ST. LOUIS, MO- When Davidson made a Cinderella run through the Atlantic 10 tournament last season to get into a regional, and then won the Chapel Hill Regional to get to the College Station Super Regional, it seemed entirely plausible, and perhaps even likely, that the result would end up looking more like a magical one-year postseason run and less like a harbinger of things to come for the upstart Wildcats, even with a lot of talent returning for 2018.
The A-10 is a notoriously topsy-turvy league that hasn’t seen a lot of consistency from year to year in the teams that it sends to the postseason. In fact, the league has sent a different team to regionals each of the last seven years. And beyond that, it’s not as if Davidson came into the postseason last year with a ton of history, as that postseason appearance was the first in the program’s history.
And while things will once again come down to how well they play in the conference tournament three weeks from now, the Wildcats have the look of a squad that could put themselves in position to make some noise in the postseason once again. With a 4-3 win over a Saint Louis team that came into the game 14-1 in league play, against Billikens staff ace and future MLB draft pick Miller Hogan, no less, on Friday night, the proof of concept is there.
Hogan enjoyed a clean first inning, but after that, Davidson had as much success against the righty as anyone has had in a long time. With one out in the second inning, Davidson’s stocky, powerful first baseman Brett Centracchio homered to right-center to get the scoring started. Immediately afterward, Justin Lebek and Alex Mardiney tagged back-to-back doubles into the right field corner and it was 2-0. Two innings later, the Wildcats stretched the lead to 3-0 with a sac fly, and in the sixth, they made it 4-0 when Centracchio hit a no-doubter to straightaway right field. With those four runs, Hogan had allowed as many runs in six innings of this game as he had allowed in his previous four starts combined, which spanned 29 innings.
Hogan was efficient throughout the game, and Davidson was aggressive at the plate, so he was able to get through seven full innings, but the Wildcats ended up handing the star right-hander one of his toughest starts of the year. The seven hits he surrendered tied for his season-high, as did the four earned runs.
Sometimes when a team is going up against a pitcher who has accomplished as much as Hogan has in his career, it can be a mental challenge to go into the game looking at him as simply the next pitcher on the schedule, but for Davidson head coach Dick Cooke, that’s precisely the approach.
“That’s what I think has to happen,” he said. “As soon, as a hitter, you start thinking and trying to figure out what that guy is going to throw, you’re done. You’ve got to respect what he’s (Hogan) done, know that he’s got a great fastball, he’s got a lot of variety in his secondary stuff, he’s a strike thrower, and then you’ve truly got to go pitch-to-pitch, at-bat-to-at-bat. It’s kind of a tired cliche, but I think it’s really true.”
Just as impressive as what the offense did against Hogan is what starting pitcher Allen Barry did against a physical, veteran Billikens offense. The righty threw seven innings, giving up four hits and one run with one walk and seven strikeouts.
Through five innings, the only baserunner he had allowed was on a check-swing infield single from Kyle Fletcher in the third, and he was incredibly efficient in mowing down the SLU lineup time and again. He had thrown fewer than 60 pitches in getting through those first five innings, and only a lengthy sixth inning, when the Billikens got a couple of men on and worked a few deep counts, made it to where his final pitch count ended up at 102.
“I think they’re (Saint Louis) the best offensive club in the league,” Cook said. “He (Barry) lives off the ability to throw the ball over the plate, and I think through five innings, he had thrown 58 pitches. He did a good job of using both sides of the plate, and I didn’t call a pitch all night. Jonesy (catcher Eric Jones) does a great job of that. He was getting his offspeed over first pitch, and you’ve got to do that against a club like this because they’re so scary. They can put a crooked number up so fast. Every guy in that lineup scares you.”
The pitching staff as a whole is a big reason for optimism that Davidson could make another A-10 tourney run, just like they did a year ago. After serving as a swingman on last year’s team, Barry has stepped ably into a role as a workhorse in the weekend rotation. With Friday’s performance, he’s 8-1 on the year with a 3.24 ERA. In 72.1 innings, he’s struck out 71 and walked just 23.
Evan Roberts, Saturday’s starter, is 5-5 with a 3.35 ERA and a 50/18 strikeout-to-walk mark in a team-leading 75.1 innings. And as far as Sunday starters go, you could certainly do a lot worse than Josh Hudson, who is 4-2 this season with a 5.09 ERA. That trio is backed up by a bullpen core of Connor Gordon (2.09 ERA), Austin Leonard (2.08 ERA), and Casey Sutherland (2.25 ERA), and a valuable swingman in Jaret LaCagnina (4.28 ERA).
With that level of depth and a 3.46 team ERA, they compare very favorably in that regard to the 2017 team and their 4.45 team ERA, even if this team doesn’t have a rubber-armed wonder like Durin O’Linger leading the way and eating up innings.
Offensively, the likes of Eric Jones (10 HR) and Brett Centracchio (8 HR) provide some power, Cam Johnson and Alex Mardiney add some athleticism and speed on the bases, and the likes of Jones, Johnson, Mardiney, Max Bazin, and Andrew Born all get on base at a .394 clip or better.
“Our offense has done a really good job of being patient,” Cooke said. “We’ve been shut out three times. We’ve had some games, as coaches, where we scratch our heads and go ‘holy cow, are we ever going to get another hit?’ And then they come out and have a really good weekend against a VCU staff that’s very good. Offensively, I think we’re being patient and kind of letting the game come to us.”
All of this is to say nothing of the benefits of the leadership of players like Barry, Roberts, Leonard, Jones, Johnson, and Alec Acosta, among others, who played important roles on the 2017 team.
Not that last season’s successes, as historic as they were, are a topic of conversation around the team.
“We’ve not talked about last year,” Cooke said. “I know they think about it, but we don’t ever talk about it. We don’t want to complicate it, and I just kind of want to stay out of their way and watch them play.”
It may not be something they talk about as a team, but this group has a mix of talent and experience that you have to assume sets them up nicely for another postseason run. For Cooke, who is retiring at the end of this season after 28 years at the helm, that’s going to make watching them play a lot of fun down the stretch.