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Sun Belt Tournament Preview-Bracket Two – From the Bird’s Nest

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The Sun Belt Conference Tournament begins this Wednesday at  M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field.  The lower bracket features games to be played at 4:00 and 7:30 pm on Wednesday.  Here is our preview of those teams, featuring the #2, #3, #6 and #7 seeds.

#2 SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS  (40-16, 20-10 Sun Belt)  Coach:  Mark Calvi

STRENGTHS:  Calvi has a very deep pitching staff and he’s not afraid to use it.  If you compare the innings pitched, USA’s starters have fewer than most.  Dylan Stamey’s numbers are scary, and Kyle Bartsch throws 95 from the left side.  Solid lineup featuring perhaps the league’s best all around player in Jordan Patterson, who is among the league leaders in most offensive categories.  Dustin Dalken, Nolan Earley and Jeff DeBlieux are also solid and all of them have good gap power.  Because of their staff, you better be ready to play 27 outs because this team has very good come from behind capabilities.  Team has played well away from home.

WEAKNESSES:  Starting pitching has been inconsistent and none of them are scary.  Team doesn’t have much home run power at all, surprising because there are some really good hitters on this team.  Team has hit into more double plays than anyone in the league.  South Alabama isn’t going to run much.  Left side of the infield has combined for 28 errors.  Left handed heavy lineup can be had by good left handed pitching.

OUTLOOK:  When you look at offense and defense, this is probably the leagues best all-around team and their record and RPI aren’t a mirage.  They’ve got enough pitching to get them deep in the tournament and good enough bats to score.  Their defense should be helped some by the turf, but if it breaks down, it could be the difference.  If their hitters show up all week,  there’s a good chance USA will be playing on Sunday.

#3 LOUISIANA RAGIN’ CAJUNS (38-17, 19-11)  Coach: Tony Robichaux

STRENGTHS:  Relentless, balanced offense that attacks from the first pitch.  Offense is good enough to play the long ball game (66 hr, 505 slugging .505), or the short game (42 sacrifices, 33 bunt singles).  Great production up and down the lineup with eight .300 hitters, seven players with 30 or more RBI and six with at least seven home runs.  Cajuns are aggressive on the basepaths regardless of who is on base.  Three players have ten or more steals.  Shortstop Blake Trahan is going to be a star and Dex Kjerstad has become one of the league’s most feared hitters.  Austin Robichaux is a tough matchup for any team when he’s on the mound.  Defense has been consistent, especially at home.  Team seems to feed off crowd and that will help in this venue.

WEAKNESSES:  After Robichaux, there’s no one outstanding on the staff.   Late inning relief has been hit or miss.  Injuries have hurt the depth on the mound, forcing Robichaux to mix and match after son Austin and Cody Boutte.  Team, because of their aggressive nature, can sometimes run themselves out of innings.  Teams that are lefty heavy can give the pitching staff some issues.

OUTLOOK:  There isn’t a pitcher in this league that wants to face this team.  They’ve beaten Cleveland, Wright, Wine (twice) and Gomber.  You don’t get a break with this offense.  Cajuns are 25-7 at home, which makes them a threat to win this thing.  But the Cajuns have been underachievers in the tournament, having lost seven straight and no titles since 1998.  This year, Robichaux has enough bats to win.  The question is, does he have enough arms?  Staying in the winners’ bracket is vital to this team’s chances.

#6 FIU PANTHERS (25-30. 15-17)  Coach:  “Turtle” Thomas

STRENGTHS:  Solid offensive team with four  guys who are distinct home run threats.  Team has good gap power and are capable of scoring runs, sometimes in bunches.  Deep pitching staff and while no one jumps out at you, all of them have had good moments this season.  They’ve got four or five guys who are base stealing threats.

WEAKNESSES:  There’s no way to get away from the fact this is a bad defensive team.  And, judging by the 55 unearned runs, some of those miscues come at critical times.  Free swinging team doesn’t draw enough walks.  They do a lot of spin hitting, which serves them well in their ballpark, but makes them vulnerable to good pitching.  No one on this pitching staff scares you.  FIU comes staggering into the tournament, having lost 13 of their last 15 games.

OUTLOOK:  Is it just me, or does FIU look like a team ready to end their season?  The Panthers are capable on any given day, but with the way their season is ending, it may not take much to take the fight out of them.  The offense isn’t as good as past years and that’s going to put an onus on the pitching staff and the defense.  FIU really needs for some underachievers to step up this week or it may be a short visit.  Facing Robichaux in the opener won’t help them.

#7 UALR TROJANS (28-26, 13-17)  Coach:  Scott Norwood

STRENGTHS:  When Chance Cleveland and Blake Huffman are on the mound, you’d better strap it on when you get to the ballpark, because these two guys are going to.  Offense has good power, second in the league in homers.  UALR is an aggressive team on the bases:  Ben Crumpton and Austin Pfeiffer have combined for 42 stolen bases.  There are some tough outs in this lineup and these guys are capable of hitting your mistakes.  They play hungry almost all the time.

WEAKNESSES:  This team swings and misses way too much.  When you have as many guys with 40 or more strikeouts over 54 games, you give up a lot of opportunities to move runners.  UALR doesn’t bunt much, which makes them harder to be successful when they need the bunt.  UALR has had a lot of mistakes defensively this season, and that’s playing on turf.  And, while there are a couple of capable guys, the bullpen, as usual, is not something the Trojans can rely on.

OUTLOOK: There’s no question Scott Norwood has made this program better.  He’s recruited guys who don’t like to lose and don’t want to accept losing.  It’ll be interesting to see how their power is affected by playing at “Tigue” Moore Field, which is not normally a hitters’ ballpark.  Good pitchers have been able to take care of this team.  But as noted earlier, those first two arms always give them a chance.  But Cleveland and Huffman are a combined 11-13 on the year.  Some support from the offense would be nice, and it has to happen right away.  With that bullpen, the Trojans best chance is to get lots of innings from their starters.

Wednesday’s schedule:  4:00pm  #2 South Alabama vs. #7 UALR; 7:30pm #3 Louisiana vs. #6 FIU.

Forecast:  50% chance of rain.  Hi: 83  And very humid.

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