Second-ranked Rice earned a big win against No. 5 Texas in Austin yesterday, giving the Owls some momentum heading into their exam break. Rice relied on a balanced 13-hit attack and strong bullpen work by senior righty Jordan Rogers (2 2/3 scoreless innings) and freshman lefty Taylor Wall (two scoreless) to earn a 7-4 victory.
Elsewhere, Georgia first baseman Rich Poythress just keeps on slugging. The nation’s top hitter in our Midseason Report went 4-for-4 with three home runs in an 11-7 win against Kennesaw State.
And a little further south in the Peach State, Georgia Southern won its sixth straight game, cruising to a 12-1 win against Charleston Southern. That brings us to today’s mailbag question:
How do you see the Georgia Southern Eagles shaping up for a regional berth? The toughest part of our conference schedule is behind us; we have already played College of Charleston and Elon. We have some very impressive wins this season (two over Georgia Tech, sweep of College of Charleston, East Carolina). It is more than likely either the Eagles, Elon or Charleston will win the SoCon tournament and get the automatic bid, but can you discuss an at-large bid and do you think all three teams can get in? I can see us as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Atlanta or Athens regional.
College of Charleston has fallen off since Brian sent in his question, losing series at Elon and Appalachian State. The Eagles and Phoenix have emerged as the clear front-runners in the Southern Conference, with The Citadel and Western Carolina strongly in the mix. At this point, Elon and Georgia Southern both look like very strong bets to make the NCAA, and both are strong contenders for No. 2 seeds in regionals. Georgia Southern ranks 20th in the latest official Ratings Percentage Index, while Elon ranks 28th. The Phoenix are in first place in the Southern Conference at 14-4, but the Eagles are nipping at their heels at 12-4. Georgia Southern has the better overall record at 29-9, its most wins with single-digit losses since the 1996 team stood 41-9.
In our projected field of 64 last week, we placed Georgia Southern as a No. 3 seed in the Atlanta Regional, but an updated field today would have the Eagles as a No. 2. If they can win a huge series against The Citadel this weekend, they can really firm up that position. Check back Tuesday for our next projected field, but certainly Georgia Southern is on track for its first regional bid since 2002. I expect at least Elon to be there as well, but CofC (47 in the RPI) and Western Carolina (57) both have work to do to earn a third bid. The Citadel (99) needs to win the conference tournament to get in.
The SoCon is pretty deep this year—Appalachian State has come on strong of late as well—but Georgia Southern has emerged as one of the league’s top teams thanks to dramatically improved pitching. Last year’s team slugged its way to 33 wins despite a 7.04 ERA. That team averaged nearly two home runs per game and hit .346 collectively. This year’s Eagles are averaging just 1.13 homers per game and are batting .324, but their ERA has dropped to 4.87.
"We’ve been scoring runs for the most part this year," Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon said. "From a power standpoint, we haven’t been overly impressive there. This team has done a good job offensively doing the little things. We’ve got a veteran club, a lot of seniors in the lineup, which always helps. The biggest difference in our team, though, is our improvement on our pitching staff from last year to this year.
"Last year if we weren’t scoring a ton of runs, we had a hard time winning. We really struggled in the 4-2, 6-5 type games. this year we’ve been pretty consistent from a pitching and defense standpoint."
Three new faces have played a major role in that pitching improvement. Junior righthander Chris Mederos (8-0, 4.14 with 65 strikeouts and 20 walks in 54 innings) transferred from Gordon (Ga.) JC and has emerged as a rock on Fridays. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound Mederos attacks hitters with an 87-91 mph fastball and a good cutter, and he relies on his command, movement and competitiveness.
Another junior college transfer, lefthander Jake Brown (3-3, 4.70) has a similar fastball-cutter repertoire from the left side and has settled into a weekend starter spot after spending some time in a midweek role and in the bullpen earlier this season. Then there’s freshman righthander Matt Murray (3-2, 4.57), the Sunday starter. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Murray has excellent size and the best power arm on the staff, with a fastball that sits in the low 90s.
The emergence of that trio has allowed the Eagles to slide senior righty Kyle Kamppi (2-1, 3.08, six saves) from the rotation to the bullpen, where he is much better suited. Last year GSU had no choice but to use Kamppi in a starting role, and he struggled, going 5-4, 6.18.
"His arm bounces back pretty quick, so he can throw back-to-back days. He’s done that most of his career up until last year, so I think he was accustomed to coming in for short stints and letting it go," Hennon said. "He’s a slider guy, that’s his bread and butter, his breaking ball. Last year, we really didn’t have many options, so we had to start him. He likes coming in late in the ballgame and he’s comfortable in that role."
Of course, the bats are always going to do much of the heavy lifting at Georgia Southern, which plays in a very offensive park and a very offensive league. But the Eagles have shown they can score even without relying on the long ball. Despite losing All-America outfielder Chris Shehan (22 homers last year) and seeing significant power dips from infielder A.J. Wirnsberger (down from 21 homers a year ago to six so far this spring) and outfielder Ty Wright (from 17 to five), the Eagles are still averaging 9.9 runs per game, down just a bit from last year’s 10.2 average.
Wright (.396/.489/.577) and catcher Griffin Benedict (.410/.537/.575) give the Eagles a pair of reliable seniors atop the order and in the No. 3 hole, respectively. They take some pressure off first-year starters like Kevin Bowles (.319) and Eric Phillips (.324), who have made significant contributions.
"Griffin’s been an outstanding player for us for four years now," Hennon said of the son of ex-big leaguer Bruce Benedict. "He gives us some leadership on both ends. He’s got a good approach at the plate, and he’s going to give you some good at-bats. He’s done a great job for us in the middle of the order.
"Ty’s a big, physical kid, he moves pretty good, but he doesn’t look like a typical leadoff guy. He’s got the ability to fight off some good pitches. To be as strong as he is and have the kind of power he’s got, he doesn’t strike out a lot for a big, physical guy. He’s been a catalyst up there."
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