Sun Belt Tournament Preview – The Preliminary Round
It's a new wrinkle to the Sun Belt Conference baseball tournament.
This year, ten teams have qualified for the championships being held on the campus of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro,
Two preliminary, single elimination contests will be played on Tuesday. The winners advance to the double elimination championship bracket.
Here is a preview of the teams playing on Tuesday:
#7 ARKANSAS STATE (26-26, 16-13) Coach: Tommy Raffo-9th season
STRENGTHS: Their team batting average may not be good, but Arkansas State does as good a job at getting runners in (once they get them on ) as any team in the league. They use the short game well and they're very aggressive on the bases, with three players having stolen nine or more. Two of their back end relievers, Tanner Kirby and Tyler Zuber, are very effective and can pitch multiple innings. Joe Schrimpf is perhaps the league's most unappreciated player. He leads the team in batting, slugging and on base percentage.
WEAKNESSES: Although they've had their moments, the starting pitchers have had more bad moments than good. Only one starter has an ERA under 6.00 and 5.16 is not a bragging tool. Their left side of the defense hasn't performed well and the team has given up 47 unearned runs in 52 games. They don't hit for a high average and, while they are among the nation's leaders in hit batsmen, they don't walk enough to make up for the low batting average. Their pitching staff gives up nearly six free base runners per game
OUTLOOK--When they get a good starting pitching performance, the Red Wolves can be tough to beat. Kirby and Zuber are capable of handling the final four innings. If they manage to get past game one, you have to think they're vulnerable because of that pitching staff. But it should be noted A-State has reached the bracket final each of the last four years. They're a scrappy bunch and they'll lay down for no one.
#10 GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS (22-32, 10-20) Coach: Greg Frady (11th season)
STRENGTHS: A team that's playing some of its best baseball. The Panthers won three of their last four conference series to grab the final spot in the tournament. Freshman Hunter Gaddis is a star in the making and gives his team a chance to win when he's on the mound. Logan Barnette and Rhett Harper have been effective out of the pen. Ryan Blanton is a veteran who knows how to get on base and has had some clutch hits, including an eighth inning grand slam last Thursday. Nick Gatewood leads the team in hitting (.324).
WEAKNESSES: There are plenty of holes in this lineup once you get past the top three or four. Their starting pitching after Gaddis has been downright abysmal and they've given up 56 unearned runs. Their pitching staff is issuing more than six walks per game. Frady has 13 players with 70 or more at bats and has used eight different starters. That adds up to a total lack of consistency throughout this club.
OUTLOOK: Give them credit for winning enough games down the stretch to get in. Gaddis will give them a chance to win. After that, though, this team just isn't very good, especially on the mound. If they win, they get Coastal Carolina. Ouch.
#8 TEXAS STATE BOBCATS (27-29, 13-17) Coach: Ty Harrington, 18th season)
STRENGTHS: They can swing it. They have a solid batting average, slugging percentage They're extremely aggressive and athletic on the base paths, with five players in double digit steals. Jonathan Ortega is as solid as it gets at the plate and it one of the toughest players in the league to strike out. Theodore Hoffman leads the league in slugging, total bases and is among the leaders in doubles and homers. They're among the best in scoring runs and no lead is safe with those hitters.
WEAKNESSES; Unfortunately for the Bobcats, no lead is safe with this pitching staff. Nicholas Fraze is the closest thing they have to an ace and after that, there isn't much. Their bullpen is just bad and they have just three saves as a team. These guys walk too many hitters and don't strike out enough. With exception of Ortega, they strike out a lot offensively Jalen Hubbard is a good offensive player, but he's a defensive liability. Texas State is ok defensively, but when they make errors, they pay for them because it's hard enough for this staff to get three outs in an inning, let alone four or five.
OUTLOOK: This team, when they get pitching, can be really scary because they're going to score runs. They showed earlier in the season their capabilities to win games, taking a series from Coastal Carolina. And, interestingly enough, should they win Tuesday, they might be playing the Chants again. That pitching staff won't allow them to stay very long, but their hitters could break someone's heart.
#9 LITTLE ROCK TROJANS (21-33, 11-18) Coach: Chris Curry (3rd season)
STRENGTHS: A lineup with some pop in the bat featuring five players with six or more homers. Very good gap hitting team Hunter Owens is an all-conference caliber player and Dalton Thomas has 20 doubles. Cory Malcolm is probably the best pitcher of the four teams in the preliminary round. He has over 100 strikeouts and a devastating breaking ball. Little Rock is a solid defensive ball club. Dylan Slaton and Justin Garcia are capable bullpen arms.
WEAKNESSES: They don't do a good job of moving runners. They don't bunt a lot and they aren't really athletic and therefore don't run much. They also aren't very patient at the plate and don't walk much. After Malcolm, the starting pitching is lacking and the bullpen is thin. The first five or six in the lineup are pretty good, but you can pitch to the others.
OUTLOOK: Malcom is capable of getting the Trojans into the double elimination bracket. How much they do after that remains to be seen. If they're going to be around for any length of time, they've got to do a better job of getting runners home when they get them on. That will be a key for a team that is going to give up some runs because of the lack of pitching depth.