Chris Curry says his team is "built for" a deep run in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, and Tommy Raffo says his squad will rely on a "limited" lineup to succeed.
The Arkansas State University baseball team (20-31, 11-19 Sun Belt) clinched the No. 9 seed in the conference tournament -- which begins today in Lafayette, La. -- with a 2-1 series victory last weekend at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (27-26, 15-14).
Raffo's Red Wolves' starting lineup went unchanged during the series, and the only major wrinkle in the previous three series was at designated hitter, which rotated between Jaylon Deshazier (.214 batting average), Blake Wynn (.250) and Tobias Johnson (.258).
ASU was limited by the season-long losses of senior catcher Justin Felix (broken fibula), who was last year's leader in RBI, and senior third baseman Alex Howard, who has missed the season with what Raffo would only disclose as a "health issue."
The Red Wolves will play No. 8 Texas-Arlington in a single-elimination, play-in game at 4:30 p.m. at M.L. "Tigue" Moore Field, and junior right-hander Bradey Welsh (3-4, 4.15 ERA) will face UTA's Ka'ikepono Anderson (0-4, 4.54).
The ASU lineup, Raffo said, would have remained unchanged no matter who UTA started.
"We are who we are at this point," said Raffo, whose Red Wolves lost the regular season series 2-1 when they played the Mavericks in mid-April. "We're very limited from a bench standpoint. This is what's got us here in the last four weeks."
Just before ASU played South Alabama on April 27, the Red Wolves were 4-14 in Sun Belt play and 11th out of 12 conference teams. They went 7-5 in their next four series against South Alabama, Texas State, Georgia Southern and UALR; but the change had little to do with hitting and more to do with pitching.
Before the 12-game run, the Red Wolves' averaged six runs per game with a .255 team batting average. During the run, ASU averaged 4.5 runs per game with a .246 batting average.
The team ERA dropped from 6.13 to 6.04 after the same stretch, when the Red Wolves had a 4.83 team ERA in those four series. ASU went 4-0 in the games that Welsh pitched, and he went 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA in those starts.
"We've had the pitching we needed to have," Raffo said. "If we can continue to go through that, I think that puts us in a good opportunity."
Texas-Arlington finished the regular season on a 10-game losing streak, and the Mavericks scored 2.7 runs per game during that stretch.
Pitching also is the reason Curry said his Trojans are built for a tournament run. Seven players have started in four or more games, and those players have a combined 4.22 ERA.
Senior right-hander Justin Garcia (3-4, 3.05 ERA) has made 34 appearances exclusively out of the bullpen, and on Monday, he was named to the All-Sun Belt first team.
"I think that's a strength," Curry said. "And we've thought that internally all year. But the key is getting that first win. Then not getting into that loser's bracket. But, if it happens to where we're able to play deep into the tournament, that's something that we're built for."
No. 7-seeded UALR will play No. 10 Georgia State at 1 p.m., and sophomore left-hander Chandler Fidel (6-4, 4.23 ERA) will face GSU's Hunter Gaddis (5-4, 4.38), who was named to the All-Sun Belt second team.
UALR and Georgia State have not played this season.
Before the Coastal Carolina series on May 11, the Trojans were on pace to win their first West Division title in program history. UALR then lost five consecutive conference games and dropped out of the top six seeds, which avoid having to play a single-elimination play-in game.
"It hurt initially," Curry said. "It took a day or two, and then you pull back. This team was picked 10th in the league [in the preseason poll], fifth in the West, and we finished third in the West. We feel like we overachieved as an overall season, and we were close to doing some really special things down the stretch."
"Everything was new coming down to the wire, being under that sort of scrutiny and pressure, and that's something you have to go through. You get used to it, overall, in the experience."
During the final two series of the season against No. 19 Coastal Carolina and ASU, UALR committed 8 errors in 6 games that contributed to 5 unearned runs. The Trojans allowed two unearned runs in each of its 4-1 and 7-6 losses to the Red Wolves.
"I think there've been a couple of guys who mentally lost their focus a bit defensively," Curry said. "If we do that, maybe we don't get beat. They're smart college baseball players. They're aware. We talked about it as a team: the crucial moments of the game. So, you're not going to surprise them with new information, new revelations.
"They understand the magnitude of the game this time of year, and it's about who can get a hold of their emotions, calm down and get out there and play."
Sports on 05/22/2018
Print Headline: ASU, UALR look to get past opener