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Sun Belt Baseball Tournament Preview Pt. One – From the Bird’s Nest

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The 2013 Sun Belt Conference Baseball Tournament begins Wednesday at M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field in Lafayette.  The upper bracket features #1 Troy, #4 Florida Atlantic, #5 Western Kentucky and #8 Arkansas State.  Here is a preview of the teams in Bracket One.

#1 TROY TROJANS (39-16, 20-10)  Coach:  Bobby Pierce

STRENGTHS:  The first five in the lineup are the best in the league.  Danny Collins, Logan Pierce and Trae Santos all have 60 or more RBI.  Tyler Vaughn leads the league in runs scored and Josh McDorman has been torrid since income tax day.  Two solid starters in Tanner Hicks (8-2, 3.39) and Shane McCain (8-1, 3.70).  Nate Hill can pitch effectively in both long and short relief, and Pierce uses him in both roles.  Matthew Howard and Thomas Austin give the Trojans two more effective bullpen arms.  Troy is an excellent defensive team and playing on the same turf in Lafayette that they have at Riddle-Pace Field will serve them well in the tournament.  Good power (51 home runs) and even better gap power (138 doubles.)

WEAKNESSES:  If you can hold the top of the lineup down, you can pitch to the rest of them.  Troy has only seven pitchers that have thrown more than 20 innings on the season, which could become an issue if the Trojans lose early. After Hicks and McCain, third starter can sometimes be an adventure.  Team is just 11-11 away from home.  You can run on these guys, but not late in the game if you’re behind.  Jake Harrell can come off the bench and throw guys out.

OUTLOOK:  This is a very good, veteran, seasoned club.  Pierce, Collins and Santos are downright scary.  And, Hicks and McCain can match most teams’ 1-2 punch.  The secret for Troy, like many teams, is to stay in the winners’ bracket so their pitching plan can stay intact.  Pierce is an outstanding coach who has been through the wars.  He’ll find a way to get the most from his team.

#4 FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS (35-20, 19-11)  Coach:  John McCormack

STRENGTHS:  Pitching, pitching, pitching.  You won’t find a better starting staff in this league.  Austin Gomber and Jeremy Strawn are 1-2 in the league in ERA.  Hugh Adams leads the league in saves and anchors a deep, talented bullpen that has the capability to dominate.  FAU is solid, if not spectacular on defense.   Brandon Sanger and Nathan Pittman are solid sticks and Pittman can run.  Because they aren’t big boppers, the Owls have made sure they can play the short game.  FAU comes in having won seven in a row.

WEAKNESSES:  Not a big power hitting team, and the Owls don’t do a lot of gap hitting, either.  Only WKU and Arkansas State have a lower slugging percentage.  With exception of Pittman, Owls don’t run much.  Only FIU has drawn fewer walks.   In 19 of their 20 losses, FAU has scored five runs or less.

OUTLOOK:  FAU has the pitching depth to get through the tournament.  But usually, the deeper  you go in the tourney, the more your bats need to step up.  FAU can pitch its way to Sunday.  Can the Owls win if they get  there?  If they play Troy on Thursday, Strawn against McCain could be a really, really good one.

#5  WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (28-27, 16-14)  Coach:  Matt Myers

STRENGTHS:  While WKU may not have a shut down starter, this team has a deep pitching staff, with ten pitchers having thrown 20 or more innings this season.  Pitching staff is about to set a school record for strikeouts.  Ian Tompkins is a pretty tough customer out of the pen, and Taylor Haydel has throw well also in a closer role.  Ryan Huck is one of the league’s most dangerous players (.372-15-53).  Team has decent gap power.  Team plays the short game well, and with that bullpen, can win a lot of one run games.

WEAKNESSES:  After Huck, there isn’t much home run power at all.  Team doesn’t have a ton of speed and , as a result, doesn’t run much.  No dominant starter, which can hurt them in the first game of a series when they have to face the other teams’ ace.   Western Kentucky has had some good defensive teams.  This is not one of them. 

OUTLOOK:  This team has a deep staff and if the starter isn’t quite up to par, there’s probably someone in the bullpen who can change the momentum.  Facing Austin Gomber in game one of the tournament is a pretty daunting task, especially considering FAU swept the Hilltoppers in the regular season and none of the games were close.  Yet, WKU finds ways to win close games and they’ve had a couple of classics recently in the tournament dagainst FAU.  Come to the park early.  This one will be worth watching.

#8  ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES (26-29, 12-18)  Coach:  Tommy Raffo

STRENGTHS:  Daniel Wright just might be the Sun Belt’s best pitcher despite his statistics.  He’s as good a competitor as there is in the Sun Belt Conference.  Bradley Wallace is a solid #2 and Cody Woodhouse has pitched well the last few weeks.  John Koch and Tanner Ring have both been good out of the pen.  ASU is very good defensively and plays the short game as well as anyone in the league.

WEAKNESSES:  This team is about as anemic offensively as of late as any team I can remember.  This team has little power, little gap power, doesn’t run and just struggles to manufacture runs.  They’ve been especially anemic down the stretch and their appearance in the tournament was in question until Middle Tennessee couldn’t win a game over the weekend.  Their staff is very good at the top, but they don’t have a lot of depth.  Toward the end of the season it was ASU, not ULM, who had the poorest offense.

OUTLOOK:  Wright battled Troy on the road a couple of weeks ago, but the Red Wolves just couldn’t score for him.  Wright is capable of beating anyone in the league, including the top seed.  But if ASU can’t find a way to get them on, get them over and get them in, they’ll waste another good performance from their ace and their trip to Lafayette will be a brief one.

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