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Conference USA Weekend Preview (April 22nd-24th)

By John Lockwood

Things still remain knotted amongst four teams at the top of the CUSA standings. Heading into the mid-point of conference play, Memphis, Southern Miss, Rice and Houston all share first place with winning percentages of .667. Nationally, Rice cracks the top 20 for the second time this season, moving back into the #19 spot it held the week of March 7th while USM drops one spot to #24 after sweeping New Orleans. (Of note, both the ECU-Houston and Utah-Tulane series start Thursday to accommodate Easter Sunday.)

#19 Rice (27-14, 8-4) freshman pitcher John Simms was named Pro-Line NCBWA National Pitcher of the Week this past Tuesday in recognition for his performance in the Owl’s 2-0 shutout victor over #6 Texas A&M on Tuesday, April 12. Simms threw a career-high 7.2 shutout innings, allowing only three hits and no walks, while striking out 11. Simms followed up this performance with an inning and a third of scoreless relief against Tulane and another 1.1 innings of scoreless relief in Tuesday’s 7-5 win against visiting Texas A&M: Corpus Christi. While Wayne Graham continues his practice of only announcing Austin Kubitza as a starter for this weekend’s games against UAB (21-16, 6-6), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Simms get the nod in either Saturday or Sunday’s game. While the Blazers would be happy to just avoid seeing Simms altogether, most certainly they will be looking to build on Tuesday’s 8-1 victory on the road at Troy. In what was certainly a welcomed, albeit uncharacteristic, offensive day for the Blazers, third baseman Patrick Palmeiro was 3-4 with a homerun and four RBI. It is no secret that pitching has carried the Blazers all season, as their .265 team average is one of the worst in the conference—only Marshall (.264) and Tulane (.264) have lower averages, barely. Unfortunately for UAB, Simms, Kubitza and an Owls’ pitching staff with a collective 3.18 ERA aren’t necessarily going to help matters much this weekend.

#24 Southern Miss (27-9, 6-3) lost a heartbreaker to #27 LSU at Zephyr Field in New Orleans Wednesday night, 8-6. The Golden Eagles scored three runs in the eighth to take the lead 6-5, only to give three runs right back in the bottom of the inning thanks to errors by the second baseman and catcher allowing all the runs to score unearned. Golden Eagles closer Collin Cargill (4-3) took the loss despite not giving up an earned run, while LSU pitcher Matty Ott (1-2) picked up the win in relief. Coach Berry and company will shake off the loss and turn to this weekend, when Marshall (15-20, 2-7) comes to Hattiesburg. The Herd are coming off a 4-2 win versus Eastern Kentucky Tuesday afternoon, in which six different Marshall pitchers combined for 6.2 innings of scoreless relief. The Herd pitchers will need to be on their game, as Golden Eagles shortstop B.A. Vollmuth and his CUSA-leading 10 homeruns will be returning to the USM lineup after missing last weekend’s series against UNO with a strained hip flexor.

UCF (24-14, 4-8) added two big wins this past week, first winning 12-0 against Florida Atlantic at home Tuesday night and then besting #5 Florida 8-6 Wednesday night. Sophomore DH DJ Hicks went 3-5 with two doubles and 6 RBI in Tuesday’s game against FAU, while starter Ray Hanson threw six scoreless innings picking up the win. Hicks added his team-best eighth homer of the year in Wednesday’s contest against UF, but was also tagged for five runs on the mound. While Coach Rooney’s squad has struggled in conference play, losing their last three series and amassing a 4-8 record overall, they have been saved by their mid-week wins—including a season sweep over the in-state rival Gators. The Knights travel to Memphis (23-15, 6-3) this weekend to try and right their season. The Tigers split a rain-soaked mid-week set against Middle Tennessee, winning game one 9-6, but dropping the second 4-0 in only five innings. The Tigers have gone 10-4 in the month of April and have won four of their last five.

Elsewhere in conference-play, ECU (26-12, 7-6) travels to Houston (19-20, 6-4) for a three-game set. The Pirates took game one of the series Thursday night, winning 5-4 in extra innings on a Trent Whitehead RBI single to left in the top of the 12th inning which scored freshman shortstop Jack Reinheimer. Reliever Seth Simmons (4-1)—who with three other CUSA relievers was named to the NCBWA Stopper-of-the-Year midseason watch list—picked up the win in relief. In their non-conference bye week, Tulane (22-15, 4-8) hosts Mountain West opponent Utah, led by MWC Player of the Week C.J. Cron—second in the nation in hitting (behind Memphis’ Chad Zurcher) with a .478 average. Utah took Thursday’s game one by a score of 7-1.


#19 Rice at UAB

Probables:
Friday: Fr. RHP Austin Kubitza (3-3, 1.33 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Dillon Napoleon (5-1, 1.87 ERA)
Saturday: TBA vs. TBA
Sunday: TBA vs. TBA

Prediction: Rice 3-0

Marshall at #24 Southern Miss

Friday: Jr. RHP Shane Farrell (2-1, 2.95 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Todd McInnis (6-1, 2.54 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Mike Mason (1-2, 4.47 ERA) vs. So. RHP Geoffrey Thomas (7-2, 2.65 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Arik Sikula (2-3, 3.31 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Jonathan Thompson (4-0, 3.77 ERA)

Prediction: USM 3-0

UCF at Memphis

Friday: Fr. RHP Ben Lively (5-1, 3.88 ERA) vs. So. RHP Dan Langfield (2-2, 4.25 ERA)
Saturday: So. LHP Brian Adkins (5-2, 3.00 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Ryan Holland (4-2, 3.52 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. RHP Danny Winkler (3-2, 5.66 ERA) vs. So. RHP Clayton Gant (4-1, 3.06 ERA)

Prediction: Memphis 2-1

East Carolina at Houston

Thursday: ECU 5 – Houston 4
Friday: Jr. RHP Jordan Lewis (3-1, 3.83 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Kevin Brandt (5-0, 1.38 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. RHP Mo Wiley (2-1, 4.66 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Seth Maness (5-3, 2.05 ERA)

Prediction: East Carolina 2-1

Utah at Tulane

Thursday: Utah 7 – Tulane 1
Friday: So. RHP Joe Pond (3-4, 6.51 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Drew Zizinia (1-1, 4.82 ERA)
Saturday: So. RHP Brock Duke (4-0, 5.26 ERA) vs. So. RHP Alex Byo (1-0, 0.74 ERA)

Prediction: Utah 2-1