Florida Atlantic begins its defense of their Sun Belt regular-season title as they take on Florida International. FAU is off to a good start this season, standing at a record of 11-7 with a 3.22 team ERA. FIU allowed 16 runs in a loss to a weaker Stetson side. With that being said, they’ve also been swinging the bat well. Leading into the Sun Belt’s opening weekend, the Golden Panthers hit a walk off single in the 10th inning of a game against USF. Their team batting average is at .306, led by their sophomore catcher Aramis Garcia. Garcia is one of 48 catchers on the Johnny Bench Award watch list, hitting .355 with a team leading three homers. Florida Atlantic is coming in with some of their own hot bats, having just posted 15 runs on 17 hits in a win against Maine on Wednesday. The Owls’ senior first baseman Mark Nelson is coming off a productive week, hitting .429 (9-21) with three home runs. Through their five games in 2012, FAU swept the Golden Panthers convincingly, including a three game set in Miami that saw Atlantic combine for 23 runs. In fact, it was a home win against FIU that clinched FAU’s regular-season title.
Prediction: FAU wins two of three
Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky
Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky have been neck-and-neck in their last 112 meetings. Going into the weekend set, the series is split at 56-56. MTU sophomore outfielder Ryan Stephens is on a 12-game hitting streak, which is only made more interesting when you consider that one of the weekend’s probable starters, Tim Bado, has a 2.11 ERA on the season thus far. Bado also has 21 strikeouts in 22 innings. Middle Tennessee’s offense is led by freshman catcher Michael Adkins, who’s hitting .349 on the year.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee wins two of three
South Alabama at Troy
This series promises to be the Sun Belt’s marquee opener. Set in Troy, Alabama, the three match-ups feature the two of the best teams in the conference. Troy sits on a record of 11-4 while South Alabama is at their own blistering pace of 15-3 on the year. Both teams are starting to get several votes in national ranking polls. Troy’s offense boasts the Sun Belt’s two best hitters, junior outfielder Danny Collins and senior infielder Logan Pierce. Collins tops the conference, raking at a .471 rate. Pierce is at .459 on the year, good for the conference’s second best. The pair are spurring the Trojans on to a conference-leading .341 team batting average. South Alabama is swinging some hot bats as well, averaging over 7 runs per contest. Both teams are also two of the best on defense. The Trojans and Jaguars are second and third in the conference, respectively, in fielding percentage. As good as South Alabama has been, Troy has been nearly unstoppable at home. The Trojans are at 10-2 at Riddle-Pace Field.
Prediction: Troy wins two of three
Arkansas State at Arkansas-Little Rock
Arkansas State is at 11-6 on the season. Senior outfielder Logan Uxa is having a good week, making career notes in a two-game set against Missouri State. On March 12th, Uxa stole two bases, matching a career high. The following day, the lefty batter hit just the third triple in his time at Arkansas State. Arkansas-Little Rock (10-7) is also facing a weekend series with a chance at some history. Senior right-hander Chance Cleveland has struck out 119 batters in his time as at UALR. That total puts Cleveland at tenth in UALR baseball history. Five more strikeouts would move him up to ninth on the list, a feat more than possible after just striking out five in his previous start. Though both teams sport similar records, UALR has played but three of its 17 games at home, sporting a 10-4 home record. Arkansas State has played five away games thus far, dropping three.
Prediction: Arkansas-Little Rock wins two of three
Louisiana-Monroe at Louisiana-Lafayette
ULL hasn’t lost a weekend series in 2013, going a perfect 4-4 on the season. The Ragin Cajuns also boast a solid relief pitcher in Matt Hicks. Hicks has pitched out of the bullpen eight times. On seven of those occasions, he’s left the mound with either a win or a save, losing just one. ULL is also anchored by the shut-down pitching of starter Austin Robichaux, who has held opposing teams to four hits or less in four of his last five starts. At the plate, Louisiana-Monroe has been a tale of two teams. Collectively, the Warhawks are hitting at a paltry .238. Though they aren’t making a whole lot of contact, it’s punishing when they do. Seven home runs have been blasted between Kodie Tidwell (2), Corben Green (2), and Taylor Abdalla (3). Abdalla also leads the team with a .333 batting average.
Prediction: Louisiana-Lafayette sweeps Louisiana-Monroe