Sun Belt Tournament Preview – First Round – From the Bird’s Nest
The Sun Belt Tournament begins Tuesday at Springs Brooks Stadium in Conway, SC. Here is a preview of the two single elimination first round games.
#7 SEED SOUTH ALABAMA (30-25, 16-14) Coach: Mark Calvi (8th season)
Offensive Ranks (All Games): Batting 9th, Slugging 5th, On Base Percentage: 5th, OPS 5th
Offensive Ranks (SBC Games): Batting 9th, Slugging 6th, On base 8th, OPS T6
Pitching Ranks (All Games): ERA 3rd, BA Against 4th, Fewest Walks 8th, Strikeouts 7th.
Pitching Ranks (SBC Games) ERA 4th, Batting: 5th, Fewest Walks 6th, Strikeouts 8th
STRENGTHS: If you haven't been paying attention to the year Ethan Wilson has had, go take a look. He's putting up some of the best numbers for a freshman in league history. (.317-17-51, 1.150 OPS). Michael Sandle and Kaleb De La Torre are also having solid seasons. Wells Davis joins Wilson with double digit homers (13.) Drake Nightengale has done a very good job stepping into the #1 starter spot with the injury to JoJo Booker. Zach Greene out of the pen is just filthy. He has 13 saves, with 63 strikeouts in 44 innings....and just four walks. With exception of Nightengale, this staff has spread the wealth as far as innings are concerned. Nine different pitchers have logged 30 innings or more. The Jaguars, as usual, are very good defensively.
WEAKNESSES: If you avoid making mistakes against Wilson, Davis and De La Torre, you can navigate this lineup. This team strikes out... a lot. Of the teams who qualified for the tournament, only Troy strikes out more. Obviously. the loss of Booker is huge, and after Nightengale, they really don't have a consistent starter, which forces Calvi to get creative with his staff. This team doesn't run much and I wouldn't call them particularly athletic.
OUTLOOK: South Alabama was 5-10 midway through the league season and went 11-4 after that. But they dropped two of three at home to Troy over the weekend, which puts them in the first round. If they survive, they'll have to piecemeal their pitching. But the Jags have power in their lineup and with Greene, they can shorten the game to seven innings. If you're gonna get em, get em early. This team is better than their seeding shows.
#10 SEED: ULM (24-29, 12-17) Coach: Mike Federico (2nd season)
Offensive ranks (all games) BA 8TH, SLG 9TH, OBP 6TH, OPS 8TH
Offensive ranks (SBC) BA 8TH, SLG 9TH, OBP 9TH, OPS 9TH
Pitching ranks (all games) ERA 11th, BA 12TH, BB 9TH, SO 11TH
Pitching ranks (SBC) ERA 11TH, BA 7TH, BB 9TH, SO 12TH
STRENGTHS: The Warhawks do a good job of making contact. They had the fourth fewest strikeouts in the league. Chad Bell is a monster at third base. He's hit 18 bombs and he'll carry a 19 game hitting streak into Tuesday. Trent Tingelstad and Andrew Beesley have both had very good years. Tingelstad has a sweet stroke from the left side. Ryan Humeniuk has some pop in his bat and he and Beesley are stolen base threats. Joey Jordan makes a lot of plays at shortstop. Trey Jeans isn't spectacular as a Friday guy, but he's had some very good starts this season. ULM can make plays defensively.
WEAKNESSES: The lineup isn't scary after you get past 2-3-4-5 in the lineup. They're left handed heavy, and while some of their guys hit lefties well, southpaws do have an advantage. But, boy, that pitching staff. After Jeans, there's no one who has been consistent. Ty Barnes has had a couple of good starts, but that bullpen has been brutal at times this year.
OUTLOOK: Federico went out and brought in more than 20 new players in trying to build the program, and the fact they are in the tournament for the first time since 2014 means this program has taken the first step. Their lineup will like the hitter friendly stadium in Conway. If Jeans pitches Tuesday, he'll give the Warhawks a chance, but he did throw over 120 pitches Thursday against Louisiana. After that, it's a crapshoot on the mound. The 'Hawks are going to have to score some runs if they want to play on Wednesday.
#8 SEED--LOUISIANA (27-29, 15-15 Sun Belt) Coach: Tony Robichaux (25th season)
OFFENSIVE RANKS (ALL GAMES) BATTING: 3RD, SLG 4TH, OBP 3RD, OPS 4TH
OFFENSIVE RANKS (SBC) AVG T-1, SLG 2ND, OBP 2ND, OPS 2ND
PITCHING RANKS (ALL GAMES) ERA 6TH, BA AGAINST 2ND, WALKS ALLOWED 10TH, STRIKEOUTS 5TH
PITCHING RANKS (SBC) ERA 5TH, BA AGAINST 1ST, WALKS 11TH, STRIKEOUTS 3RD
STRENGTHS: A dangerous lineup that is difficult to navigate, especially late in the season. The Cajuns have seven players batting over .300 in conference play. Louisiana more than doubled their home run output from last year, belting 61 after having just 29 a year ago. Todd Lott has had the season Cajun fans were hoping for when they signed him three years ago. Orynn Veillon and Handsome Monica have combined for 25 home runs, while Hayden Cantrelle, Hunter Kasuls and Lott have 23 more. The return of Daniel Lahare, who missed 19 starts with various injuries, has sparked this club and filled in a hold in the lineup. He's hitting nearly .500 since his return. The Cajuns can, and will run. This isn't Louisiana's best defensive team, but they're solid. They have some pitchers, who, when they are on, can get people out.
WEAKNESSES--The Cajuns have been able to overcome injuries to their offense. The pitching staff is a different story. Gunner Leger, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, hasn't been healthy enough to be the Friday night guy they were hoping for. He's now in the bullpen where he can pitch one or two innings per week. Closer Austin Bradford tore his UCL after just two appearances, and Mr. John visited him as well. Jack Burk had become a solid Friday night guy down the stretch, but he missed his last start and his availability is in question. After that, the biggest problem is this staff gives away way too many base runners. Their walks plus hit batters is the worst in the conference and when they aren't throwing strikes, they can give up a lot of runs. Offensively, they haven't been very good with runners in scoring position and they look at too many called third strikes.
OUTLOOK: It's been very seldom in his 25 years that Tony Robichaux has had issues with the pitching staff. Consistent pitching is obviously an issue for this team and if Burk can't go, they're going to have to rely on freshmen pitching to sustain them. That hasn't worked very well for them this season. But this team can hit the baseball and their offense covers up a lot of sins. If they pitch Tuesday they have a chance to wreak havoc in the double elimination bracket. If they don't, it'll be a short visit.
#9 SEED: APPALACHIAN STATE (22-30, 13-16) Coach: Kermit Smith (3rd season)
OFFENSIVE RANKS (ALL GAMES); Batting 10th, SLG 10TH, OBP 11TH, OPS 11TH
OFFENSIVE RANKS (SBC) Batting 11th, SLG 10TH, OBP 10TH, OPS 10TH
PITCHING (ALL GAMES) ERA 8TH, BA AGAINST 5TH, WALKS 5TH, STRIKEOUTS 10TH
PITCHING (SBC); ERA 10TH, BA AGAINST 4TH, WALKS 10TH, STRIKEOUTS 9TH
STRENGTHS: An influx of young talent has really improved this team. Second baseman Luke Drumheller led the league in hitting for a good part of the season. Sophomore Kendall McGowen gives this team some pop, but there are five other players with five homers on the year. App State has improved their team batting average 55 points from last year. Another freshman, Tyler Tuthill joins senior Brandon Boone in giving App two solid starters, and Andrew Papp and Kaleb Bowman anchor the bullpen. Bowman has been especially stingy.
WEAKNESSES: They've got four or five guys with good offensive numbers, but some others that have really struggled. This team may not strike out a ton, but they also don't get free baserunners. They are last in the league in walks received, and, because of that, they are near the bottom of the league in runs scored. They've struggled to go more than four deep in the pitching staff and that is obviously an issue. Their pitching staff doesn't strike out a ton of guys and their defense has been shaky at times.
OUTLOOK: Welcome to the postseason, Mountaineers. Smith keeps adding good players and this program is starting to earn some real respect. Tuthill and Bowen are capable arms and if they are on, they give the Mountaineers a chance. Bowman and Papp can shorten a game. They've shown when their arms are right, they can win low scoring games. This is a scrappy bunch that is going to make you play nine innings. They had two late rallies to win the series against the Cajuns in the second weekend of league play. They may be young, but they won't be intimidated.