Monday, May 9, 2016

7th Inning Stretch

Seems I have egg on my face...again. After pointing out another missed opportunity in game 1 against Little Rock on the road, the UT Arlington baseball team took the next two games to claim the series. That happened against Troy as well. But, I was glad to see them bounce back then, and was again this weekend.

UTA did it by breaking out the big bats and scoring 21 runs en route to a 21-8 win in game two. A solid, but not quite five inning, start from Jake Wilcox paved the way for Jacob Moreland to come out of the pen and pitch the rest of the way for 6-4 win. In that game, the Mavs did exactly what I have wanted the whole season and combine timely hitting with consistent pitching. In both games, they got hits when runners were in scoring position. In game three, UTA scattered the hits and avoided the big inning when on the mound. It was an added bonus that Kadon Simmons pitched an eight inning complete game in the loss and Joel Kuhnel pitched seven innings in game two. That kept the pen rested and allowed Moreland to stay in as long as he was effective, which proved to be quite a bit in game three.

Bottom line, taken as a whole, the Little Rock series showed exactly what the Mavs need to do the rest of the way. There are no more mid-week games to worry about. The season has six conference games and the conference tournament left. Those six games will have a lot to say about how UTA is seeded in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

The current SBC standings:

South Alabama 19-5, 36-14
Louisiana-Lafayette 16-8, 31-17
Little Rock 14-10, 23-22
Georgia Southern 14-13, 29-19
Texas State 13-11, 26-23
Troy 12-12, 27-21
UTA 11-13, 25-24
Arkansas State 9-15, 21-25
Georgia State 9-15, 23-25
Louisiana-Monroe 9-15, 19-30
Appalachian State 9-18, 15-33

This week's conference schedule:
UTA @ App
Troy @ GA ST
TXST @ stAte

The last weekend of the regular season is in-state rivalry weekend:
GA ST @ Geo Sou
stAte @ LR
USA @ Troy

Despite being in 7th, UTA is actually in a good place right now with the teams ahead of them.

The Mavs play the last-place team on the road and then host Texas State, who is two games up in the standings on UTA. The Mavs trail Troy by one game, but have the tie-breaker by virtue of a 2-1 series win in Troy.

Georgia Southern looks to be uncatchable by the Mavs, as they lost the home series 2-1 (one of the missed opportunities I outlined in this post). The Eagles are a game and a half up in the standings, but don't play a conference series this weekend. The Eagles finish with Georgia State at home, UTA would have to win four more of the remaining SBC games than Southern, a hard task.

But, UTA owns the tiebreaker with Little Rock by virtue of the past weekend and the Mavs are three games behind them.

That could create a logjam for the third through fifth spots, depending of course on how everyone finishes in the final two series'.

Little Rock owns the tiebreaker over Georgia Southern. Georgia Southern owns the tiebreak on UTA. UTA owns the tiebreak on Little Rock.

That means the conference then looks how they faired over the top teams. UTA and Little Rock both were swept by USA, but Southern recently took two of three, giving them the nod. After that, it goes back to the head-to-head tiebreaker, which UTA owns. So if somehow UTA can pass Troy and Texas State, get in a three-way tie for third, they'll get in the SBC tourney as the fourth seed.

At first glance, this weekend should be a golden opportunity to get a series win, if not a sweep. Appalachian State owns the worst conference winning percentage at .333, has the worst offense by batting average in the conference at .230 and the second worst staff ERA at 5.53.

Meanwhile UTA is the second best offense at .296. Good offense against bad pitching should bode well for UTA.

Simmons (8-4, 3.09) will start on day one. Simmons' eight wins are tied for first in the SBC and his 81.2 innings pitched is good for fourth. Kuhnel (5-3, 2.86) will get the nod in game two. Kuhnel missed about a month due to injury (wonder what him playing could have done for the Mavs), so his W/L is a little stunted. Still, his ERA is good for eighth in the SBC and he averages around 6.1 innings per start, very similar to Simmons. If those two guys can complete 7-8 innings, that will leave Moreland (4-0, 2.14) ready for game three in relief, just like this weekend. The senior is second in the SBC's ERA category.

But the issue I have is the results on App's schedule. I think the 9-18 SBC mark is a little misleading. They are 6-6 in Boone when playing SBC teams. But one of those is a sweep by Georgia Southern. They have won three of the four home SBC series', with two of those series wins against South Alabama and Little Rock, the current first and third team in the standings. In essence, when at home, the Mountaineers can beat anyone.

Good news is that App is 1-3 in SBC game one's at home. With Simmons atop the SBC in wins, that bodes well for the Mavs to start.

In game two, they are 2-2. Kuhnel hasn't found a top-level consistency, but with injury recovery, I doubt anyone is surprised. He has pitched well of late, going 2-1 in four starts. In the no decision, he left with the lead. They'll need him to be at top form this weekend.

App is 3-1 in game three's at home, though. UTA is 2-2 in SBC game 3's on the road and 3-5 overall. This is the big question mark. This is also precisely why Simmons and Kuhnel going deep in the game matters, though not just this weekend. If they pitch seven each, that not only leaves other relievers ready to go, it also means Moreland can pitch an inning in one and/or two and still be available the last game.

The issue? Only one other Mav reliever with 10 innings in the book has an ERA under 4, Dylan Schneider (1-1), with a 3.91 ERA in 25.1 innings. Daniel James (0-4, 4.50) is number two by ERA, He has been really inconsistent, though as a sophomore, I don't know that is terribly shocking. That leaves Brad Vassar (1-2, 4.72) as the only other option for a sub-5.00-ERA reliever. If either Simmons, Kuhnel or worse yet, both, don't go deep, App will definitely have the advantage.

With four teams only two wins back of the Mavs, losing this series could cripple the Mavs for the season. Especially considering Texas State at home is both a tough opponent for UTA and a team that could cause UTA to overlook App. I hope not, for the Mavs sake. The Bobcats are not as forgiving as the Mountaineers.

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