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Sun Belt Tournament Analysis: – From the Bird’s Nest

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The Sun Belt Conference Baseball Tournament begins Wednesday at Eddie Stanky Field in Mobile, AL.  Bracket One features #1 Louisiana, #4 Texas State, #5 WKU and #8 UL Monroe.  Here’s my analysis of the bracket.

#1 LOUISIANA (49-7, 26-4)

STRENGTHS:  Aggressive, relentless offense that comes at the opposition in waves.  There are no holes in this lineup.  Team is good at forcing high pitch counts.  Cajuns’ slugging percentage is off the charts.  They’ve hit 60 homers for the second straight year.  But don’t let the numbers fool you.  They play small ball better than anyone else in the league.  They have 40 bunt singles on the year and lead the country in sacrifice flies.  Four players have double digit stolen bases.  They’ve got offensive depth.  Thirteen players have ten or more RBI;  ten players have 20 or more. Robichaux, Baranik and Boutte have the ability to completely dominate an opponent on any given day.  Eight different pitchers have recorded saves this year, a testament to bullpen depth.  Ryan Wilson leads the team in saves but is a more than capable fourth starter in post-season.  Seth Harrison and freshman Reagan Bazar have electric stuff.  Matt Hicks is the single season and career saves leader and he isn’t the closer anymore.  The Cajuns defense is as good as the Sun Belt has had, especially up the middle where Strentz, Conrad, Trahan and Harrison are really, really good.  The Cajuns double play combination has combined for just twelve errors. 

WEAKNESSES:  Not many.  Cajuns will sometimes run themselves out of innings with their aggressiveness.  The bullpen has been inconsistent down the stretch, especially in middle relief.  In their only two road losses of the season, the bullpen faltered late.  Cajuns’ SBC tournament history isn’t good, winning just one championship, and that was 16 years ago.

OUTLOOK:  The Cajuns set goals before the season to win the league, win 50 games and host a regional.  They’ve accomplished goal number one.  Numbers two and three are there for the taking.  This team has mental toughness reminiscent of some of South Alabama’s teams in the ‘90s.  The key in the tournament is how deep the starters can go.  When they get into the seventh and can turn the game over to front line relievers, they’re almost unbeatable.  And, all that becomes an issue only if the offense has a bad day.  There’s no guarantee the Cajuns will get through this bracket…but someone’s going to have to play awfully good baseball to beat them.

#4 TEXAS STATE (28-26, 16-14)

STRENGTHS:  A solid pitching staff, especially the top three starters, who have been a part of the weekend rotation all season.  Williams, Black and Humpel rival the Louisiana rotation.  Hunter Lemke is very good at the end of the game.  Dylan Bein and Cory Geisler have been very good out of the pen.  Texas State’s staff doesn’t walk a lot of guys and they’re capable of getting plenty of punchouts.  There’s enough depth in the staff to keep from overusing pitchers.  Geisler can cause havoc at the top of the lineup and Garrett Mattlage and freshman Granger Studdard provide physicality in the middle.  Texas State has some guys who are athletic on the bases and they’re good at the short game when they need to be.

WEAKNESSES:  This team can really struggle to score runs.  They have some holes in the lineup which makes it possible to sometimes pitch around some of the more physical players.  They can hit their share of home runs, but don’t have a lot of gap power.  Williams has had a couple of shaky outings lately and this is a pitching staff without a lot of room for error because of the offensive struggles.  While Texas State is pretty good defensively, this team has struggled to overcome errors.  They’ve given up almost one unearned run per game and, on nights you struggle to score, that’s the difference between a win and a loss. 

OUTLOOK:  Texas State struggled to score runs early in the season then came alive offensively…for a period.  Lately, they’ve reverted back to that team that doesn’t give their pitching staff much room for error.  They limp into the tournament, having lost five of their last six league games.  The fact they’ve been shutout in the final two games of the season against a pitching staff that has struggled most of the year (UTA) is a great cause for concern.  That pitching is good enough to get them through, but if they don’t find some offense against a really good arm (assuming Justin Hageman pitches game one), that depth will be tested as the Bobcats try to navigate the loser’s bracket.  And, none of that may matter if the offense stays dormant.

#5 WESTERN KENTUCKY  (29-26, 15-15)

STRENGTHS:  Solid starting lineup, with nine players hitting .290 or better.  Regan Flaherty has a really sweet swing.  Ryan Church can hit the long ball and Cody Wofford can really swing it as well.  David Simmons has been torrid in league games.  Team can hit home runs, but they also have very good gap power with over 100 doubles on the season.  Justin Hageman is an all-conference caliber starting pitcher and the Toppers’ bullpen, led by Ian Tompkins, doesn’t give up many leads late in the game.

WEAKNESSES:  It’s a pretty thin pitching staff.  Outside of Hagemann and Thompson,  I don’t think teams are scared of this staff.  One of their issues is they give up five free base runners per game on average and that’s just too many unless you also get a lot of punchouts…and they don’t, except for Tompkins.  Their defense is far from spectacular, giving up 45 unearned runs in 55 games.  The Toppers aren’t the most athletic bunch, with only two that you would call threats to steal.

OUTLOOK:   This is an offensive team that has scored enough runs to win against just about everyone, yet they’ve won only half of their league games.  Hageman is good enough to beat anyone in the league, but the Toppers can’t rely only on their offense to get to Sunday.  They’re going to need a couple of pitchers to stand tall if they want to get to the bracket final.

#8 UL MONROE (22-34, 11-19)

STRENGTHS:  Much improved offensive team that has some pop in the bats.  Dalton Herrington and Justin Stawychny can hit the long ball and Keelin Rasch has been hitting everything in sight.  Team has come together under adversity and appears to have good team chemistry.  Tyler Bray is extremely tough to hit, especially in short inning situations.  He won’t strike you out, but he’ll frustrate you to no end.  Alex Dumaine seems to have found his role as a two inning bullpen guy.  He can be good one time through the lineup.

WEAKNESSES:  There are several holes in the lineup, although not as many as there were.  Outside of Bray, there’s no one on the pitching staff to fear.  This staff gives up a lot of hits, almost 100 more than innings pitched.  They walk people and don’t strike out nearly enough opponents.   A brutal defensive team that sometimes struggles to make even the routine play.  They’ve given up 74 unearned runs.  Team has been abysmal away from Warhawk Field (5-22).

OUTLOOK:  Bruce Peddie has done a nice job with this team.  No one gave them much of a chance after the way they started league play, but the Warhawks played good enough baseball down the stretch to where getting swept over the weekend didn’t keep them out of the tournament.  Having said that, they’re going to have to play awfully well to avoid going 0-2.  Frankly, the talent just isn’t there.  Improving that will be Peddie’s offseason challenge.

BRACKET OVERVIEW:  Nothing is ever a cakewalk in the conference tournament.  A team seeded in the top four has won the tournament only once since 2008.  Anything can happen in a short tournament setting.  Having said that, Louisiana has one of the best teams this league has ever seen. It will be interesting to see how they do against Bray in game one.  The ULM right hander did a great job against them over seven innings.  It’s pretty hard to bet against the Cajuns in this bracket.

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