Sun Belt Tournament Preview – Bracket One — From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Conference Baseball Championships begin Wednesday at Bobcat Ballpark in San Marcos, TX. Here is my preview of the bracket playing in the first session with games scheduled at 9 am and 12:30 pm.
#2 SEED--SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS (38-18, 21-9) Coach: Mark Calvi (163-125, 5th season) Record vs. teams in bracket: 7-2 (3-0 vs. LR, 1-2 vs. GS, 3-0 vs. UTA)
STRENGTHS: With the Jags, it all starts with the three guys on the bump. There's a reason why Kevin Hill was the Pitcher of the Year a year ago and could very well be again. Hill (8-1, 2.38) has a four pitch mix and commands all four. He doesn't walk people and averages more than a strikeout per inning. But that's just the start: Randy Bell (5-1, 2.69) has been very good since being inserted into the weekend rotation and Austin Bembnowski (6-3, 3.88) and Hunter Soleymani (4-3, 3.89) have been solid as well. Extremely athletic team that gets em on, gets em over and gets em in. Jared Barnes (.320-6-30) has been red hot down the stretch. The first three guys in the lineup (Swaggerty, Billingsley and LaBounty can all run like crazy and if they get on, they're going to take off. I really like Swaggerty. He's been up and down a bit, but he's a Freshman of the Year candidate for sure. This team will hunt a good pitch early, then work the count. They draw a lot of walks and their on base percentage (.372) is second best among tournament participants. This is a very, very good defensive team that isn't going to beat itself.
WEAKNESSES: Not a very physical team. They're home run totals (29) are actually up from last year, but that number is still near the bottom of the league. While their bullpen has some depth, there isn't anyone there that's really scary. None of them are strikeout guys and they sometimes have control issues. Bembnowski has struggled his last two starts, and South Alabama really needs for their starters to go deep and be effective in order to mask their bullpen deficiencies. The whole key to beating them is keeping the leadoff man off base. The Jaguars come limping into the tournament, having lost nine of their last 14 league games, and one only needs to look at their lack of run production dow the stretch to understand why. They really struggle if their big three aren't on base regularly.
OUTLOOK: Hill has actually looked mortal of late. His velocity is down a couple of MPH and I can't help but wonder if asking him to go into the ninth inning on most of his starts is beginning to take its toll. South Alabama hasn't hit for a great average, but they can score runs in bunches. The whole key for them in this tournament is better run production than they've had down the stretch. They've managed to play their way onto the NCAA tournament bubble. They're on the right side today, but it would behoove them to have a solid showing in the tournament to keep them from sweating on Memorial Day.
#3 seed: LITTLE ROCKTROJANS (26-26, 17-13) Coach: Chris Curry (42-59, 2nd season). Record vs. teams in bracket: 3-6 (0-3 vs. USA, 2-1 vs. GS, 1-2 vs. UTA)
STRENGTHS: These guys can really swing it. Ryan Scott is the league's best hitter and he makes the rest of the lineup better. Dalton Thomas has put up numbers as good as Scott's in league play. Nik Gifford joins those two as a player who can generate runs with one swing of the bat. There are six .300 hitters in the lineup and in conference play, all of them have an OBP of .400 or better. They draw better than four walks per game and they don't strike out nearly as often as you might think (less than seven per game.) They're athletic enough to make you respect them on the base paths. And, don't think they're just about mashing. They average more than one sacrifice bunt per game. Unlike some Trojans' teams in the past, this is a very solid defensive club, and that gets overlooked when talking about them. In that regard, Little Rock won't beat itself. Ten of their league wins came away from home.
WEAKNESSES: Oh, Lord, that pitching staff. Matt McDowell has had his moments this season. He gives up hits, but when he's keeping the ball down, he can go out and beat you. Cory Malcom is a power guy who is either feast or famine. He's been frustratingly inconsistent. Curry needs for those guys to be good, because there's no delicate way to say this: Their bullpen is not good. Their "closer" Cody Daylor has six saves but that 6-plus ERA means sometimes he's slamming the door on his hand. Preston Oberling has given them some good innings, but for the most part, the entire staff is hit and miss and unfortunately for Little Rock, it's mostly miss. Stopping their hitters isn't easy, but if you go right at them as opposed to tiptoeing around the strike zone, you have a better chance for success.
OUTLOOK: Little Rock won 17 league games and that's a high water mark for the program. That alone says Curry has this team on the right track. They still weren't good in non conference (9-13), but the improvement they've shown in league play is impressive. It's hard to hold this team down. They scored five or more runs 22 times in 30 league games. This is a team that could become more dangerous as the week progresses, because they're going to hit your lesser pitchers. If McDowell and Malcolm have good starts, they've got a fighting chance. But the reality is, the more pitching they have to use, the more vulnerable they are.
#6 seed: GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES (33-23, 16-14 Sun Belt) Coach: Rodney Hennon 684-453-1 overall,, 603-415 at GS, 17th season) Record vs. Teams in bracket: 4-5 (2-1 USA, 1-2 UTA, 1-2 LR)
STRENGTHS: Probably the second best quality depth pitching staff in the league. Evan Challenger, Chase Cohen and Brian Eichorn are three solid starters. Landon Hughes and Chris Brown are excellent out of the bullpen. Paesano, Frederick and Simmons give them some quality depth. Their overall strikeout/walk ratio is very good. Ryan Cleveland can be scary. He's got great power and can hit for average. Yeah, he strikes out too much, but he draws his share of walks and runs surprisingly well. Logan Baldwin can also run and is their leading hitter. Georgia Southern can play the short game, which, in the overall offensive scheme, is important. Their overall team speed is good.
WEAKNESSES: This is not a good offensive team. If you take Cleveland's numbers out, they don't have much power, including gap power. They don't walk enough and they strike out too much (although their strikeouts are down considerably from last year.) Their team slugging percentage is poor, even with Cleveland's numbers and they're on base percentage isn't much better. They've been held to four runs or fewer on 25 occasions. If you neutralize Cleveland, they really struggle to score runs. They've gotten a little better defensively, but they'll never be confused with a good defensive team.
OUTLOOK: Their three starters are going to keep them in the game. And, they don't have to go deep in the game, because Hennon trusts his bullpen. Their opener against Little Rock will tell a lot about this team. Little Rock's M. O. is they are going to score runs. Georgia Southern had better be ready to do the same. This team has enough pitching to get through the tournament. But if the offense isn't ready to put on its big boy pants, that pitching won't be enough.
#7 seed; UT ARLINGTON MAVERICKS (29-26, 15-15 Sun Belt) Coach: Darrin Johnson (265-253, 9th) Record vs. teams in bracket, 3-6: 0-3 vs. USA, 2-1 vs. LR, 1-2 vs. GS)
STRENGTHS: It's a solid lineup. Matt McLean is one of the league's best leadoff hitters. Brady Cox hits as well as anyone not in a LIttle Rock uniform. Quintin Rohrbaugh has been a pleasant surprise and Darrien McLemore has saved his best for last. He's been a dependable hitter who seems to thrive under pressure. They don't hit a lot of homers, but they've got good gap power and good overall team speed. Kadon Simmons and Josh Kuhnel can match everyone else's 1-2 punch on the mound. Jacob Moreland is one of the league's best relievers. One thing you can say for the staff; they throw strikes, allowing just three walks per nine innings. UTA has improved by leaps and bounds defensively as the season has progressed.
WEAKNESSES: It's a paper-thin pitching staff. They've never been able to find a reliable third starter and they've tried quite a few. Outside of Moreland and Dylan Schneider, there's not much trust in that bullpen. Everyone else has shown to be very hittable. The pitchers don't do a great job in holding runners and as a result, they don't throw out a ton of base stealers. Their hitters don't walk nearly enough and they sometimes swing at bad pitches. They aren't much in the short game, although a lot of that is philosophy.
OUTLOOK: When Simmons and Kuhnel are on the hill, this team is capable of beating anyone, which is why they're going to be dangerous early in the tournament. But when they're not in, they can give up runs in bunches. If they win game one, they've got a chance to be around on Saturday. But if they can't solve South Alabama on the first day, they're going to have a long road without the necessary arms in order to navigate the loser's bracket.
BRACKET OVERVIEW: This whole bracket is in South Alabama's hands. They staggered down the stretch and showed an offensive vulnerability that wasn't present a good part of the season. If they get that figured out, they'll probably be around on Sunday. But they better get it figured out quickly, because they are going to face a couple of good arms early in the tournament.