This Week in Conference USA Baseball (4/11)

C-USA Weekly Recap
Southern Miss swept Middle Tennessee State: The Eagles used a collective offensive effort in the sweep behind Jake Sandlin’s 4 for 4 Game 2 performance that included a double, 2 RBI and two runs and Dylan Burdeaux’s added a three hit outing in the finale. Southern Miss used a three-run home ninth that included a game-winning wild pitch to complete the sweep. Cord Cockrell stayed perfect on the season, moving to 6-0 in a six-inning outing, allowing only two runs and six hits.
Charlotte took 2-of-3 over No. 12 FAU: The 49ers took the series win in 15 innings Sunday while picking up their first win over a ranked team this season. It was the longest game in program history. Drew Ober ran his hitting streak to six games after finishing 7 for13 on the weekend. The freshman had a double and a triple while scoring three runs and driving in four. Junior Holden Capps worked a career-high 7 1/3 innings in relief, allowing only two hits while retiring the Owls in order in five of his seven innings of work. Junior C.J. Chatham finished 5 for 6 with 7 RBI in the FAU win Saturday and totaled 9 RBI on eight hits with a homer and a double.
No. 25 Rice took 2-of-3 over UAB: The Owls received stellar outings on the bump from Jon Duplantier and Ricardo Salinas to keep pace with league leading Southern Miss. Duplantier worked seven innings and added seven strikeouts to his league leading 68 total this season. Salinas tossed a two-hit complete game shutout in the rubber match, facing only three batters over the minimum. Dominic DiCaprio worked a 6 for 11 weekend to lead the Owls at the plate.
Marshall took 2-of-3 over UTSA: The Herd earns its third consecutive series win and has the best start over 30 games since posting the same 17-13 record in 2001.  Chase Boster fired seven strong innings in the series opener and Burris Warner earned a save and win out of the bullpen. The junior entered Friday night’s affair with the bases loaded with no outs and struck out the side. Sunday, Warner worked three innings in relief after a long lightning delay burned the starter J.D. Hammer. Tommy Lane, Aaron Bossi and Tyler Ratliff carried the load for the Herd offense throughout the weekend.
La. Tech took 2-of-3 over WKU: After falling in Game 1, the Bulldogs took the next two for the series win. Jonathon and Jordan Washam totaled six of La. Tech’s season-high 17 hits in Game 2 while adding 6 RBI. Marshall Boggs went 3 for 4 in Game 3 with a double, RBI and run scored.  Zach Janes worked a 3 for 4 performance in the Toppers lone win.
Old Dominion swept FIU: Kurt Sinnen had a 6-12 weekend with two doubles, 4 RBI and a pair of runs. Turner Bishop homered and drove in four and Zack Rutherford displayed a 4-5 afternoon in Game 2 with a double and two runs. Adam Bainbridge tossed five scoreless innings in the series finale.
Standout Performers
Pitcher of the Week: Ricardo Salinas of Rice. The sophomore worked a complete game shutout, allowing only two hits to improve to 5-1 on the season. He retired the final 16 batters he faced. Over his last five starts, Salinas has a 0.97 ERA and has collected 32 strikeouts over 37 innings of work.
Hitter of the Week: Drew Ober of Charlotte. The freshman went 7-13 in the series win over then No. 12 FAU with a double, triple, three runs scored and 4 RBI. Ober had three-hit performances in the final two games of the series.
Preview of the Week’s Key Matchups
No. 18 Southern Miss at UAB: The Eagles will roll out the pitching trio of Cord Cockrell, Nick Johnson and Kirk McCarty to face the Blazers as they look to continue their best start since 2011. Cockrell sits at 6-0 with a 2.77 ERA in eight starts. Cockrell is a finesse pitcher who hits his spots early and often. The righty has 30 strikeouts to only five walks in 48 2/3 innings of work. He’s followed by a nice 1-2 punch in a weekend rotation that has yet to suffer a loss. Anchoring the backend of the bullpen is closer Nick Sandlin with a 2-1 record and five saves in 14 appearances. With a 1.07 ERA, if he gets the ball with a lead in the 9th, it’s pretty much closing time.
The Golden Eagles offensive numbers look like gas prices from two summers ago, with seven hitters at .300 or better and all but one regular swinging at over a .250 clip. Southern Miss does its damage at the plate with the long ball, raking 40 homers through 33 games. However, the Eagles took a significant hit to their arsenal after home run leader Taylor Braley was lost to a knee injury. Of the 361 hits this season, 108 have gone for extra bases which puts so much pressure on the defense anytime a runner gets on base.
UAB will combat the potent Southern Miss lineup with Ryan Ruggles, Tanner Graham and Adam Lamar. Ruggles has a 4-2 mark with a 2.31 ERA over 46 2/3 innings of work. Opponents are hitting only .167 against him, but he has nearly a 1-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, allowing 24 walks to 26 strikeouts. Lamar, who offers a 3-2 record and a 1.66 ERA, joins Ruggles in the rotation over 38 innings. The final piece to the rotation is Graham, who sits at 1-4 with a 4.98 ERA. The starting pitching will need stellar outings throughout the series.
Unlike the Southern Miss lineup, UAB offers only one hitter who swings it at over .300. Brewer Hicklen leads the Blazers with a .302 average with good speed at the top of the lineup. He leads the team with three triples and 24 runs scored. UAB is not known for as a home run hitting team, as the Blazers have cleared the wall only nine times this season.
Last Meeting: 4-0 UAB win in the opening round of the 2015 C-USA Tournament. Southern Miss took 2-of-3 at home last year during the regular season.
OUTLOOK: How Southern Miss has stayed outside the Top 25 this long is a mystery as this team is deep top to bottom and has a complete pitching staff with three quality arms in the weekend rotation. The last time UAB took a series win over Southern Miss was 2010 at Young Memorial Field in Birmingham and 2016 isn’t shaping up in the Blazers’ favor. The key for the Blazers to knock off the Eagles is getting into the bullpen before Sandlin gets the ball in a save situation. If this doesn’t happen, the Eagles fly away with another sweep in C-USA action.
WKU at No. 19 Rice: In one of the more intriguing matchups of the weekend, both these teams need this series in a major way. For Rice, it continues to look up at league leader Southern Miss who has only one loss (Marshall) in C-USA play and with the possibility of another Eagles sweep looming in the balance, the Owls could use one of their own to stay within striking distance. For WKU, they are in a logjam in the middle of the pack at 6-6, and a series loss could send them into a downward spiral.
Rice’s starting rotation should include the work from veteran Jon Duplantier, Blake Fox and Ricardo Salinas. Duplantier holds a 3-3 record and a 2.56 ERA while Fox sits at 2-5 with a 2.92 ERA. The hottest arm in the starting rotation of late has been that of Salinas. The crafty righty just earned’s C-USA Standout Pitcher of the Week honors after tossing a two-hit complete game shutout in the rubber match win over UAB Sunday afternoon. Glenn Otto anchors the closing role for the Owls, earning a 3-1 record with five saves in 15 appearances.
The Owls swing it at a .248 clip as a team and has six players hitting over .250. Leading the way is Ryan Chandler hitting .315 after the Owls lost their leadoff hitting Charlie Warner and his team leading .319 average in the second game with Middle Tennessee State. He has not played since. Ford Proctor has kept pace with Chandler, rounding out the .300 club at .302 with seven doubles and 17 RBI. The Owls are extremely patient and disciplined at the plate, earning 101 walks with only 163 strikeouts.
The rotation for the Toppers has been shaky at times and will need to be at the top of its game this weekend against the Owls. Ryan Thurston sits atop the battery with a 3-1 record and 3.38 ERA in eight starts. He is followed by Josh Bartley’s 4-2 mark with Austin King rounding things out at 2-2. The bright spot of the pitching staff is closer Jackson Sowell. The right-hander owns a 0.96 ERA over 18+ innings of work with opponents hitting a dismal .145 against him. If the WKU starters and middle relief can get Sowell the ball with a lead, the odds certainly swing in the Tops favor.
Offensively the Toppers have the firepower in the lineup to get after the Owls pitchers early and often. Danny Hudzina paces the order with a .443 average, 10 doubles, two triples, two homers and a team-high 23 RBI. If there’s an offensive category on the stat sheet, Hudzina’s name is typically at the top. The senior leads the nation with 58 hits, has reached base safely in the past 36 games and owns 17 multi-hit games this season. He is joined by Kaleb Duckworth’s .359 production with three more Topper’s hitters joining the .300 club. Much like the Owls, the Toppers see the ball well at the plate with 129 walks and 32 hit batsmen to 187 strikeouts.
Last Meeting: The Owls pulled out the brooms in Bowling Green last year, taking an 11-4 win to open the series followed by a pair of 3-2 wins in the final two games.
OUTLOOK: This series has the feeling of the playoffs, with one team coming up a winner in the standings, while the other takes a significant tumble downward. WKU as a team hits at nearly .300 on the season but the Owls pitching has been stellar, especially out of the bullpen. WKU needs to plate at least five per game to allow for a win as it has only five losses this season when plating five or more runs, but with the arms of Duplantier—who leads the conference in strikeouts (68)—and Salinas, things don’t appear to be coming up red this weekend.

Conference Series of the Week
No. 16 FAU at Marshall: In what could be one of the biggest series of the season, C-USA No. 2 and No. 4 lock horns for an epic showdown in the Mountain State. FAU enters the weekend after suffering its first series loss of the season while Marshall claimed its third consecutive series win after taking two at UTSA. This affair will showcase a stellar pitching staff by the Owls and the hard swinging bats of the Herd. With only two games separating the schools in C-USA, the road toward the conference tournament begins this weekend in Beckley.
FAU enters with one of the toughest weekend rotations in the nation, touting the fourth most shutouts and sixth in won-loss percentage. Even more dangerous is the fact this team plays well on the road, losing only twice in 10 contests.  The Owls will most likely roll out the trio of Brandon Rhodes, Marc Stewart and Sean Labsan hoping to cool the Herd’s bats. Labsan anchors the rotation with a 4-0 record and eye-popping 0.67 ERA in 27 innings. The lefty has allowed only 19 hits, eight coming in his last outing. The Owls’ middle relief is one of,  if not the best, in the conference with all but four pitchers owning a sub three ERA. Cameron Ragsdale works as the closer, often making quick work of his opposition. The righty has eight saves in 12 appearances and has worked only 13 1/3 innings this season with a 1.35 ERA. Needless to say, getting into the Owls bullpen is like climbing out of the kettle right into the fire.
The Owls pitching has been offered plenty of run support over the first 30 games, as an average of nearly seven runs touch the plate each time out. C-USA Preseason Player of the Year C.J. Chatham stands at the head of the class for the Owls, hitting .387 with nine doubles, three triples, three home runs and 28 RBI. Esteban Puerta joins Chatham at the top with a .342 clip followed by Billy Endris (.330) and Stephen Kerr (.313). As a team, FAU swings it at a .301 average and owns a .400 on-base percentage. They have earned 177 free passes (142 walks and 35 hit batsmen). Simply stated, the Owls know how to get on base.
Marshall is searching for its first win over a ranked team since taking 2-of-3 from No. 19 Houston in 2013 in Charleston and looks to make it four series in a row with the pitching combo of Chase Boster, Patrick Danicu and J.D. Hammer toeing the rubber. Hammer leads the trio with a 3-2 record and 4.82 ERA in 46 2/3 innings of work. His numbers in conference have been much better, lowering his ERA to 3.09 with a 1-0 mark. Hammer worked six innings of one-run baseball in the series-clinching win over UTSA Sunday afternoon giving him back-to-back quality starts. The Achilles heel for the Herd pitching staff has been the bullpen, as several quality outings have been tossed to the wayside when the relief takes the ball. One bright note from the bullpen has been the work of closer Burris Warner. The hard-throwing righty has entered multiple games this season with the bases loaded and no outs and left without allowing a run. The junior owns eight saves in 15 appearances and has been the workhorse for the Herd over the past month. After a 40-minute lightning delay Sunday, Morris worked a three-inning save in relief.
Marshall has worked in something this season that has often failed it in years past, timely hitting. Led by senior Aaron Bossi and junior Tommy Lane, the meat of the Herd’s lineup has been enough to make any pitcher cringe at its presence. Bossi sits at a .325 average, the highest of anyone appearing in 25 games this season. A nice addition to Marshall’s offensive attack has been the towering first baseman Tommy Lane. Hitting .312 in his first season with the Herd, Lane leads the team with nine home runs and 26 RBI. Rounding out the .300 club is Tyler Ratliff who delivered the go-ahead hit in the UTSA finale. Marshall is at its best when leadoff hitters Corey Bird and D.J. Gee work their way on base. The duo is a collective 26-30 in stolen base attempts and their presence on the base paths forces opposing pitchers to focus as much on them as the hitter.
Last Meeting: Then No. 22 FAU swept Marshall in Boca Raton, outscoring the Herd 25-8 over the three game series.
OUTLOOK: This series will be much like a chess match, with each capturing a pawn in the early innings while searching for a chance to gain an edge in the contest. Expect plenty of base runners in the matchup and a game of small ball to decide the outcome. FAU is hungry to shake off the series loss last week to Charlotte while Marshall has the momentum it needs coming into a pivotal weekend. Expect a split in the opening two games with a pitcher’s duel between Hammer and Labsan Sunday afternoon in the rubber match to decide the series.