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Time for Sun Belt Conference Baseball Starting This Weekend.

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It’s time for conference play to begin in the Sun Belt.  A lot of teams have a lot of new faces, so before I decided to sit down and give a preview of the conference season, I’d let the first few weeks unfold.  Well, that’s done.  And, now its time to look at this league.  And, although it’s way too early to be paying attention to the RPI, it does give you an idea of where the teams stand after 16-18 games.  (RPI listed is from boydsworld.com and is not the official NCAA RPI.  But it’s close.

ARKANSAS STATE  (8-8)  RPI—192

There are faces to replace in the ASU offense, none bigger than Todd Baumgartner, who is finally gone after what seemed like 12 years of eligibility.  Michael Faulkner (.345, OB Pct. .426) raises all kinds of havoc at the top of the lineup and no one has thrown him out trying to steal this season (16-16).  ASU has averaged just under six runs per game, but they’ve done it with a pretty weak schedule.  They don’t have a ton of pop (slg. Pct. 383) but it’s not exactly a hitters park in Jonesboro, especially if the wind is blowing in.  ASU has been solid defensively.

Jacob Lee (2-0, 3.27) is the ace of the staff, as expected, and John Koch (0-0. 0.82, 3 saves) is back as the late innings guy.  After that, though, there are questions about the staff.  Daniel Wright and Cory Kyle have had their moments, but Bradley Wallace has hit a lot of bats as a starter.  They play UALR this weekend, a team that’s put up some scary numbers.  The good news is they get them in Jonesboro, since ASU has yet to win a road game.  It would be good for the Red Wolves if the wind is blowing in this weekend.

UALR (13-5)  RPI—194

Take a team that returns several position players, put them in a small ball park and play the league’s weakest schedule and voila, meet the defending tournament champions.  Scott Norwood and his squad were a feel-good story last year as they earned their first-ever NCAA berth despite being the #8 seed in the  conference tournament.  This year, they’re tearing the cover off the ball, with Sean Bignall (.408-9-34, .915 slg pct.) having won the Player of the week award two weeks in a row.  They’ve already hit 25 home runs, they hit .328 as a team and slug .544.  And, only half of their games have been at Gary Hogan Field, the smallest park in the league.  They’ve not been good defensively (.957 fld pct.)

UALR lost most of their pitching from last year and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of depth on the staff, once you get past the three weekend starters.  The starters, though, have been pretty good.  Chance Cleveland (4-0, 2.67, 2 shutouts) has been the best of the bunch.  UALR’s three starters have a combined ERA in the low threes, and that’s pretty good.  The team ERA, however, is 5.40 which underlines their lack of depth in the staff.  They open this weekend at Arkansas State and while ASU won’t be the best team UALR has played this year, they’ll be better than most of the teams UALR has gone up against.  UALR hopes the wind is blowing out this weekend.

FLORIDA ATLANTIC (11-7)  RPI—202

The Owls started the season with a three game sweep at Alabama and then came home and won three of four against Manhattan.  Then the injuries came.  #2 starter Jeremy Strawn is out for the year with an arm injury.  OF Alex Hudek, who had a great season a year ago, was picking up where he left off (.421, 4, 13) when he broke his ankle.  He won’t be back until April.  Then, speedy OF Nathan Pittman was injured last week running down to first base.  He might not play again this season.  FAU still has plenty of weapons offensively.  They hit .298 as a club and have hit sixteen home runs.  Defensively they’re solid.

Ryan Garton has been the #1 starter for a couple of years now and he’s off to a very good start.  But, with Strawn on the shelf, the rotation after Garton has been unsettled.  Seven different pitchers have at least one start.  FAU has survived, though, thanks to its bullpen. R. J. Alvarez, who was in the starting rotation last season and is the best MLB pitching prospect, is their shut-down guy out of the pen.  Kevin Alexander, Michael Sylvestri and Josh Gonzaga have gotten a lot of work in relief as well.  John McCormack isn’t a big fan of playing your rival twice in league play, and who can blame him.  They open at FIU this weekend.

FIU (8-7)  RPI—103

The record isn’t impressive, but they did open the season with three at Rice and three at Florida State, which will explain their 1-5 start.  As always, the Panthers can hit, led by Mike Martinez and last year’s Sun Belt Player of the Year Pablo Bermudez.  They hit .305 as a club and have a little power.  They also have a lot of speed, with 33 steals already.  As usual, FIU won’t dazzle you with their defensive prowess.

FIU might have the best balance of offense and pitching (3.86) in the league.  Coach Turtle Thomas has moved Mason McVay from the pen and made him a starter and it’s paid dividends.  He and R. J. Fondon is as good a 1-2 punch as there is in this league.   Michael Gomez 4 svs) is the late innings guy for FIU.  They have some depth in the pen.  FIU and FAU collide this weekend and they do it in Miami.  After 15 games this season, Turtle’s club sure looks like the one to beat.

LOUISIANA (10-7)  RPI—77

Frankly, this team is better than I thought they’d be.  They don’t have a lot of power, save for freshman Dylan Butler, but they don’t have a lot of holes in the lineup either.  They’ve got some guys who can run and they have some depth.  Sophomores Ryan Leonards and Chase Compton are solid hitters.  It’s team that has a lot of freshmen and sophomores in the lineup and they don’t play scared.  The loss of Michael Strentz (Tommy John surgery) really hurts.  Chris Sinclair is their only healthy catcher.  Defensively, the Cajuns have bounced back after a tough start.

Louisiana’s pitching depth has really been tested.  They lost right hander Chase Traffica before the season started, as well as Ben Carter, who they were really counting on.  And, two of their weekend starters, Joe Zimmerman and Chris Griffitt, have missed starts because of injury.  But Tony Robichaux’s teams always have ability on the mound.  Freshman Cord Cockrell, sophomore Matt Hicks and sophomore Caleb Kellogg are all very good out of the pen.  The travel to Monroe this weekend to take on a ULM team that’s getting better daily.

LOUISIANA-MONROE (12-6)  RPI—36

This is a team that didn’t make the conference tournament that they hosted last May.  Now, they’re a contender for the league title.  Their record is really impressive when you consider they’ve beaten Tennessee twice, Tulane twice, Memphis twice, UTSA twice and Memphis twice.  They haven’t hit for a high average (.243), but they’ve still averaged five and a half runs per game.  Joey Rapp is picking up where he left off last year, hitting nearly .400 with four homers.  And, they’ve done it without a lot of contributions from guys they were counting on:  Corbin Green is hitting under .200, Caleb Clowers is at .232 and Les Aulds is hitting just .212.  All of these guys are better than their numbers.  When they get it going, the Warhawks will have a formidable lineup.  They like to run (33 steals) and play solid defense.

On the hill, lefty Randy Zeigler is the best pitcher in the league not named Tyler Ray.  Zeigler has been SBC pitcher of the week for two straight weeks.  He’s only 2-2, but opponents hit just .184 against him and he’s struck out 36 in 28 innings.  Wil Browning, Shelby Aulds and Kendall Thamm have done well in relief.  The pitching staff, though, goes only about eight deep, which could be an issue if someone goes down.  But the starters are good enough to where Jeff Schexnaider has been able to get by with just eight.  They host Louisiana this weekend.  Nicholson vs. Zeigler could be fun on Friday.  The two were teammates at LSU.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE (10-7) RPI 113

Another team that’s vastly improved after missing out on the conference tournament last year.  Steve Peterson has re-tooled the pitching staff and those guys have been really good.  Hunter Adkins, Johnathan Frebis and Jonathan Cisco have been very, very good.  And, there’s depth in the bullpen, with four quality guys Peterson can call on.  They gave up a bunch of runs Tuesday night to Belmont, which ballooned their ERA to 3.55 but that’s still the league’s best.  Combine that with a very good defense and that’s a formula for winning.

Offensively, they’ve shown they can hit with power, especially at home where the fences are shorter.  But they’ve hit sixteen out of the park.  But they’ve struggled to get consistency in their lineup, which has a lot of new faces.   They only have two hitting over .300 as conference play starts and they’ve really had three guys carrying them.   They also don’t get as many free bases as they should, which makes their on base percentage low.  They average a little under five runs per game.  But this is a team that doesn’t need to score a lot if they keep pitching the way they have been.  WKU visits Reese Smith, Jr. Field this weekend.

WESTERN KENTUCKY  (7-9)  RPI—177

Matt Myers takes over for Chris Finwood, who left to be the head coach at Old Dominion.  Myers is finding life without Kes Carter and Matt Rice a little difficult  They’ve got several position players back from last year, including four year starter Jared Andreoli, but they haven’t been scoring a ton of runs, just over five per game.  They don’t have a lot of power and really can’t run a whole lot.  They find ways to get on base, though, and that covers up some offensive sins.  The biggest change in the Toppers is defensively.  WKU has been the leader in defense for most of Finwood’s tenure.  They’re fielding percentage is as low as it’s been in quite a while.

The pitching was supposed to be the strength of this team, but it hasn’t turned out that way.  Tanner Perkins has performed well, and Tim Bado and Austin Clay have done a good job as well.  But last year’s freshman of the year, Justin Hageman, has gotten lit up (0-2, 8.53).  Ross Hammonds and Taylor Haydel are the best in the bullpen, but there isn’t much quality depth there.   WKU has a tough weekend series at Middle Tennessee to open up conference play.  WKU is hosting the conference tournament.  They’ll need to improve if they want to play in it.

TROY (8-7) RPI—98

This team has been a little hard to figure out.  Offensively, they’re averaging right at seven runs per game, despite hitting just .256 as a team.  They have several players, veteran players, who just haven’t gotten untracked yet.  And, despite that short porch in right field, Troy has hit only seven homers.  They don’t run much and, unlike most Troy clubs, they haven’t been great defensively.

But, the Trojans have Tyler Ray.  And, they don’t lose on Friday.  Ray (2-0, 0.98) has picked up right where he left off last season, when he was the league’s Pitcher of the year.  Troy got a big blow when it was learned Drew Hull, who had his season cut short because of an arm injury, wouldn’t be able to return.  Jimmy Hodgskin has done a decent job as the second starter, but the third guy has been one experiment after the other.  Their bullpen is solid, with Nate Hill, Thomas Austin and Tyson Workman all doing a great job.  This is the co-favorte, along with FIU, in the league this year and Bobby Pierce is as good a coach as there is in the league.  But the Trojans need to start hitting the ball.  They can’t get by on pitching alone.

SOUTH ALABAMA (4-12)  RPI—207

Mark Calvi is the new coach at USA, replacing the legendary Steve Kittrell.  Calvi went out and signed a bunch of players, which usually means a tough first year while everyone gets acquainted.  But Calvi didn’t think it would be this tough.  The Jaguars have been hammered with injuries to position players in both the infield and outfield and as a result, this team really struggles to score runs.  They’re averaging fewer than five per game.  They’re hitting .231 as a club and have hit a grand total of two home runs.  They don’t run real well and they strike out a lot.  Their defense has been only fair.  South has given up 23 unearned runs and you can’t do that and win when your offense is struggling.

They’ve pitched, overall, pretty well.  Anthony Izzio and Jared Cito have been very consistent.  The third starter on the weekend is up for grabs.  Kyle Bartsch and Jamie Dennis have been the two main guys in the pen, and while they’ve performed well, neither is a lights-out, late inning guy.

Most thought USA might struggle this year with so many new players.  But no one thought it would be like this.  Injuries have just devastated this offense, and their pitching isn’t good enough to carry them through the scoring droughts.  And, Troy is coming to town this weekend.

We’ll go over conference matchups each week here on the website so you can keep track of the other teams in the league.  There are already some surprises.  There probably will be more.

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