For the first time since I started this blog back in 2013, the UT-Arlington baseball team has looked more consistent and is playing up to the potential the program has the ability to do.They are currently 26-18 and 16-5 in the Sun Belt Conference. That SBC record is good enough for first overall, beating South Alabama by a full game and first in the SBC West over Louisiana by 2.5 games (The Cajuns had an unstable tie with Coastal Carolina on a travel day).
There's a lot to go over, and had I not had the personal issues, I certainly would have broken these down into different posts. So if the flow here is a little disjointed, just bear with me.
In shades of 2014, UTA is doing quite well in the conference. They are currently first, whereas the team finished second out of ten that year. Like 2014, UTA has performed poorly in non-conference play, at least poorly enough to virtually destroy any chance for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. In chronological order, UTA has lost to the following teams outside of Sun Belt play, with the number in parenthesis being the team's RPI rank as of May 3:
Southeast Missouri State (134)
Stephen F. Austin (141)
TCU x2 (9)
Louisiana Tech x3 (44)
Dallas Baptist x2 (51)
Abilene Christian (253)
Sam Houston St (77)
Now, unlike 2014, UTA at least fared well against the Southland Conference, as they are 5-3. Now granted, UTA is 3-0 versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, a team that is 15-30 and sports an RPI of 220, but in 2014, they lost those games. The other two SLC wins were also to teams they lost to and it would appear Sam Houston State is pulling away from UTA, as they have won two of three since UTA departed the SLC. The one win was by a run and the Mavs lost 14-2 this year.
Speaking of pulling away, I've expressed concern that UTA was falling to a third tier in DFW. Once again, UTA fell to DBU in both games, and now lost six games in a row, eight of nine games and 11 of 13. UTA has fallen to TCU twice with a game remaining. In that series, the Mavs have lost five of six, seven of nine and 11 of 14.
The last real concern I have seen this year is the home record, which is currently 11-12. That was redeemed much by a 3-0 sweep of the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns, which clearly put the Mavericks in the drivers seat of the West Division. The home portion certainly has been tougher than the road, but given how the RPI formula works, UTA takes a huge hit from those home losses. There have been two extra inning losses (both to Louisiana Tech, 30-14 on the year), two separate one run losses and another two run. On the other hand, the have been zero extra innings wins at Clay Gould Ballpark, four one-run wins and another two run.
In order to be considered a legitimate at-large team, of which UTA is certainly capable of coming out of the Sun Belt, that has to be far greater in the win that it is now. UTA's road record is fantastic, 13-5. If the home record was near that, the Mavs would be an at-large caliber team unquestionably.
It doesn't help that the Mavericks were 0-5 at The Gould in February. As a whole, UTA was not good in that month, 2-7 overall. They have gone 24-11 since then. That streak has actually contributed to UTA garnering national attention.
One of the more impressive things I have ever seen since following the baseball program was what UTA did to Louisiana this past weekend, an SBC series with all sorts of implications about the title chase. The first game was a one-run affair, but the next two weren't even close. There were a lot of mistakes by the Cajuns, nine errors and ten hit-by-pitches, for example, that a spectator would not expect by a conference leader. UTA was fortunate that the Cajun's staff ace was fighting injury, but that doesn't explain the whole series, not even close.
UTA started the series trailing the Cajuns for first in the Sun Belt by a half game. UTA couldn't get any help from the Texas State Bobcats, who dropped all three to South Alabama, keeping the Jaguars on the heels of the Mavericks by a game. Of course, UTA can't count on the 'cats for anything beneficial.
Thanks to that sweep, along with a win over a previously ranked Texas A&M team a week and a half prior, UTA debuted on the Collegiate Baseball magazine at number 23 at the beginning of the week. UTAMavs.com had a headline that incorrectly stated that UTA had not been ranked prior, at least by my sources.
I purchased a 1986 UTA baseball media guide that stated UTA made the CB top 20 poll in February of 1985 after beating ranked teams in Texas-Austin and Oral Roberts. That is confirmed by a newspaper source as according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram, printed on February 26, 1985, UTA was ranked number 18 by Collegiate Baseball magazine. The story also states UTA was ranked in early 1975 as well. I looked at the Record book and wonder if they meant 1976, where UTA started 11-2. 1975 was a 1-13 start en route to a 22-27 finish.
In addition, I believe I came across something that read UTA was ranked in 1992, when they started 15-2, finished with a 40-15 record and won the SLC en route to an NCAA tournament appearance.
And in my opinion, the ranking may be a bit overrated, but it is good that the program is attracting national attention. I'd be a bit more of a believer if the team had beaten Abilene Christian at home, rather than losing 9-1, or not been swept in three games by Louisiana Tech, or split with Dallas Baptist, or... ah, you get the point.
But there's no denying just how good they have been in SBC play. There's only five teams in the SBC with a winning conference record. UTA is one and they don't play South Alabama. They lost the series to Georgia Southern on the road and obviously the Louisiana sweep. Coastal Carolina is awaiting UTA after they travel to Jonesboro to face Arkansas State, who is a game below .500.
They have done it in all facets of the game. In my opinion, the Mavericks sport the best 1-2-3 starting pitching combo in the conference. Exhibit A) Kadon Simmons, 7-2 and a 3.25 ERA. Exhibit B) Trae Patterson, 5-3 with a 2.85 ERA. Exhibit C) Jakob Hernandez, 5-0 possessing a 3.38 ERA. Either one of those stat lines would be a day one starter for most conference teams.
In stark contrast to last year, it isn't just the starters that are doing well. There are four relievers with a sub 4.00 ERA with a minimum of five innings pitched. Another two sit with an ERA at 4.50 or less. The 16 combined saves leaves them in a tie for most in the Sun Belt.
While last year, there were two starters (Simmons and Kuhnel) and a reliever (Jacob Moreland) that were good or better, this year UTA can feel comfortable with a handful of pitchers. As a whole, UTA has a 3.88 ERA, good for second in the conference. They have also walked the fewest of any conference competitor. Limiting free passes are the hallmarks of a good staff.
The offense is fairly solid too. They are middle of the pack in just about every offensive category, save for strikeouts, where they have the fewest in the conference. Being middle isn't necessarily a bad thing. It generally means that the team can beat their opponents in any way.
Bottom line: I firmly expected the Mavericks to be middle of the pack at best. Their February may have cost them a chance for an at-large, but they are competitive with anyone in the conference. That is very nice and I am glad. But given the nature of conference tournaments, I would like the program to take the next step and be in a legitimate spot to garner attention in the at-large conversation. Just ask the men's basketball program about that.