Under The Radar: Arkansas State Starts Red Hot In Sun Belt Play

It was a series of firsts as Arkansas State swept Troy on the road last weekend.

It was the first time in the series history that the Red Wolves swept the Trojans, and it was the first time since 2014 that Arkansas State started Sun Belt Conference play with a sweep.

The first and last victories in the series were relatively routine for A-State. It controlled each of those games from start to finish after jumping out to early leads.

Game 2 was a different story, however. The Trojans held a 6-5 lead heading into the ninth inning and the Red Wolves were down to their final strike before shortstop Jake Jablonski connected for a go-ahead grand slam against closer Cory Gill.

“When you play three games in a sweep, there is always one game where you have to find a way to come from behind or do something maybe a little bit differently than you’ve done before,” A-State coach Tommy Raffo said.

In the bigger picture, at 14-7 after the sweep of Troy, it’s the best overall record A-State has had at this point in the season since 2013, when it went into a midweek doubleheader with Missouri with a 14-6 mark.

The Red Wolves have won six straight games on the weekends, as they also swept a series against Missouri State, and in those six games, the offense has led the way. Arkansas State scored 36 runs in the three wins against the Bears, and backed that up with a 29-run weekend against Troy.

The biggest catalysts at the plate have been a quartet that includes one newcomer, two players returning from missing all of last season due to injury and a returning contributor from each of the last two seasons.

The newcomer is junior college transfer Sky-Lar Culver, a first baseman by trade who has served primarily as the team’s designated hitter. He’s hitting .342/.425/.616 with nine doubles, three home runs and 21 RBIs.

Catcher Justin Felix and third baseman Alex Howard are the two players back from injury. Felix led the team with eight home runs in his first season on campus back in 2017 before missing last season. This season, he’s at it again from a power standpoint, as he leads the club with five homers and is hitting .324/.472/.647 with seven doubles. Alex Howard, who typically hits third in the lineup, is hitting .268/.398/.512 with eight doubles and four home runs.

Outfielder Drew Tipton is the guy back after serving as a solid contributor each of the last two seasons. He doesn’t provide the power of Culver or Felix, but he ranks third nationally with 20 stolen bases, and he’s hitting .325/.471/.390 with 20 walks and just 10 strikeouts.

“That combination of development, guys coming back into the fold from medical (issues), recruiting—those things have kind of come forefront for us offensively, and it’s helped us,” Raffo said.

There is also plenty of optimism that the offense will get even better, given that senior first baseman Kyle MacDonald, the Sun Belt’s newcomer of the year in 2018, still hasn’t really gotten going in the same way that he did last year.

Last season, MacDonald hit .346/.464/.665 with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs. This season, he’s hitting .268/.454/.408 with two home runs. He does have 19 walks compared to just six strikeouts, however.

“Everybody knows about (MacDonald) now, nobody knew about him last year,” Raffo said. “He basically carried our team. Whatever offense we had, it was him.

“He’s a professional-type hitter. He’s going to get you the AB that every opposing coach doesn’t want to see. He knows how to handle the count. You would think a power guy with two strikes is going to (have) too much of a big swing, but he probably fouls off more pitches with two strikes and walks with two strikes than anybody else.”

On the mound, the Red Wolves are a team that can really shorten games with what they’ve gotten in the bullpen from the junior college transfer duo of righthanders Jack Jumper and Kollin Stone.

Jumper, listed at 6-4, 200-pounds, has a 2-1, 1.65 record in 16.1 innings across 10 appearances, while Stone has gone 1-0, 1.98 with five saves in 13.2 innings in 10 appearances.

“They’ve been a pleasant surprise for us,” Raffo said. “(They are) strike-throwers and have the ability to throw strikes with different pitches. We’re not going to overwhelm you with 95 (mph), but we’re going to be able to pressure you with strikes.”

A-State has been solid in the rotation as well, which has helped them turn games over to their shutdown relief duo.

Righthander Zach Jackson leads the rotation and has been solid all season long, though he does not have overwhelming stuff. He’s 2-1, 3.71 with a 26-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26.1 innings. Righthander Nate Alberius and lefthander Chandler Coates follow Jackson’s lead in the rotation. Alberius is 2-1, 3.60 in 25 innings, and Coates is 3-0, 4.00 in a team-high 27 innings.

Like A-State’s top bullpen arms, they’re not flashy, but they’ve been effective.

“It’s not going to light you up, Las Vegas-style, to be honest with you,” Raffo said. “It’s not going to be like, ‘Whoa, they’ve got 93.’ It’s not that. It’s pressuring you in and out of the strike zone when they want to with three different pitches.

“I think they’re really good at getting early outs. In other words, within the first two pitches they’re able to get some mishits. It helps them with their pitch counts. To be able to throw three pitches for strikes at any time is a big deal, because it unsettles hitters, I think, and that’s been a big part (of their success).”

A-State hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1994 and, while it’s probably too early to start thinking about regionals yet, the West Division in the Sun Belt Conference seems to be more up in the air this year, leaving the door open for a team such as A-State to rise this spring. But life in the Sun Belt is never easy and the Red Wolves will be tested often the rest of the season, beginning this weekend when they welcome perennial power South Alabama to Jonesboro for a three-game series.

Of course, two things can be true. There are some tough tests ahead for the Red Wolves, but they’ve already proven that they can rise to that type of occasion.

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