This Weekend in the Sun Belt Conference
Besides the Cajuns' annual battle with South Alabama (more on that tomorrow)j, there's a battle for first place this week, and as the second half of conference play begins, the co-favorites look to make a move...one toward the top, the other trying to get out of the bottom. Here's what to look for around the league this weekend.
ARKANSAS STATE (10-5) AT FLORIDA ATLANTIC (12-3)
The top two teams square off in Boca Raton this weekend, and the Red Wolves try to win this series to stay within striking distance of first place. Arkansas State has pitched well, but the reason they're in second place is because they've started to hit throughout the lineup. In Sun Belt play, of the nine players with the most at-bats, seven are hitting over .300. Third baseman Claude Johnson, who had a big weekend at Tigue Moore Field, hasn't stopped hitting, leading the Red Wolves with a .370 league average. And Tommy Raffo's club has an on-base percentage closing in on .400. Jacob Lee (2-1, 2.43 in five league starts) continues to do what a Friday night starter does. The other two weekend guys have gotten hit a little, but ASU's offense has picked them up. John Koch (4 saves) has been a lock-down guy in the bullpen.
FAU has made an appearance in the national polls, ranked #28 this week by Collegiate Baseball. The Owls, however, are by no means a lock for post-season play, with an RPI of 54, and they missed a chance to notch a big win against UCF this week. The reason FAU has struggled outside the league is their pitching depth, especially after losing Jeremy Strawn and Kevin Alexander. Ryan Garton leads the league in wins as the Friday night starter and freshman Austin Gomber has been really good, although he got knocked our early last Sunday. Gomber and Garton are a combined 7-1 in league play. Saturday on the mound has been an adventure. But the bullpen has been really good, with R. J. Alvarez, Ahmed Garcia and Michael Sylvestri combining for eleven saves total. Offensively, FAU has hit 17 homers in league play and Geoff Jiminez, Mike Albaladejo and Mark Nelson are all swinging the bat well in league play. And, to top it off, FAU is playing the league's best defense, with only ten errors in fifteen league games. In hitter-friendly FAU stadium this weekend, FAU has a distinct advantage, especially with their ability to hit the long ball.
UALR (5-10) at FIU (9-6)
The Trojans put up some pretty sick numbers ont eh way to a 2-1 series win at Gary Hogan Field last weekend against South Alabama. UALR scored 38 runs on 41 hits and hit eight homers. And, that's the story on the Trojans, at least at home. On the road, it's been a different story as UALR is just 1-8 in league play. Chance Cleveland has been very good on the hill on Friday night and after that, it's been kind of hit and miss. UALR has an ERA of nearly six in the Sun Belt and that doesn't bode well against a good hitting FIU team. But UALR should find the FIU ball park to their liking, especially if the wind is blowing out to left, which it almost always does.
FIU's offense got handled pretty well by Louisiana's pitching last weekend, scoring just eight runs in three games. But the pitching was good enough to give the Panthers a series win. Since the Louisiana series, head coach Turtle Thomas has juggled his lineup, moving the struggling Pablo Bermudez back to his customary leadoff spot, moving Nathan Burns down to second, bringing Jabari Henry from fifth to third and dropping T. J. Shants into the five hole and that move appears to be working. FIU is only hitting .254 in league play, but their team ERA is 3.68. Their three weekend starters have been pretty consistent and Eddy Pidermann and Michael Gomez have been as good a 1-2 punch out of the pen as there has been in the league. McVay, Ellis and Garton have been consistent as the starters. FIU's defense, however, continues to set a new standard for ineptness, and that can especially get exposed when they play at home, which has a tough infield.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (9-6) AT ULM (5-10)
The Raiders stumbled a bit last weekend as Troy bounced back to win the final two games of their series after the Raiders won on Friday night. And, the reason they stumbled was they gave up 26 runs in the three games. That's unusual for a pitching staff that's been among the league's best, especially in their first five arms. And, after scoring twelve runs on Friday, they only managed five the rest of the weekend. Justin Guidry, Johnny Thomas and Trent Miller continue to pound the ball, and there's no reason to think last weekend is a harbinger of things to come.
ULM, meanwhile, has been good on Saturday when Randy Zeigler pitches, but the rest of the time, they've given up some runs. Cale Wine and Andrew Richardson have been hit pretty hard, and Kendall Thamm and Wil Browning have been their only consistent bullpen arms. ULM is hitting a little better than they were earlier in the season, especially Les Aulds, who has really come back after a slow start and is back in the leadoff spot. Taylor Abdalla has been hot as well. But Corbin Green and Caleb Clowers continue to struggle. After this week, ULM has three of their last four series on the road. They need to make a move this weekend. It won't be easy.
TROY (5-10) at WESTERN KENTUCKY (6-9)
The Trojans showed some life last weekend, taking a series from Middle Tennessee and they were rewarded with the player and pitcher of the week in the league, with Danny Collins winning the hitter award and Joe Hernandez getting the pitching nod. Logan Pierce and Boone Shear continue to lead the offense, but there have been some holes in the Troy lineup all year. The big issue is the pitching staff, which carries a 6.71 team ERA in Sun Belt play, even after two good mound performances last weekend. Hernandez replaced Jimmy Hodgskin in the weekend rotation and that's helped. But Thomas Austin has been their only consistent bullpen guy and reigning pitcher of the year Tyler Ray has an ERA of 8.45 in league play and he's 0-4 in the SBC. Ouch. If Troy can do well this weekend, the schedule is favorable, with three series at home, albeit two of them against FAU and USA. Their only road trip is to Louisiana in two weeks.
Western Kentucky still is struggling to score runs. hitting just .229 in league play. Five Hilltoppers are hitting under .200 in conference games. But the rest of the 'Toppers game has been okay. Ross Hammonds and Taylor Haydel continue to be really good out of the pen, although Haydel has started twice in league games. Justin Hagemann has been better and Tim Bado has been solid. And, after struggling some defensively earlier, WKU has gotten back to playing very good defense. WKU needs to make some headway this weekend and next at home against ULM, because they're at FAU, at South Alabama and have Middle Tennessee at home in the last three weekends.