By: John Lockwood
Conference USA enters its third weekend of conference play with Houston atop the standings after a sweep of Tulane last weekend. Southern Miss sits in second place after a close loss to Mississippi State during the week, while Rice and UAB sit tied for third with conference records of 4-2. Nationally, Rice has jumped two places to #22 while USM is one spot behind at #23 after its weekend sweep of UCF.
#22 Rice (21-12, 4-2) hoped that a weekend sweep of Marshall meant a return to consistency, but the Owls hit a minor speed-bump during the week losing 2-0 to visiting Louisiana-Lafayette despite outhitting their opponents 10-6. Unfortunately for the Owls, they will only face more phenomenal pitching this weekend in the form of an East Carolina (21-8, 3-3) team with a conference best (and out-of-this-world) 1.86 team ERA. The Owls are no slouches themselves when it comes to pitching. Freshman Austin Kubitza (3-3, 1.47 ERA), the only starter which coach Graham has announced for this weekend, was lights-out last weekend going eight scoreless innings giving up only four hits and striking out six. Going for the Pirates will be NCAA-active wins leader Seth Maness, coming off a tough loss to UAB in which he pitched a complete game and surrendered only two earned runs. The Owls hope that National Player of the Year Anthony Rendon can continue to be hot: he’s hitting .526 in his last seven games with fourteen walks. Ditto for the Pirates, who hope that junior Zach Wright and his conference-best 9 homeruns can jumpstart an offense that was anemic in its first two games last weekend.
Also this weekend, #23 Southern Miss (22-6, 5-1) takes on a potent Memphis (17-11, 1-2) squad led by shortstop Chad Zurcher, whose .521 batting average is tops in the country. After sweeping UCF last weekend, USM dropped a close game to in-state rivals Mississippi State on Tuesday, 5-4 in Pearl. Despite having a 4-2 lead, defensive miscues, walks and a few timely hits allowed the Bulldogs to climb back into the game and eventually take the lead on an RBI fielder’s choice in the 7th. Memphis is coming off a big 9-2 midweek win against the Ole Miss Rebels at FedEx Park. Zurcher had a 3-3 day—which for him is just another day at the office—while freshman lefty Sam Moll threw seven innings of two-hit ball, walking only two and fanning eight. This series promises many runs, as Memphis and Southern Miss rank first and second in batting average, slugging percentage and on base percentage, respectively. However, expect CUSA Player of the Week Marc Bourgeois and his Golden Eagle teammates to continue their offensive ascendancy into another conference series.
While things seemed like they couldn’t get any worse for coach Rick Jones and the Tulane Green Waves (18-11, 1-5), they have lost yet another pitcher to injury, this time bed-rock closer Nick Pepitone (3-0, 3.12 ERA, 9 SV). This comes in the midst of a six game losing streak with coach Jones stuck on win 999. Pepitone will miss three to four weeks with a significant strain to the posterior muscles in his right shoulder. It had been believed that Pepitone would make the switch from reliever to starter in the midst of the rash of injuries suffered by the Greenwave pitching staff. While Tulane’s pitching staff was severely depleted before, the injury to Pepitone—arguably the team’s best player—rings the death knell that was all but inevitable for the Tulane Greenwave’s season. Meanwhile, their opponent, UCF (20-9, 2-4), had a come-from-behind win over #4 Florida, 4-3, rebounding nicely after being swept by Southern Miss last weekend.
Elsewhere in Conference USA, UAB (16-12, 4-2) and conference pitcher of the week Dillon Napolean travel to Houston (16-15, 3-0) to take on a Cougar team coming off a mid-week split, beating #6 Texas A&M 3-2 at home, but losing 5-2 to Lamar on Wednesday. The Cougars pitching staff continues to be enigmatic, at moments being brilliant (such as last weekend when they only gave up two runs to Tulane) and at others showing why they are last in the league in ERA (4.47), opposing batting average (.298), walks (116), hits (381) and runs allowed (179). Jamal Austin leads the blazers with a .393 average (third in the conference) and 17 steals (second), and will be looking to capitalize on the mistakes of a pitching staff which has allowed 34 wild pitches.
In their non-conference bye week, Marshall (10-17, 1-5) plays a surprising Georgia Southern team which has notched some impressive wins against teams like Florida, Georgia Tech and Charleston this season.
#22 Rice vs. East Carolina
Friday: Sr. RHP Seth Manness (4-2, 2.03 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Austin Kubitza (3-3, 1.47 ERA)
Saturday: TBD vs. Jr. RHP Mike Wright (4-1, 2.41 ERA)
Sunday: TBD vs. TBD
#23 Southern Miss at Memphis
Friday: Sr. RHP Todd McInnis (5-1, 2.70 ERA) vs. So. RHP Dan Langfield (2-2, 3.89 ERA)
Saturday: So. RHP Geoffrey Thomas (6-1, 1.48 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Ryan Holland (4-2, 3.02 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. RHP Jonathan Thompson (3-0, 5.23 ERA) vs. So. RHP Clayton Gant (3-1, 3.58 ERA)
Prediction: Southern Miss 2-1
Tulane at UCF
Friday: Sr. RHP Conrad Flynn (2-4, 2.81 ERA) vs. So. LHP Brian Adkins (4-2, 2.57 ERA)
Saturday: TBD vs. Fr. RHP Ben Lively (5-0, 1.88 ERA)
Sunday: TBD vs. Jr. RHP Ray Hanson (2-1, 2.55 ERA)
Prediction: UCF 3-0
UAB at Houston
Friday: Jr. RHP Dillon Napolean (4-1, 1.75 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Matt Creel (4-3, 4.44 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Ryan Woolley (4-3, 2.61 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Jordan Lewis (3-0, 4.58 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. RHP Michael Busby (0-1, 4.29 ERA) vs. TBA
Prediction: UAB 2-1
Georgia Southern at Marshall
Friday: So. RHP Chris Beck (4-0, 3.00 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Shane Farrell (2-1, 2.95 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. RHP Josh Adams (5-3, 3.77 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Mike Mason (1-2, 4.91 ERA)
Sunday: TBD vs. Sr. RHP Arik Sikula (1-3, 3.82 ERA)
Prediction: Marshall 2-1