Sun Belt Conference Tournament Preview – Bracket Two – From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Conference Baseball Tournament begins Wednesday at Bobcat Ballpark in San Marcos, Texas. Here is my preview of the four teams playing in the lower bracket with game times scheduled for 4pm and 7:30pm.
#1 seed: LOUISIANA RAGIN' CAJUNS (37-19, 21-9 Sun Belt) Head Coach: Tony Robichaux 1,074-688-1, at UL: 810-511-1, 22nd season. Record against teams in bracket: 6-3 (2-1 vs. Troy, 2-1 vs. Texas State, 2-1 vs. Arkansas State_
STRENGTHS: Tony Robichaux has had some great pitching staffs during his career, but this might be his deepest, most talented staff ever. Gunner Leger, Nick Lee, Evan Guillory and Wyatt Marks give the Ragin' Cajuns four quality starters and all four are capable of being Friday night starters on just about every team in the league. Dylan Moore and Eric Carter lead a bullpen with a seven quality arms. The pen has combined for 16 wins and 18 saves and six of the relievers have an ERA under 4.00. The staff has the fourth best K/BB ratio in college baseball. Nick Thurman has caught every pitch the staff has thrown this year. He calls his own game and Robichaux thinks he's one of the top two or three handlers of pitchers he's ever had. The Cajuns aren't a great hitting team, but they lead the league in doubles. Kyle Clement missed 18 games but still has double digit extra base hits. Brenn Conrad has shown an uncanny ability to drive in runners and Kennon Fontenot is on a tear coming into the tournament. Stefan Trosclair struggled most of the season but drove in nine runs last week. The Cajuns are a solid defensive club, especially in the outfield where they've only been charged with one error all season.
WEAKNESSES: The lineup has several guys who will hit your mistakes, but struggle mightily against good pitching. They have been held to three runs or fewer 16 times. They're not a particularly athletic bunch and will hit and run because they aren't very good at stealing bases. When this team makes errors, they're frequently critical ones because they don't have much, pardon the pun, margin for error. To their credit, they don't strike out a ton, but they don't get many free baserunners because they don't walk much. They need to pitch and play defense, because they aren't going to score six runs a bunch.
OUTLOOK: This is a tough bracket for the Cajuns because of the quality of arms they'll be facing. They'll have to maximize opportunities early in the tournament, because they may not get a bunch of them. But this team is playing its best baseball right now. Trosclair is looking like that guy who tore through the league the second half of last season and if that continues, this team becomes much tougher to beat. Louisiana will be in the NCAA Tournament, but they've got their sights set on hosting. They need to win the tournament to accomplish that. No team has ever won three straight...but this team certainly has the capability.
#4 seed: TROY TROJANS (32-24, 17-13) Coach: Mark Smartt, 1st season. Record against teams in bracket: 5-4 (1-2 vs. UL, 2-1 vs. TXST, 2-1 vs. Ark. St.)
STRENGTHS: These guys can pitch. Grant Bennett, Lucas Brown and Houston Mabray are three guys who can pitch with just about anyone in the league. Corey Childress and Marc Skinner are a solid 1-2 punch out of the pen. The rest of the staff has had their ups and downs but Robert Harris, Trey Johns and Corey Gill have had their moments. T. J. Binder, Joey Denison and Matt Sanders Denison is their best slugging threat. Better than average defensive team.
WEAKNESSES: Overall, the offense doesn't have a lot of punch. Their slugging percentage is low and they're one of the lowest scoring teams in the tournament. They're capable in the bullpen but there have been some consistency issues after Childress and Skinner. They don't run much, they don't move runners much. Troy needs to play good defense and really gets in some trouble when they don't.
OUTLOOK: Really, it's uncanny how much alike the Trojans and Ragin' Cajuns are. Top notch starting pitching, an offense that has some holes and two great guys at the front of the bullpen. The biggest difference is the quality of bullpen depth, which can explain the Cajuns being four games better in league play. Troy is a dangerous team because of their pitching and they could win this thing if they have good fortune in their first two games. But if someone knocks them into the losers bracket, the lack of offense and consistency in the bullpen could prove to be their doom. Watch out for game one. No one likes to play the host team on the first day.
#5 seed: TEXAS STATE BOBCATS (30-26, 16-14) Coach: Ty Harrington (561-436-1) 17th season. Record vs. the bracket: 3-6 (1-2 against all three participants)
STRENGTHS: Like most of the teams in this bracket, the Bobcats can pitch. After a down year last year, Lucas Humpal moved back into the upper echelon of pitchers, going 6-5 with a 2.95 ERA. Jeremy Hallonquist, Jonathan Hennigan and Cory Geisler round out a solid four man rotation. Chase Hodson and Pasquale Mazzicoli are a pair of solid bullpen arms. Granger Studdard and Tanner Hill are dangerous in the middle of the lineup. Jaylen Hubbard, Geisler and Ryan Newman can all swing it as well. This team has plenty of pop and can be dangerous in this hitter friendly ball park. For a power hitting team, they don't strike out a ton.
WEAKNESSES---Despite a good batting average, they can really struggle to score at times. If you limit their power they become a pretty ordinary offensive team. With the team batting average they have, they really should be better from a scoring standpoint. The pitching staff isn't as deep as you would like. There are really only a couple of bullpen guys that they can really depend on. Defensively, they've had some rough moments in the infield. Forty-seven unearned runs are a bunch.
OUTLOOK: Texas State was about a .500 team at home, but this is still their home ball park. The game one matchup with Troy could be the best game on the tournament's first day. The Bobcats, if they can have a consistent defense and get their power game going, could get deep in this thing. But if they just have the arms, they're capable of going home early.
#8 seed: ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (27-27, 13-17 Sun Belt) Coach: Tommy Raffo (228-227-1) 8th season. Record vs. teams in bracket 3-6 (1-2 vs. all teams in bracket)
STRENGTHS: Scrappy lineup that got better as the season progressed. Tanner Ring, Joe Schrimpf and Garrett Rucker are all solid ballplayers and the return of Austin Baker from injury gave this team a shot in the arm. Their players find a way to get on base. They work counts, draw walks and get hit by pitches, which give them more chances to score. Cody Jackson was their best arm down the stretch and Coulton Lee had a good second half as well. Tommy Raffo's teams always compete. They make you play nine innings every night out.
WEAKNESSES: While you have to respect their lineup, I don't know they have a guy who's scary. Their pitching staff has good stuff but they've been terribly inconsistent. Their biggest problem has been throwing strikes. They walk way too many people and gave up 36 homers, which is a lot considering the park they play in. It's unusual for a Raffo team, but this Arkansas State squad has defensive issues.and that doesn't help the pitching staff.
OUTLOOK: Raffo has had his team in the tournament seven straight years and they are rarely an easy out regardless of where they finish in the league. Last year they lost their first game, then found themselves in the bracket final. I don't know that they've got the talent to win the tournament, but I'm willing to bet they break someone's heart before going home.
OVERVIEW: There are a lot of good arms on this side of the bracket and that means you could really have some low scoring games throughout. The Cajuns have the best and deepest staff, but they'll have to do more than just pitch. The Cajuns are hoping to host a regional but will have to win the tournament to have a chance. It will not be a smooth road.