Hannah Dole/astateredwolves.com

If you look at the preseason coaches’ poll, you’ll conclude that Arkansas State is the surprise team in the league this year.  The Red Wolves were picked seventh.  But, ASU play by play man Matt Stotz told me at the conference basketball tournament that head coach Tommy Raffo believed his team would be better than people thought.

Raffo was right.

The Red Wolves sit in second place in the Sun Belt, four games behind the Cajuns.  Their rpi was in the top 50 until last weekend, when A-State dropped two of three in Atlanta to Georgia State.  They’re four games behind the Cajuns headed into the weekend.  It’s likely the only way they’ll be challenging for a  championship is to sweep the Cajuns this weekend.  And, before you laugh at that notion, it would be worth noting ASU is 8-1 at home in conference games.

Here’s a look at the Red Wolves:

OFFENSE—Their middle of the lineup with outfielder Austin Baker, first baseman Matt Burgess and catcher Stuart Levy is pretty solid.  Baker is the leading home run hitter (6) on a team that doesn’t hit many (11).  Raffo has six guys he plays regularly and will platoon the others.  None of them have eye popping statistics, but they don’t have a lot of holes in their lineup.  They’re a team that will work the count and look to get on any way they can.  They’ll run some (53-72 stolen bases).  In league play they average six runs per game, so they’re capable.  Zach Maggio, their leadoff guy, is a good leader and kind of epitomizes their team offensively.

PITCHING—Kind of like their offense, in that there really isn’t anyone who will strike fear into the opposition, yet they’ve gotten the job done.  David Owen (5-3, 3.88) is their Friday night guy.  He’s only 3-3 in league play, in part because Arkansas State has had nights where they’ve struggled to score against the ace of the opposition.  Owen doesn’t throw particularly hard,  but he has a good breaker and strikes out a man per inning.  Bradley Wallace (3-3,3.90) throws on Saturday, but has only averaged a little over five innings per start in league play.  He’s got a live fastball.  Arkansas State has had issues with its Sunday starter.  Lefty Chandler Hawkins hasn’t gotten the job done.  Bryan Ayers and Tanner Gaines have also been used as Sunday starters.   The bullpen has a lot of experience and Tyler Zuber has been their go-to guy in clutch situations lately.  He’s performed very well.  Raggo has thrown ten different pitchers in league play.  Hawkins is in the pen now.  Cody Woodhouse and Tanner Ring both have experience and Raffo has a lot of confidence in Woodhouse in long relief situations.

DEFENSE—Rock solid.  Arkansas State has made only 50 errors this season.  They’re second in the league in that department.  Levy throws out about 30% of baserunners.  The outfield can cover some ground.

OUTLOOK—Arkansas State isn’t fancy.  They’re a blue collar bunch who will do whatever it takes to beat you.  And, at home they’ve had great success.  Tomlinson Stadium is not a hitter friendly ballpark this time of year.  There’s nothing to block the wind, and it’s always blowing.  This time of year, it’s blowing in.  The Red Wolves are always good at their house, and with Troy and UALR on the horizon, they have to feel like they’ve still got a shot to win this league.  Friday night is a big night for both teams.

It’s Tony Robichaux’s goal to win every weekend series and the Cajuns have done that in twelve straight weekends.  Since conference play started back in mid-March, this series might be the biggest weekend roadblock yet.  Fans have gotten spoiled to the extent some are unhappy when the Cajuns don’t get the sweep.  This weekend everyone should be very pleased if they get two out of three.