Weekend Preview: May 10-12

1. South Alabama visits Louisiana-Lafayette in Sun Belt showdown with hosting implications.
2. Bubble Watch: Streakin’ Seton Hall readies for first-place South Florida.
3. Notes on other big series around college baseball.

Battle In The Bayou

South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette finished a combined 16 games under .500 in 2012. Injuries and youth torpedoed the Ragin’ Cajuns last year—they finished in last place in the Sun Belt Conference at 11-19. South Alabama made progress in the SBC last year—Mark Calvi’s first season as head coach—going 15-15 in the league to finish in fourth place, their highest finish since 2006.

Top 25 Schedule
(1) North Carolina at Georgia Tech
(2) Vanderbilt at Kentucky
(3) Louisiana State at Texas A&M
(4) Cal State Fullerton at UC Riverside
(9) Florida State at (5) North Carolina State
(6) Oregon State at (25) Stanford
Duke at (7) Virginia
Arizona at (8) UCLA
(10) Oregon at Ohio State
Tennessee at (11) Arkansas
(12) Louisville at Connecticut
(13) Arizona State at California
Northwestern at (14) Indiana
Georgia at (15) South Carolina
(16) New Mexico at Fresno State
Memphis at (17) Rice
(18) Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State (at Tulsa/Oklahoma City)
Georgia Southern at (19) Clemson
(20) South Alabama at Louisiana-Lafayette
(21) Mississippi State at Mississippi
Marist at (22) Virginia Tech
(23) South Florida at Seton Hall
Villanova at (24) Pittsburgh

Both teams were optimistic that they would be better in 2013, but who would have expected both teams would be in the mix to host a regional heading into their Week 13 matchup in Lafayette?

The Jaguars lead the Sun Belt at 17-7, a game ahead of Troy and two games ahead of UL-L. South Alabama ranks 16th in the Ratings Percentage Index, while Louisiana-Lafayette is 27th. Both teams look like locks to earn at-large regional berths if they fail to win the conference tournament, and they have their sights set on bigger things.

“Hosting’s a big, big deal if you can put yourself in a position to host. But we can only control what’s on the field,” said Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux. “It’s going to be a tough weekend, we’ll be at home, so hopefully we can get in there and get after it, then finish up as strong as we can, and the chips will fall as they may. In 2000, we were able to host, and that got us to Omaha.

The Sun Belt sent four teams to regionals in 2000, and it was a multi-bid league every year thereafter—until 2012, when only automatic qualifier Louisiana-Monroe went to the NCAA tournament. For a conference that had sent three or more teams to regionals seven times since 2000, last year was a bitter pill to swallow.

“All of us got together at the coaches’ meeting in August—all of us were disappointed that we let the Sun Belt fall,” Robichaux said. “The Sun Belt has been, in our opinion, a premier league. We all made the commitment at the coaches’ meeting to work hard and get the Sun Belt back up to the top.

“I think sometimes recruiting goes in cycles. I think it took some of us time to get used to the bat, used to the 35-man roster with only 27 guys on scholarship, having to go out and sign eight guys on no money. I think the larger institutions have a little better chance to talk those eight guys into going to school there on no money. We’ve all gotten a little better handle on the bat; we’re not so fearful of it. I think that’s what’s helping us now.”

The physical maturation of Louisiana-Lafayette’s young players, combined with the addition of some key junior-college transfers, has transformed the Cajuns into one of the most formidable offensive teams in college baseball. Through 12 weeks, UL-L was leading the nation in home runs (57), ranked second in slugging (.498), eighth in batting (.318) and 12th in scoring (7.3 runs per game). Robichaux credited hitting coach Matt Deggs with changing the attitude of the way his team swings the bats—there’s no “swinging and hoping,” no blaming the bats when things go poorly.

Three junior-college transfers have made a huge difference. Right fielder Dex Kjerstad (.377/.421/.576, nine homers, 32 RBIs) struggled early and then caught fire, and he provides pop and on-base ability out of the leadoff spot. Center fielder Seth Harrison (.341/.430/.569, eight homers, 32 RBIs) has been a force in the middle of the lineup even despite playing through a knee injury that could require surgery after the season. And DH Caleb Adams (.326/.426/.623, 11 homers, 36 RBIs) is the leading home run hitter on a team where six players have hit at least five long balls.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had this kind of physical presence,” Robichaux said.

Returnees like redshirt freshman Tyler Girouard (.369/.475/.654, seven homers, 34 RBIs), sophomore Dylan Butler (.331/.349/.644, six homers, 35 RBIs) and junior Ryan Leonards (.355/.424/.454) have made significant strides this spring, making this a deep lineup with threats from top to bottom.

Jordan Patterson

Jordan Patterson

South Alabama’s offense is similarly balanced, and though the Jaguars have hit just 21 homers as a team, they rank 18th in the nation in scoring (7.1 runs per game). The lineup does have a dangerous centerpiece in junior two-way star Jordan Patterson (.368/.502/.549, four homers, 19 doubles, 43 RBIs), and senior DH Dustin Dalken (.341/.419/.558, six homers, 31 RBIs) provides some juice. Outfielder Nick Zaharion (.255/.307/.451, five homers, 33 RBIs) missed time in the first half with a sprained elbow, but he has returned to provide more thump. No other Jaguar has more than one home run, but tough outs abound.

“When you look at our stats, it’s not just one guy with 60 RBIs. There’s some balance there,” Calvi said. “But Patterson has been our guy, no question—he’s the most feared guy in the lineup. I think he’s benefitted from some good teammates, guys that know how to get on base, take some walks.”

Patterson and catcher Whitt Dorsey (.352/.448/.418) are two key pieces in South Alabama’s turnaround under Calvi, and both committed to USA in the last two weeks of the summer of 2010, right after Calvi left South Carolina’s staff to sign on as South Alabama’s head coach-in-waiting under Steve Kittrell. Dorsey is part of a three-way timeshare behind the plate; redshirt senior Brent Mitchell is the best defensive catcher, Dorsey is the best hitter of the group, and Drew Cofield is a solid blend of the two.

“They’re all fifth-year seniors, which is unbelievable,” Calvi said. “All three of those kids are tough as nails; they’re the backbone of the group.”

Mitchell has been limited to late-innings defensive duty by a broken hamate bone sustained early in the season, but he opted against surgery that would cause him to miss three or four weeks, because he did not want to miss even that much time, Calvi said. That’s the sort of makeup this team has. Last year, second baseman Robby Campbell took a batted ball off his eye early in the season, breaking his orbital and breaking his nose in three places. He had surgery and was told he would miss the entire season.

“He came back seven or eight weeks later,” Calvi said. “He said, ‘I’m coming back; the team needs me.’ These guys are tougher than they are good. But the thing is they really believe they’re good. We have some talent—don’t get me wrong—but I think we’ve got some toughness in a lot of the right areas, and a good bullpen.”

The bullpen gives South Alabama a big edge against most opponents in the late innings. Righthander Kyle Bartsch (3-0, 2.57, 11 saves) gives USA a power-armed lefty at the back of the ‘pen with an 89-92 fastball and a good curveball. Righty Dylan Stamey (5-1, 1.89) can dominate hitters mostly with his deceptive 90-94 mph fastball, which has helped him compile a 56-9 strikeout-walk mark in 33 innings. Patterson (2.31 ERA in 12 innings) gives USA another power arm from the left side—he works at 90-93 with a good slider, Calvi said.

That trio leads the way, but South Alabama’s bullpen has a nice supporting cast in Hunter Soleymani, Cecil Tripp, Brandon Boyle and James Traylor.

“A lot of teams get worse as the game goes along; we want to try to stay the same or get better,” Calvi said. “This year, when you bring a guy in in the seventh, odds are he’s a little better than the guy we just pulled out, so it’s been to our advantage.”

Not that the Jaguars have been bad in the rotation, either. Pitching coach Bob Keller, who has helped lead Michigan and Dallas Baptist to super regionals in the last seven years, has helped the Jaguars get the most out of their starters. Righthander Jarron Cito (4-2, 5.21) won seven games last year after transferring from the junior-college ranks and gives the Jaguars a competitor on Fridays. Righty Matt Bell (5-0, 2.59) and lefty Jacob Noble (5-2, 2.59) have made impacts as JC transfers this year, rounding out the rotation. All three work in the mid-to-upper 80s and keep hitters off balance with their secondary stuff. All three have been able to pitch into the middle innings consistently and keep the game close, allowing the bullpen to take it from there.

The Cajuns have the advantage on Friday, because they have a true ace in sophomore righthander Austin Robichaux (7-2, 2.93), son of Tony.

Austin Robichaux

Austin Robichaux

“He’s really turned the corner, been able to locate the breaking ball and changeup from the same arm slot,” Tony Robichaux said. “Being 6-6, it’s a lot of body trying to work together. Austin will settle in and pitch at 89-91, touch 92. His curveball and change are both good. The biggest key is being able to throw it out of that same arm slot and same arm speed.”

Like South Alabama, the Cajuns have gotten strong work from a junior-college transfer in the No. 2 starter spot, as lefthander Cody Boutte (8-2, 4.66) has done a good job keeping his team in games. Boutte helped pitch LSU-Eunice to a junior-college national championship last year, so he has plenty of big-game experience, and he manages games with his three-pitch mix. Fellow LSU-E product Ben Carter (1-0, 1.47) pitched well in his first start of the year last Sunday, and he is likely to get the nod again this Sunday.

UL-L’s bullpen is anchored by strike-throwing righthander Matt Hicks (3-1, 4.04, 10 saves), who has excellent sink and arm-side run on his fastball and a solid slider. Lefthander Ryan Wilson (3-3, 3.34) has spent much of the season in the rotation, but the Cajuns have moved him to the bullpen to give Hicks some extra support.

Louisiana-Lafayette’s pitching staff is not overpowering, but the defense has been solid behind it, led by freshman shortstop Blake Trahan, who is fielding .949. He also has provided more offense than expected, hitting .346/.434/.469 with four homers, and he has the athleticism, skill and savvy to be a cornerstone player for the next few years.

“I think one of the biggest keys for us this year is him, being able to come into a skill position amongst all these older guys and be so successful,” Robichaux said. “Being with all these older guys has helped him too, helped him play at a higher level, and taken some pressure off, because he’s never had to carry the load. He’s made some phenomenal plays already that most guys can’t. He pitched in high school, 88-90, so he’s got enough arm. He’s going to be the total package—a good physical-hitting shortstop who’s also athletic. At a mid-major, we don’t always see those.”

Robichaux described his team as “rock-solid up the middle,” and South Alabama is similar. Campbell is fielding a remarkable .993 at second base (just one error), and Jeff DeBlieux is a full-throttle player in center field. He and freshman outfielder Cole Billingsley have a tendency to chase down balls with reckless abandon even during batting practice.

“In 20 years, I’m telling you, I’ve never had a kid go as hard as Jeff DeBlieux,” Calvi said. “He never takes a play off—ever, ever. I told him, ‘One of the things I learned from coach (Ray) Tanner—a tired team is a bad team. I don’t need you running into the left-field wall in BP.”

Between the intensity of the players and the liveliness of the crowds in Lafayette, this series should be plenty of fun.

“It should be what college baseball’s all about,” Calvi said. “Any Tony Robichaux team is going to be a tough team with good makeup. And at home, they have a great atmosphere, they get 3,000 per game, they pack it out. And those kids are tough, they’re really swinging the bats. They’re a very dangerous offensive team, with a legit Friday night guy and a legit lineup. So we’ll have our work cut out for us.”

Bubble Watch: Seton Hall

Seton Hall went 17-10 in the Big East last year to finish tied for third place with South Florida. But the two teams finished No. 91 and No. 70, respectively, in the RPI, keeping both of them out of regionals.

The new RPI formula—which weights road wins more than home wins—combined with the Big East’s abundance of experienced, talented teams have led to a banner year for the conference, which has five teams inside the top 50 in the RPI heading into Week 13. Seton Hall (No. 43 in the RPI) hosts South Florida (No. 50) this weekend in a series with major at-large implications. These are two of the hottest teams in college baseball, as the Bulls have won 18 of their last 20 games, while the Pirates have won nine straight, and 13 of their last 14. In fact, since starting the season 0-9 in road trips to North Carolina, East Tennessee State, San Diego State and San Diego, the Pirates have gone 30-7.

The turning point was a Week Four series at Pepperdine, which Seton Hall swept, allowing just six runs in three games. The Pirates have lost only one series since then—at Notre Dame in March. They are 13-5 in the Big East, just two games behind co-leaders Pittsburgh and USF (15-3).

The Pirates also boosted their resume with a nonconference road series win at Houston in April. Heading into that series, Houston was 24-9 and ranked No. 24 in the BA rankings.

“When we made the schedule this year, when West Virginia left the conference and opened up a spot, we were just looking for a good place to play, a good challenge,” Seton Hall coach Rob Sheppard said. “Usually when you play teams like that, it’s right out of the gym early in the year. We had an opportunity to play a series later  in the year, which was beneficial for us.”

Jon Prosinski

Jon Prosinski

The Pirates are battle-tested, and not just because of a schedule that has featured 31 road games (18-13) and just 15 home games (12-3). This team is loaded with upperclassmen who played key roles on the 2011 team that ran through the Big East tournament to send the program to its first regional since 2001. The current seniors began their collegiate careers with a three-game series at Texas A&M in 2010, and they returned to College Station for regionals in 2011. Ace righthander Jon Prosinski threw a six-hit shutout to lead the Pirates to a 4-0 win against Arizona in the opener.

Now a senior, Prosinski is one of college baseball’s premier aces. He is 26-12 in his career, and he has been superb as a senior, going 7-2, 2.26 with 73 strikeouts and 11 walks in 88 innings.

“He’s probably one of the most prepared guys we’ve ever had, and fearfully competitive,” Sheppard said. “He’s his own toughest critic, he goes out there and gives you everything he has. He’s been consistent his whole career for us. He’s a fastball-slider-changeup kind of guy. He has really good command of all three, and he knows how to pitch. His fastball velocity has gotten much better—he can run it up into the low 90s, but anywhere from 88-92. His command is impeccable, and his ability to make pitches when he needs them has been really tremendous.”

SHU has another senior behind him in the rotation in righty Greg Terhune (4-3, 2.84), who has made 25 starts and 25 relief appearances over the course of his career. He’s a fastball-changeup pitcher who excels at keeping hitters off balance and getting them to roll over his changeup.

Two more seniors anchor the infield and the middle of the lineup. Shortstop Giuseppe Papaccio (.342/.376/.553) and second baseman Mike Genovese (.348/.450/.439) are the leaders of a defense that ranked 16th in the nation with a .977 fielding percentage through 12 weeks. Junior catcher Dillon Hamlin and junior center fielder Zack Granite make this team very experienced up the middle.

“Mike and Giueseppe have had tremendous senior years,” Sheppard said. “I think all of our seniors have had probably career years. For that to happen all in the same year is a testament to how they showed up for their senior year.”

The senior class has been uncommonly tight knight since 2010, when a member of the class—pitcher David Bachner—died of a heart condition in August.

“With social media, this group got really close really quickly,” Sheppard said. “Before their class came in, David passed away. Through that tragedy, it brought this class really close together. It really means a lot to them to get out there and play the game, especially with each other. That still resonates with these young men. For their courage, and the way they’ve dealt with things off the field, it’s been tremendous. I think it really carried over to how they played the game.

“We’ve all been through a lot together. One of the seniors’ brothers just passed away on Christmas Eve. So a lot of the stuff that happened off the field, they realized what’s really important and how lucky they really are to get an opportunity to play at such a high level, play the game they love. They really set the tone for the rest of the team. They go out and leave everything they have.”

That cohesion makes Seton Hall a very formidable opponent, with a good chance to send this senior class out with another trip to the NCAA tournament.

Around The Nation

• The marquee series of the weekend features a pair of top 10 teams battling for the ACC Atlantic Division title and national seed position. No. 9 Florida State visits No. 5 North Carolina State, and both teams are red-hot. The Seminoles have won nine straight games, while the Wolfpack has won five straight and 20 of its last 21. The Seminoles (16-8) hold a half-game lead over the ‘Pack (15-8) in the standings, but N.C. State has the advantage of being at home, where it is 24-6 this season. The Seminoles are just 9-7 on the road this year, with series losses at Virginia Tech and Virginia. The team that wins this series has the inside track on a second or third national seed out of the ACC.

• Three rivalry series this weekend will have significant postseason ramifications. In the Big 12, only Kansas State has a strong enough RPI (No. 25) to feel secure about its at-large chances. Kansas, which hosts the Wildcats this weekend, ranks 42nd in the RPI and is riding a six-game winning streak, including two wins against Wichita State and a sweep of Baylor.

Okahoma (No. 44) and Oklahoma State (No. 45) could both use RPI boosts heading into their annual Bedlam series, which opens in Tulsa before shifting to Oklahoma City on Saturday. The Sooners will get star lefthander Dillon Overton back this weekend—he’ll start Sunday, with Jonathan Gray going Saturday and Jake Fisher going Friday. OU coach Sunny Golloway said Fisher goes in the opener because the Sooners seem to play better “with Gray on deck, so to speak.”

The other key rivalry series pits Mississippi State at Mississippi, in a matchup between two teams hoping to bolster their hosting chances. The Bulldogs are in better shape to host, with a 10-spot advantage in the RPI (No. 10 vs. No. 20), a one-game edge in the SEC standings (13-11 vs. 12-12), and a better record against the top 50 (13-11 vs. 8-11). Back-to-back series losses against Kentucky and at Auburn have put Ole Miss at the back of the hosting pack, making this series a must-win for the Rebels to have a chance to host.

• A pair of second-place teams in mid-major conferences have big series to monitor this weekend. In the Colonial Athletic Association, William & Mary (14-7) travels to UNC Wilmington (15-5) with a chance to give its borderline at-large case a major shot in the arm. In the Big West, Cal State Northridge (14-4) hosts UC Santa Barbara (10-8) in a matchup between two teams surging toward bubble range in the RPI. The second-place Matadors are up to No. 73 in the RPI after a big midweek win against UCLA, while the Gauchos rank 70th after winning their last three series against Long Beach State, UC Riverside and UC Irvine. Both teams need hot finishes to boost their RPIs into at-large territory, but both teams have momentum.

• One team moving in the opposite direction is Georgia Tech, which has lost three straight series and four of its last five. The Jackets split a pair of midweek games at Ohio State this week, and now they welcome in top-ranked North Carolina, which carries a 44-4 overall record into the series. The Jackets have found themselves on the at-large bubble, but a series win against the Tar Heels would secure them as a regional team.

• Likewise, Kentucky is headed in the wrong direction, with four series losses in the last five weeks. The Wildcats face a similar challenge this weekend, hosting No. 2 Vanderbilt, which has a put together a record 21-2 SEC mark and can post the best record in SEC history with a 4-2 finish. The Wildcats also find themselves on the bubble, with a 10-14 record in the SEC. In the last decade, only two teams have made the NCAA tournament with 12 SEC wins, while 14 teams have made it with 13 or 14 SEC wins. So the Wildcats need to go 3-3 or 4-2 against Vanderbilt and at Missouri to feel good about their chances.

• The two teams in the Southland Conference with at-large chances will face off this weekend in a series that figures to keep one team in the mix for an at-large spot while popping the other team’s bubble. Sam Houston State (No. 66) sits atop the Southland standings at 15-6, two games ahead of Southeastern Louisiana (No. 64), Oral Roberts and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The Bearkats visit the Lions this weekend, and SHSU is riding a nine-game winning streak into the series. Sam Houston has another solid RPI series next weekend against Central Arkansas, while Southeastern travels to RPI drain McNeese State (No. 226), so this series is particularly crucial for the Lions.