Sun Belt Tournament Preview – Bracket One
The Sun Belt Conference Baseball Tournament begins Wednesday at Riddle-Pace Field in Troy, Alabama. Here is my preview of Bracket One, featuring South Alabama, Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Arkansas State.
#1 SOUTH ALABAMA JAGUARS (34-19, 19-9 Sun Belt) Coach: Mark Calvi (122-106, 4th season at South Alabama and overall.) Record vs. teams in Bracket One: 8-1 (3-0 vs. GS, 3-0 vs GSU, 2-1 vs ASU.)
STRENGTHS: This team has a great approach at the plate. None of them try to do too much. They all get the bat on the ball and they all hit line drives. Because of that, there really isn't a breather in the lineup. Not everyone hits for a high average but they all put the ball in play. Cole Billingsley is one of the league's best players and Bud Collura is a really tough out, especially with men on base. They don't swing at bad pitches and draw over four walks per game. They have almost as many walks as they do strikeouts. It's a very athletic offense and South Alabama loves to put runners in motion.
Kevin Hill is the league's best pitcher. He throws four pitches for strikes and has great location within the zone. He can finish you with both his fastball and slider. Bembnowski is a strike thrower. You'll have to earn what you get from him. Gates has good stuff from the left side and when he's throwing strikes, he's pretty tough. Ben Taylor is nails in the bullpen. You do NOT want to be behind late in the game. The pitching staff is deep and Calvi does a great job of situation pitching with his bullpen.
Defensively, South Alabama is superb. Their outfield covers a lot of ground. Billingsley make the spectacular look routine. If you're looking for help from this defense, forget it.
WEAKNESSES--Obviously, their lack of power is a point of contention. No one in this lineup is scary although they all deserve respect. They can struggle to score runs if the other team doesn't help them with walks and errors. When they need three hits in an inning to score, they struggle. Not only do they hit few home runs, they don't hit a ton of balls in the gap either.
On days when Gates doesn't have command and starts walking people, all it takes is one mistake and you can get him in trouble. Bembnowski doesn't walk people but he's very hittable if he makes a mistake in the zone. The bullpen, other than Taylor, aren't what you'd call shut down guys, although they have good numbers. .
OUTLOOK: There's a reason why this team has won USA's first outright title in 12 years. They don't have a bunch of weaknesses and they aren't going to give you anything; rather, they make you earn everything you get. No one really matches up well against Hill, but they're vulnerable if you have a guy who can pitch as well as their second and third starters. But you better not walk them or make errors. They're pretty good at smelling blood in the water. They are beatable in this tournament, but the window of opportunity to do that isn't very big. Honestly, I'll really be surprised if they aren't playing on Sunday.
#4 GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES (30-25, 18-12) Coach: Rodney Hennon (570-390, 16th at GS, 650-428-1 18th overall in D-1.) Record vs. Teams in Bracket One: 4-5 (0-3 vs. USA, 2-1 vs. GSU, 2-1 vs. ASU)
STRENGTHS---In his first season in the Sun Belt, redshirt sophomore Evan Challenger has become one of the premier pitchers in this league. He's one of those guys you think you can hit, then you find out you can't.. Tripp Sheppard is a solid #2 starter, and a good compliment to Challenger. He won't strike out many guys and he'll give up some hits, but he does a good job locating down in the zone.. Jason Richman, in my opinion, is their most valuable guy. He's a lefty that comes from the side. He's a great set up man and durable as can be. Hennon can pitch him just about every day. This is a deep pitching staff. Hennon isn't afraid to look to his bullpen after the fifth inning.
This is a team that has guys who can hit it a long way. Aaron Mizell has great power and good gap power as well. Ryan Cleveland and Hunter Thomas are in double digits in home runs as well. Kody Adams is a solid hitter. Georgia Southern has some guys who are really athletic. Dalton Busby has stolen 23 bases on the season.
WEAKNESSES--Two of them...and they're glaring. This team has more than 125 more strikeouts than any other team in the league. 512 strikeouts in 55 games is downright scary, and not in a good way. They only have one player (MIzell) who is slugging over .500. And, there's no way to sugar coat things...this is a bad defensive team. They've tried all sorts of different combinations and nothing has seemed to work, especially on the left side of the infield. Perhaps the turf in Troy will help...then again......
OUTLOOK: Georgia Southern won 18 conference games despite their flaws. They've pitched very well overall and they've used the long ball to their advantage. You have to wonder, however, how this team will be able to overcome their weaknesses in a tournament format. In this game you win with pitching, defense and timely hitting. Georgia Southern can pitch. I'm not sure they can do the other two. If they can, they're a threat.
GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS (29-25, 15-13)Coach: Greg Frady (282-229-1, 9th season) (469-231-1 career including JUCO) Record vs. Teams in Bracket One: 3-5 (0-3 vs. USA, 1-2 vs GS, 2-0 vs ASU)
STRENGTHS: Matt Rose is the scariest guy in the league to pitch to. He's got excellent power and, while he isn't hitting .300, has gotten some big hits that haven't gone over the wall. You do not want to face him with runners on base. Joey Roach and Ryan Blanton can really swing it and Justin Jones has been a nice surprise with the bat. He's going to be a good one. Georgia State can play the short game when necessary.
Nathan Bates is an all-conference guy. He's a long, lean guy who appears to be closer to home plate because of his stride. He'll give up his share of hits, but he's only allowed one home run all year. Frady has a lot of options in the bullpen. There are a half dozen guys he can call on and only one has an ERA over 3.00. Georgia State has turned 55 double plays on the season
WEAKNESSES: After the first four or five guys in the lineup there's a big dropoff. Frady has 13 players with 60 or more at bats in an attempt to find some consistency in the lower part of the lineup. Their #2 pitcher, Kenny Anderson, has as many walks as he does strikeouts. They really never settled on a third starter and that could hurt them deeper in the tournament. The middle infield has turned a bunch of double plays, but they've also combined for 30 errors. Georgia State isn't the most athletic team in the world and they don't run much
OUTLOOK: Georgia State jumped out to a 13-3 conference record and then limped home the rest of the way, going 2-10. The biggest reason for that was opposing pitchers figured out how to get them out. They scored three runs or fewer in nine of their last twelve league games. If that doesn't change, I don't know how long Georgia State will last in this tournament. Bates and the bullpen will give them the chance, but this team needs to hit in order to win.
ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (25-28, 12-17) Coach: Tommy Raffo (199-198-1, 7th season) Record vs. teams in Bracket One: 2-6 (1-2 vs USA, 1-2 vs GS, 0-2 vs GSU)
STRENGTHS: If you can't appreciate Zach George after all he's been through, shame on you. Back to back ACL injuries caused him to miss virtually two full seasons and he's making the most of his opportunity now. The league's batting champion (.390), George has also gotten on base 64 times via walk or hit by pitch and he's a doubles hitting machine. He leads the nation in on base percentage. Arkansas State as a team is a good gap hitting club with over 100 doubles on the season. Austin Baker, Joe Schrimpf and Tanner Ring can all so some damage with runners on base. A-State is a little more athletic than in the past and they're very good at the short game. David Owen can match up with just about any Friday night starter in the league. Arkansas State is a very good defensive club. They fielded almost .980 in conference play.
WEAKNESSES: This team swings and misses a lot. They have two players with 40 or more strikeouts and another two with 50. There isn't much depth in the pitching staff at all. Their #2 pitcher averages less than five innings per start and Tyler Zuber, who's probably better suited for the bullpen has had to start games. Their staff gets its share of strikeouts, but they walk too many people. The bullpen has let A-State down more than once this year.
OUTLOOK: I honestly thought Arkansas State was going to be better than they've been. I really think the incredibly bad weather early in the season stunted the team's development. Give them credit for winning seven of their last nine conference games to even make the field. I'm a big Tommy Raffo fan. He'll have this team ready to play. Owen will be a tough first game matchup for South Alabama. He allowed just two runs in eight innings against the Jags earlier this year. But, at the end of the day, this team just doesn't have the pitching to get very far in this tournament.
Tomorrow: Bracket two preview, featuring Troy, Louisiana, Texas State and UT Arlington