By: John Lockwood
With conference-play half way done, the teams of Conference USA hope to finish the month of April strong and prepare themselves for the long home-stretch leading up to the CUSA Tournament in Pearl, MS at the end of May. As it stands, the Golden Eagles currently sit alone atop the standings with a 9-3 record, while Rice sits right behind at 9-6. Meanwhile, Memphis and Houston are tied for third with 7-5 records with UAB and ECU tied at 8-7. Nationally, the Pirates crack the Top 30 this week coming in at #29, while Rice—following their series loss to UAB—drops from #19 to #22, and USM jumps to #20.
Having now established themselves as best team in the conference, #20 Southern Miss (30-10, 9-3) will have a serious target on their back as they go on the road to face their toughest challenge yet this season, #29 East Carolina (8-7, 27-14). In a year when offensive numbers across college baseball are down, the Golden Eagles come into this weekend batting .312 as a team and averaging just under eight runs per game. They also lead the conference in homeruns with 36. Across the diamond, ECU boasts the top pitching staff in the country, coming into the weekend with a miniscule team ERA of just 2.32. Of the top four individual earned run averages so far this season, three belong to Pirates’ pitchers: Senior Brad Mincey, 0.79; lefty Jake Harris, 1.15; and closer Seth Simmons, 1.17. (USM closer Colin Cargill is third with a1.16 ERA.) ECU has won its last two CUSA series (vs. UCF, at Houston), but is coming off a heartbreaking loss to UNC, 5-4, as the Tarheels scored two in the top of the ninth to knock off the Pirates. Southern Miss is also coming off a mid-week loss, theirs at home to Alabama, 7-3. Outfielders Tyler Koelling and Marc Bourgeois, the top two hitters in conference play so far this season, continued their torrid hitting, each collecting two hits including solo homeruns. However, the duo will be hard-pressed to continue their hot streaks this weekend, as they take on CUSA’s best starting trio in Seth Maness, Kevin Brandt and Mike Wright.
In a bright spot for the Tulane (24-17, 4-8) pitching staff Tuesday night, freshman lefty Wade Konvicka tossed a complete game in just his third career start as the Greenwave beat lowly Jackson State 9-1. Redshirted at the beginning of the season, Konvicka was un-redshirted after the wave (pun intended) of injuries which decimated Tulane’s pitching staff. The Greenwave travel east to Birmingham this weekend to take on a UAB (24-17, 8-7) team coming off a series victory over Rice last weekend in Houston. The Blazers made it three in a row following Tuesday night’s walk-off win over Troy, 4-3. Senior Andrew Manning hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game, and first baseman John Frost sent his team home with the win on an RBI walk-off single to center field. Starting pitching has been key for the Blazers 8-7 start, as senior Ryan Woolley (3-0, 2.06 ERA, .160 Opp.) and junior Dillon Napoleon (3-0, 3.08 ERA, .222 Opp.) have been two of the best pitchers in conference play so far this season. Look for them to improve those records against a Greenwave team hitting a league-worst .260 as a team.
Elsewhere in conference play this weekend, UCF (26-15, 6-9) looks to right the ship after a disappointing 6-9 start to conference-play as they host Houston (20-22, 7-5)—who are coming off a 7-4 mid-week loss at Lamar. Knights’ sophomore, and Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week/NCBWA Pro-Line Athletic Hitter of the Week/CUSA Hitter of the Week, DJ Hicks will look to continue his accolade-winning against a Cougars team with the worst ERA in Conference USA (4.75). Marshall (15-23, 2-10) hopes to pick themselves off the CUSA basement floor following a sweep at the hands of Southern Miss last weekend. Unfortunately, third-place Memphis (24-17, 7-5) will have other plans. The Tigers, who lead the conference with a .316 batting average, host the Herd, who have the second worst ERA in the conference at 4.59, for what promises to be a ‘productive’ three-game set at FedEx field starting Friday. #22 Rice does not play this weekend.
Southern Miss at East Carolina
Friday: So. RHP Geoffrey Thomas (8-2, 2.95 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Mike Wright (4-2, 2.83 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. RHP Jonathan Thompson (5-0, 3.42 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Kevin Brandt (5-1, 1.61 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Todd McInnis (6-1, 3.03 ERA) vs. TBA
Prediction: USM 2-1
Tulane at UAB
Friday: Sr. RHP Conrad Flynn (2-5, 3.84 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Ryan Woolley (6-3, 2.54 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Drew Zizinia (1-1, 4.40 ERA) vs. TBA
Sunday: So. RHP Alex Byo (1-0, 1.78 ERA) vs. TBA
Prediction: UAB 2-1
Houston at UCF
Friday: Jr. RHP Mo Wiley (2-2, 4.91 ERA vs. So. LHP Brian Adkins (5-2, 3.11 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Jordan Lewis (4-1, 3.53 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Ray Hanson (3-1, 2.94 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. RHP Jared Ray (0-0, 2.25 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Danny Winkler (3-2, 5.70 ERA)
Prediction: UCF 2-1
Marshall at Memphis
Friday: Jr. RHP Shane Farrell (2-1, 3.54 ERA) vs. So. RHP Dan Langfield (2-2, 4.52 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Mike Mason (1-3, 4.82 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Ryan Holland (4-2, 4.07 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Arik Sikula (2-4, 3.83 ERA) vs. So. RHP Clayton Gant (4-1, 3.42 ERA)
Prediction: Memphis 3-0