Photo | Courtesy South Alabama
This has not been the season Mark Calvi envisioned for his South Alabama baseball team. The Jaguars, winners of the Sun Belt Conference tournament a year ago and armed with several returning players, including starting pitchers, were the overwhelming favorite to win the league crown again this year in the preseason coaches’ poll.
But adversity — in this case, spelled i-n-j-u-r-i-e-s — proved a difficult opponent, and the Jaguars, 31-22 overall and with a 17-13 record against league foes, head into this week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery as the No. 5 seed in the 10-team tournament.
But Calvi said the No. 5 seeding, which kept the Jags out of Tuesday’s pair of single-elimination play-in games, feels a lot like a No. 1 seeding in many ways.
“I would say this: Not many teams in this league could lose their No. 1 and No. 2 starter and a couple of their better relievers and still finish in the top five in this league this year,” Calvi said. “That’s my opening statement for that. … I’m super proud of them. You look at what we lost and who we lost — [No. 1 starting pitcher] Miles [Smith] has been hurt the last two months and [No. 2 starter] Jeremy Lee has missed basically the entire season — so we’ve lost 150 innings [pitched]. And then [we lose] three guys out of the pen, and so you’re literally down 200 innings. You’re down 30 to 40 percent of your innings in five guys.
“You take any team in this league and you take away their No. 1 and No. 2 starters — you take away their No. 1 in Game 5 [of the season] and their No 2, who never got to make a start this year — and every team that’s in front of us would struggle to be in the top five. That’s Coastal [Carolina], Georgia State, Texas State; every single one of them, it would have been an enormous struggle.”
South Alabama closed out the regular season losing two of three games at Coastal Carolina, falling 11-2 in the first game, winning the second 15-7 and losing the third 13-1. As noted, pitching has been the biggest issue, with top starters out and others being forced to step up, some pitching much more than expected this season.
“My assessment of where we’re at right now is the same: We’ve got to be better on the mound, we can’t give up the big inning and we’ve got to hit and play really good defense,” Calvi said. “And we need to pitch it really, really well for a four-game stretch. We’ve got to stay out of the losers bracket and we’ve got to pitch extremely well.”
The Jags open the tournament against No. 4-seeded Louisiana (33-21, 19-11) on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Louisiana took two of three against South on the Ragin’ Cajuns’ home field earlier this season, but all three games were close. Louisiana won 5-4 in 11 innings in a game Calvi said his team let get away, with the Jags winning the second game 6-5, but losing the third 6-3.
If they want to extend their season to the NCAA Tournament, the Jags likely have to win the league tourney crown.
“I’m super proud of these guys, I really am,” Calvi said. “Fifth [place] is not the standard in this program at all. Our No. 1 goal to start the year, we’re trying to win the Sun Belt tournament and the regular season [championship]. But when you look at it and the things this team has gone through, the key injuries on the mound, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how proud I am of these guys for being fifth. A lot of teams would have rolled over. Miles Smith is down, Jeremy Lee’s down, our closer’s down; [other teams] just would have mailed it in. We had a couple of stinkers, but not many. We got walked-off seven times. Our lack of depth on the mound really reared its head in half of our losses.
“We have enough guys on this team that won it last year. We win this tournament if we get great pitching performances and if we stay in the winners’ bracket. Yes, we have been thinned out on the mound and some guys have moved up one or two spots. But it is what it is. This didn’t happen two weeks ago, it happened two months ago, so we kind of know, hey, this is where we’re at. … If we can pitch better than what we’ve done and if we can close some games out late, we’ve got a chance to win this thing.”
South is second in the Sun Belt in team batting average (.294), third in earned run average (4.65), third in on-base percentage (.399), fourth in runs scored (381), fourth in runs batted in (344), tied for fourth in doubles (109), second in triples (six) and seventh in home runs (47). The Jags have allowed the fewest runs in the league.
“No matter what happens, nobody, I mean nobody, wants to play us in the tournament,” Calvi said, noting Coastal Carolina head coach Gary Gilmore said as much following last Saturday’s game against South Alabama.
“The game starts and stops on the mound. It always has and it always will,” Calvi added. “If you give me my druthers, I’m going to take an unbelievable pitching and defense team over an unbelievable offense and defense team every time. Because if you’ve got great pitching, no matter who you play … that’s the bottom line. There’s no doubt we have to pitch well, we have to close out games, but we have a chance to win this thing, 100 percent.”
After Tuesday’s play-in games the tournament turns to a double-elimination format. Texas Tech is the No. 1 seed, with Georgia Southern the No. 2 seed. The championship game is scheduled Sunday at 1 p.m.
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