By: John Lockwood
With just two CUSA series left to play, the regular season championship has become a two-team race as #17 Southern Miss sits just two games ahead of #19 Rice for the lead in the conference standings. East Carolina is the only other team with an over-.500 record, as the Pirates 11-10 mark is good for third place. Houston falls into a fourth place tie with Memphis after dropping all three games to Rice at home last weekend. Nationally, Southern Miss jumps two spots to #17, their highest ranking all season, while Rice re-cracks the top 20 at #19 this week.
#17 Southern Miss (36-11, 14-4) will look to preserve their lead in the conference standings as they head on the road to take on Houston (22-26, 9-9). The Golden Eagles are rolling as of late winning all four games last week and five of their last six in conference. USM won all four games against Houston last season, including a sweep of the regular season and a 10-6 win in the CUSA tournament. Offensively, the Golden Eagles are tops in Conference USA in average (.310), slugging (.457) and on base percentage (.401), as well as in the top 10 nationally in scoring (7.7 runs per game) and runs (361). Conversely, the Cougars come into this weekend with the second highest ERA in the conference (4.68) and the highest opposing batting average (.292). One bright spot for Cougars pitching coach Jack Cressend has been junior starter Jordan Lewis who is 3-2 with a 1.80 ERA in-conference and 5-2 with 3.25 ERA overall. Meanwhile, Coach Whitting has one-uped Wayne Graham this week, and not even announced a start for any of this weekend’s game. The Golden Eagles will look to just maintain the status quo this weekend and ready themselves for next weekend’s series against Rice—which could determine the CUSA regular season champion.
Fourth-place Memphis (26-21, 9-9) will have their hands full this weekend as they travel to take on #19 Rice (33-16, 12-6) at Reckling Park in Houston. This weekend’s series pits the conference’s second best hitting team (Memphis, .306) against the conference’s second best pitching team (Rice, 3.12 ERA). The Tigers are led offensively by the nation’s top hitter, shortstop Chad Zurcher, who is 9-19 over his last six games—bringing his average back up to .456. Zurcher has also raked against Rice throughout his career, batting .410 against Owls pitchers with five doubles in nine games. Across the Diamond, Coach Graham’s team has been carried all season by a plethora of young and talented arms—which he was kind enough to announce as his probable starters for the first time this season. On the mound, the Owls are led by the duo of freshman Austin Kubitza (4-3, 1.85 ERA, 75 K) and junior Matthew Reckling (4-1, 2.66 ERA, 76 K). Freshman John Simms has also been lights out this season going 3-1, with a 2.63 ERA and compiling 51 strikeouts to just 15 walks. Despite only hitting .327 this year, last year’s National Player of the Year Anthony Rendon has compiled a mind boggling 66 walks this year, which leads the nation by a large margin. The Owls will hope that their stellar pitching can quell the Tigers’ outstanding hitting enough to allow CUSA’s third-worse hitting team to take advantage of Memphis’ conference-worst 4.79 team ERA.
Tulane (28-20, 8-10) will hope to build off of last weekend’s series victory over Memphis as they take on a Marshall (18-27, 5-3) team on a mission to make the Conference USA tournament. The Herd currently sit in last place in the conference, but just two games out of eighth place behind UCF. The top eight teams go on to the CUSA Tournament at Trustmark Park in Pearl, MS. The Herd will try to rebound from a roller-coaster series against ECU, which they dropped 2-1. Coach Waggoner will send Las Vegas native Aaron Blair to the mound for Friday’s game one. The freshman Blair (1-3) is coming off of the best start of his career in which he tossed six shutout innings against ECU, while tallying six Ks. He will be facing Tulane senior, and CBD CUSA Pitcher of the Week, Conrad Flynn (3-5), who will be looking to finally get off the 3-win hump with two weeks left in the season. Flynn will have to contest with Marshall catcher Thor Meeks, who, as well as having the highest grossing eponymously named film in theaters this week, is hitting a jaw-dropping .538 over his last seven games, including six doubles and four homers. Friday’s game one is set for the early-bird start of 10am in Charleston, WV.
Elsewhere in CUSA, the enigmatic Central Florida (30-19, 7-11) Knights head to UAB (27-22, 9-12) in what could be the most important series in UCF’s season. The Knights, whose RPI sits at 23, had high hopes going into conference play, but have sputtered since taking two of three from Rice in the conference’s opening week. After series losses to Tulane and Houston, and a sweep at the hands of the Golden Eagles, the weary and worn-out Knights play their last road series of the season against a Birmingham team who sees the return of junior starter Dillon Napoleon (5-2, 2.58 ERA) Friday night after missing two weeks due to injury. Said UCF Coach Terry Rooney after the Knights 8-1 victory over Bethune Cookman during the mid-week, “These last six conference games, we just have to play really well. If we play to our ability, then we’ll be in great shape. We have the ability to do that. Our RPI is No. 23 as of Thursday and if we can just get to the middle of the conference standings, I really think we’ll be in good shape (to get into the NCAAs).” Unfortunately for Coach Rooney and his squad, RPI will only get you so far. While the Knights have an obscene amount of talent, they have not been able to win the close games. As Coach Rooney himself stated, “The biggest thing is we need to finish games…In conference play, we’ve just come up a little short. In some of the games that we should have won, we just haven’t finished teams off or we haven’t taken care of leads. Games between the seventh and ninth innings have been problems for us because we haven’t held leads. We need a right-hander out of the bullpen to get guys out. We’ve tried a lot of guys in that role.” While UCF may have their sights set on the NCAA tournament, perhaps they should be more focused on just making the CUSA tournament, as they only have two more series to right a ship that has been slowly sinking since the beginning of the conference season.
In their non-conference bye-week, East Carolina (31-17, 11-10) hosts Delaware State for a 3-game set. The Pirates are coming off their seventh shut-out of the season, a 9-0 blanking of ACC rival Wake Forest, Wednesday night.
Southern Miss at Houston
Friday: Sr. RHP Todd McInnis (7-1, 2.83 ERA) vs. TBA
Saturday: So. LHP Geoffrey Thomas (10-2, 2.56 ERA) vs. TBA
Sunday: Jr. RHP Jonathan Thompson (6-0, 3.23 ERA) vs. TBA
Prediction: Southern Miss 3-0
Memphis at Rice
Friday: So. RHP Dan Langfield (2-2, 4.26 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Austin Kubitza (4-3, 1.85 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. LHP Ryan Holland (4-3, 5.17 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Matthew Reckling (4-1, 2.66 ERA)
Sunday: So. RHP Clayton Gant (4-2, 4.41 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP John Simms (2-1, 2.84 ERA)
Prediction: Rice 3-0
Tulane at Marshall
Friday: Sr. RHP Conrad Flynn (3-5, 3.51 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Aaron Blair (1-3, 2.92 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Drew Zizinia (2-1, 4.21 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Mike Mason (3-3, 4.41 ERA)
Sunday: So. RHP Alex Byo (2-2, 3.09 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Arik Sikula (2-5, 4.78 ERA)
Prediction: Tulane 2-1
UCF at UAB
Friday: So. LHP Brian Adkins (5-2, 3.11 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Dillon Napoleon (5-2, 2.58 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. RHP Danny Winkler (3-4, 5.22 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Ryan Woolley (6-5, 3.12 ERA)
Sunday: TBA vs. TBA
Prediction: UCF 2-1
Delaware State at East Carolina
Friday: TBA vs. RHP Mike Wright (4-3 3.27 ERA)
Saturday: TBA vs. Sr. LHP Kevin Brandt (5-3, 2.52 ERA)
Sunday: TBA vs. Sr. RHP Seth Maness (6-3, 2.28 ERA)