NCAA Bubble Watch: Texas State Climbing Fast

Image credit: Texas State third baseman Jaylen Hubbard (Photo courtesy of Texas State/Juan DeLeon)

Heading into May, with a top-40 RPI, a place at the top of the Sun Belt Conference, and a number of quality wins on its side, Texas State is eyeing a regional appearance, which would be the program’s first since 2011.

The Bobcats this season first appeared on the radar in early-March, when they competed as part of a star-studded field at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park and impressed.

Righthander Nicholas Fraze took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against Rice in the first game of the tournament on the way to a 1-0 win against the Owls, Texas State scored a relatively routine 9-4 win against Houston in its second game, and then came one pitch away from closing out the weekend with a victory against Baylor before the Bears mounted a comeback.

For Texas State, which now has more than its fair share of wins over teams pushing for regional appearances, this was a pivotal weekend, beyond just the wins and losses.

“The competition is unreal, the setting is just incredible, so it has a postseason-type feel or a big game feel to it,” coach Ty Harrington said. “I thought it gave our kids some confidence that they went in there and played well and performed well.”

That confidence doesn’t appear to have wavered much since then. The Bobcats might be a team short on star power, but they’re a group long on quality, productive players who have helped them to a 31-14 record.

On the mound, Texas State has been led by a weekend rotation that you can set your watch to. All season long, it has been Fraze (6-3, 4.75) and fellow righthanders Hunter McMahon (5-4, 4.46 ERA) and Connor Reich (6-1, 3.45) every single week, in that order.

None of the three have numbers that bowl you over at first glance, but they have all been durable and effective, which in turn, helps take some pressure off of a bullpen led by righthanders Kyle Bradford (3.07 ERA), Zachary Leigh (3.58 ERA), Brent Hebert (4.05 ERA) and Brayden Theriot (4.29 ERA).

Harrington simply knows what to expect with each of his three starters, and there’s value in that.

“Those three guys have been on that same rotation. They have a handful of relief appearances, midweek-wise, but if you can stay healthy on the mound, then you give yourself a pretty good chance,” Harrington said.

Offensively, the Bobcats are led by a cornerstone player in fifth-year senior third baseman Jaylen Hubbard, the son of former big leaguer Trenidad Hubbard. Hitting .331/.449/.541 with 15 doubles and five homers, Hubbard is a complete offensive contributor who has simply gotten a little bit better with each passing season in San Marcos.

“He likes to play, he likes to compete, and so each year, he has gotten better,” Harrington said. “This year, there has been times when he has really played at a high level. We moved him from the three hole, to the two hole, back to leadoff, trying to create as many different hitting opportunities as we can for him.”

But that’s not to say that the Bobcats lineup has been reliant on Hubbard, because there is some depth there as well, what with the presence of second baseman Jaxon Williams (.348/.461/.455), outfielder Will Hollis (.329/.477/.533) and shortstop Dalton Shuffield (.322/.380/.414).

“We’ve won games with the bottom of our lineup, and you have to be able to do that,” Harrington said. “If you’re going to win, you can’t just be the first five guys or the first four guys, which has been the case at different times for us here. It takes everybody, a nine-man lineup.”

Looking at the schedule, the steadiness of this team stands out most. They’ve never lost more than two games in a row this season, and even that hasn’t happened for about a month now, going back to when they lost the first two games of their series against Troy in early-April.

And they very well might be playing their best baseball right now. They had won ten in a row prior to taking a loss against rival Texas-San Antonio on Tuesday, and they have an eight-game winning streak in Sun Belt play.

At 15-6 in conference play, the Bobcats sit alone at the top of both the West Division and in the overall standings, one game up on Texas-Arlington.

The modern version of the Sun Belt has been dominated by a small handful of teams. Going back to 2013, one of Coastal Carolina (which joined prior to the 2017 season), Louisiana-Lafayette or South Alabama has finished at least tied for the best record in the league.

There is an opening this season, however. Coastal started strong, but has fallen back to an 11-9 record, while Louisiana and South Alabama are suffering through down seasons.

But even without a Sun Belt Conference regular season title, which would undoubtedly help, Texas State boasts a postseason resume that will give it a fighting chance for an at-large berth. 

The Bobcats’ RPI of 33 would make it a lock if the field was announced today. With three games at home this weekend against Georgia State, an RPI 200+ team,  the Bobcats’ RPI may fall even if they sweep the series, but everything else in front of them – a midweek game against Texas (49), and series against Arkansas-Little Rock (107) and Texas-Arlington (80) – should help if the Bobcats can keep winning at their current pace.

A finish inside the top 40 in RPI, a first or second place finish in the Sun Belt and a good record against RPI top 100 (currently 10-6), would portend good news on Selection Monday. It would be a resume not that unlike fellow Sun Belt member Troy had last year when it earned a bid.

“You have to stay healthy, that’s part of it,” Harrington said. “The second part of it is you have to stay organized with what everybody is still trying to do. (It) still has to be team-oriented thought every day. It can’t be (that) the draft is coming, it can’t be that (they are) graduating. When I say that, I mean that those are both really positive things, but they also can be distractive for student-athletes. It still has to be about us winning each game.”

It’s not hyperbole to say that getting to a regional this season would be huge for the Texas State program. The Bobcats were no stranger to regionals as a member of the Southland Conference, particularly in their latter years in the league, when they made two trips as part of a run of three straight SLC regular season titles from 2009-2011.

But they have struggled to find their footing since switching leagues. After a one-year stopover in the WAC, they’ve solidly been a middle-of-the-pack team in the Sun Belt. In the last five seasons, they’ve never finished with fewer than 13 or more than 16 league wins.

This year has been different, as they are on track to blow past their previous best SBC record (16-14) and perhaps, establish themselves as a force in the league, as they were in the Southland. 

“It would be unbelievable for us,” Harrington said. “It would be very impactful for us, and a lot of fun. It’s what we all work for, right?”

With another month like the first three in San Marcos, that work will likely pay off in a big way.

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