By: John Lockwood
Although the field is set for the 2011 Conference USA tournament to be held in Pearl, MS in two weeks, the battle for the CUSA regular season championship will be decided 80 miles down US-49 in Hattiesburg as the second-place Rice Owls take on first-place Southern Miss. Rice comes into this weekend one game behind the Golden Eagles in the standings, but both teams are guaranteed the top two seeds come May 25th. Spots three through seven are wide open however, as East Carolina and Houston both share 11-10 records while Tulane, UCF and Memphis all come in to the weekend at 10-11. UAB, who finished up their conference schedule last weekend by being swept by UCF, has the unfortunate distinction of playing the #1 seed in the 2011 Conference USA Baseball Championship presented by Trustmark. Marshall, after losing their series to Tulane, is the odd-man out. Nationally, although they are in second-place in CUSA, Rice climbs two spots this week to #17, while their first-place opponent this weekend drops to #20 after dropping their series on the road at Houston. Back in the top 30 as well is East Carolina, at #30, after going a perfect 4-0 last weekend.
All eyes will be on Hattiesburg, MS for #17 Rice (36-17, 14-7) and #20 Southern Miss (37-13, 15-6) to duke it out for the #1 spot in the conference tourney. In last year’s regular season meeting, Rice took two out of three at Reckling Park, outscoring the Golden Eagles 41-27 including coming back from down 12-2, to win a slugfest game three 21-14. Of course, the two teams also met in last year’s CUSA tournament championship, which Southern Miss won by a score of 7-4. This year, three of the top five hitters in conference-play have come from USM (Adam Doleac at .417, Tyler Koelling at .389, and Marc Bourgeois at .375) and Southern Miss is tops in conference games in just about every offensive category imaginable. In CUSA games this season, the Golden Eagles are first in batting average (.322), slugging percentage (.483), OBP (.415), runs scored (166), hits (233), RBI (153), doubles (47), triples (8), HRs (tied-18), and total bases (350). It is only fitting then that they will be facing the top pitching team in-conference this year, as the Owls are first in ERA (3.32), opposing batting average (.253) and strikeouts (167). The Owls are led by Freshman Austin Kubitza, who boasts a league-best 2.42 ERA in conference, and junior Matt Reckling, who has held CUSA batters to just a .226 batting average. Oh, and the duo are 1&2 in strikeouts in CUSA games this season as well (Kubitza with 45, Reckling with 42). Game one starts Thursday at 6 pm CT, and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
Back into the national ranks, #30 East Carolina (34-18, 11-10) heads on the road to the Big Easy to take on Tulane (30-21, 10-11), in a battle for third place. The Pirates, after going 4-0 a week ago, dropped their final non-conference game of the year 7-4 to Old Dominion Tuesday evening at Clark-LeClair Stadium. Prior to that loss, the Pirates had won five in a row and 8 of their last 9. Across the Diamond, the Greenwave have also been gaining momentum as of late, having won four of their last six games, as well as their last three weekend series (at Marshall, vs. Memphis, vs. UAB). Tulane’s late season resurgence has been something to behold given the injuries to their pitching staff suffered half-way through the season and their low team batting average (they are hitting .265 in conference games, second lowest in CUSA). Yet, the Greenwave have been scrappy all season and with the exception of a 10-3 win over Memphis, none of their conference wins this season has been by more than three runs. The Tulane offense will have their work cut out for them against a Pirates team with a conference best 2.60 team ERA on the season.
UCF (34-19, 10-11) did itself a favor sweeping UAB last weekend, not only securing its spot in the CUSA tournament, but also thrusting itself into a tie for fifth place with the chance to climb even higher with their three game set against last-place Marshall (19-29, 6-15) at home this weekend. The Knights have won their last five games, including a close 7-6 win over #28 Stetson to sweep their season series against the Hatters. Knights’ right fielder Erik Hempe had a monster game going 4-5 with three doubles and hitting his fifth homerun of the season. Added to his impressive performance over the weekend, the CBD CUSA Player of the Week is hitting .611 over his last four games (11-18) with two homeruns (one a grand slam), four doubles, eight RBI and five runs scored. Defense has also been key for the Knights, as they have now gone eight consecutive games with committing an error and 77.2 innings overall dating back to May 3rd. The other battle for third place this weekend will play out when Houston (24-28, 11-10) travels to east to take on Memphis (27-24, 10-11) at FedEx Park. The Cougars are coming off an 8-5 loss to UT-San Antonio for their final home game of the season while the Tigers dropped their final non-conference game of the season 8-3 to Mississippi State Tuesday night. While the Cougars have only won two of their last six games, they have reason to be optimistic this weekend: Memphis is only 2-5 in home games against the CUSA, while Houston has the best away record in conference this season at 7-2.
UAB (27-25, 9-15), with its CUSA season finished and eighth place locked-up, heads west to take on the Utah Utes of the Mountain West Conference. This is the second series against a CUSA team for the Utes, as they took two of three from Tulane on the weekend of April 21st. C.J. Cron leads the Utes with a .450 batting average, second in the nation behind Chad Zurcher of Memphis.
#17 Rice at #20 Southern Miss
Thursday: Fr. RHP Austin Kubitza (5-3, 2.04 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Todd McInnis (7-1, 2.89 ERA)
Friday: Jr. RHP Matthew Reckling (4-1, 2.91 ERA) vs. So. LHP Goeffrey Thomas (10-2, 2.95 ERA)
Saturday: Fr. RHP John Simms (3-1, 2.89 ERA) vs. Jr. Jonathan Thompson (6-1, 3.48 ERA)
Prediction: USM 2-1
#30 East Carolina at Tulane
Thursday: Jr. RHP Mike Wright (5-3 3.06 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Dave Napoli (1-2, 4.09 ERA)
Friday: Sr. LHP Kevin Brandt (6-3, 2.36 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Conrad Flynn (3-5, 3.67 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Seth Maness (7-3, 2.22 ERA) vs. So. RHP Alex Byo (2-2, 3.75 ERA)
Prediction: ECU 2-1
Marshall at UCF
Thursday: So. LHP Brian Adkins (6-3, 3.42 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Aaron Blair (1-3, 3.26 ERA)
Friday: Jr. RHP Danny Winkler (3-4, 4.73 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Mike Mason (3-3, 4.48 ERA)
Saturday: TBA vs. Sr. RHP Arik Sikula (2-5, 5.24 ERA)
Prediction: UCF 2-1
Houston at Memphis
Thursday: Jr. LHP Jordan Lewis (5-2, 3.55 ERA) vs. So. RHP Dan Langfield (2-3, 4.61 ERA)
Friday: Jr. RHP Matt Creel (5-4, 5.15 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Ryan Holland (4-3, 5.05 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. RHP Mo Wiley (3-4, 4.84 ERA) vs. So. RHP Clayton Gant (4-2, 4.68 ERA)
Prediction: Houston 2-1
UAB at Utah
Thursday: Sr. RHP Blake Huddleston (1-5, 4.87 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Rick Anton (7-1, 2.66 ERA)
Friday: Sr. RHP Ryan Woolley (6-5, 2.82 ERA) vs. So. RHP Joe Pond (4-4, 4.55 ERA)
Saturday: TBA vs. So. RHP Brock Duke (6-2, 5.84 ERA)
Prediction: Utah 2-1