournament beginning with preliminary round action Tuesday at M. L. "Tigue" Moore Field at Russo Park. Today: Louisiana, Troy and Texas State.
#2 LOUISIANA (33-23, 18-12 Sun Belt Coach: Tony Robichaux
STRENGTHS--Start with the 1-2 punch on the mound with Sun Belt Conference Pitcher of the Year Colten Schmidt and fellow lefty Hogan Harris who could go in the top three rounds of the Major League Amateur Draft. Schmidt has impeccable command with only nine walks all season. Harris uses a 93-95 mph fastball to set up his three breaking pitches. Logan Stoelke has been mostly untouchable out of the pen despite missing three weeks with a groin injury. And, the rejuvenated Dylan Moore, the league's all time saves leader has proven to be reliable once again. The offense has done much better in the second half of the season after a miserable start. Second team all-league outfielder Daniel Lahare leads the Cajuns with fellow outfielder Gavin Bourgeois and flashy freshman Hayden Cantrelle. The Cajuns are very good defensively, especially considering they have two freshman on the left side of the infield. And, Louisiana uses an aggressive approach on the basepaths with 80 stolen bases.
WEAKNESSES--Although they are hitting the ball much better, this team still has plenty of offensive flaws. They aren't a big power team and they don't draw many walks. Their lack of power causes them to be aggressive to the point where they sometimes run themselves out of innings. The bottom of their lineup has improved but they have two guys still hitting below .200. They haven't had a consistent third starter, although Nick Lee has had some very good outings this season. Their biggest issue has become the depth of their staff. Sophomore Jack Burk has been a weekend starter for them, but he missed last week with tightness in his forearm. They list him as day to day but I wouldn't count on seeing him. Robichaux has had to turn to four freshmen to give him depth in the pen. They've been up and down.
OUTLOOK-Schmidt and Harris make the Ragin' Cajuns a tough team to beat early in the tournament and it won't be a shock (although a mild upset) to see them undefeated after Thursday. But what they do after that is a big question. The Cajuns still aren't world beaters when it comes to scoring runs, and the lack of experience in the bullpen could make things testy for the Cajuns as the tournament unfolds.
TROY TROJANS (38-18, 19-11) Coach: Mark Smartt
STRENGTHS--The first six guys in the lineup are as scary as anyone in the league. SBC Player of the Year Joey Denison leads the way. He drove in a staggering 70 runs this year. Matt Sanders led the league in hits and Freshman of the Year Rigsby Mosely is a solid hitter. They've got great gap power and that's going to play well in Russo Park. And, they're extremely aggressive on the bases with 110 steals...and only 19 caught stealing. Troy has a solid pitching staff and, unlike most of the teams in the league, has found a third starter. Levi Thompson has been so good he's moved into the #2 slot behind crafty right hander Andrew Crane. Their bullpen has three pretty solid guys behind closer C. J. Carter.
WEAKNESSES--While the top six are scary, the others are not. And, there's really nothing on the bench to help out, which makes it hard for Smartt to do any maneuvering in a close game. Even playing in a smaller park, Troy doesn't have a lot of home runs, though that may not matter in this tournament because everyone is playing in a pitcher's park. Carter can be hit and miss as a closer. He's worked a lot of innings as a reliever and can get himself in trouble if he gets too far inside with that underneath delivery. He has eight saves. He also has four losses. And if Troy struggles out of the gate, it would add to a trend in recent years.
OUTLOOK--Not too many would argue which team is playing the best baseball coming into the tournament. This team is getting it done when it counts the most. It's a tournament and strange things have happened. Troy has some history to overcome, but they've got the whole package. They can hit, they can run, they can pitch and they can pick and throw it. This is a very good team playing very good baseball. They're capable of getting the auto bid and with a good showing, has a great chance to be playing baseball next week.
TEXAS STATE BOBCATS (28-26-1, 16-14 Sun Belt) Coach: Ty Harrington
STRENGTHS--A veteran lineup that's been through the wars. No one has stats that jump out at you individually, but this team has good offensive capabilities. Jonathan Ortega, Jaylen Hubbard and Luke Sherley make for a potent trio. This team does a better job of putting the ball in play than any other in the league. They will make you make a play. Nicholas Fraze and Connor Reich aren't all-conference guys, but they provide two capable starters for the Bobcats. Ortega and Sherley are as good a double play combination as there is in the league.
WEAKNESSES--They have no semblance of a third starter, whatsoever. I'm not sold on their bullpen. They have some serviceable guys, but they are vulnerable there, although using Sherley in the ninth inning of a close game might pay off (too small a sample size so far.) And, honestly, although their offense is capable, I expected more. I actually thought they were a better offensive team last year and they have almost everyone back. I didn't see any of them getting better. They don't have a ton of pop, especially in a park that's so hitter friendly to righties. Hubbard is a very good hitter but he's a liability at third base.
OUTLOOK--They've got enough offense to get to even a good starter and they can certainly score off most bullpens. When Fraze and Reich keep them in games, they have a shot. I think this is a potentially a dangerous team, especially early in the tournament. But after the first two, the quality of arms goes down considerably. That will probably be their undoing.