HOUSTON, TX- If you scan the top of the Southland Conference, there are some teams that really don’t surprise you.
You’ve got McNeese State, a program on the steady rise under head coach Justin Hill that has captured quite a bit of attention this season. Then there’s Southeastern Louisiana, perennial regional contenders and an annual fly in the ointment of larger programs throughout the region, such as Tulane, South Alabama, and Louisiana-Lafayette. Sam Houston State, the program that has most often carried the flag for the SLC in the postseason over the last decade, is also in the mix.
And then there’s Houston Baptist, nestled into the third spot in the standings, right between second-place Southeastern Louisiana and fourth-place Sam Houston State.
They were most recently seen sweeping the Bearkats this past weekend by scores of 2-1, 9-1, and 9-8. It was not just a huge series win because it was a separation series between two teams right next to each other in the standings. It was also huge because it was a tense, emotional series that included two walk-off wins for the Huskies and numerous moments that could have decided games one way or the other. It was precisely the type of series that, in addition to the physical strain, tests the mental fortitude and maturity of a club.
The Bearkats came down to Houston with a talented team loaded with regional experience under their belts, and rather than fold up under the pressure in those late-inning situations, the Huskies stood up to the traditional SLC power and came through when it mattered most.
At the risk of making too much of a single series, with the way the games went, two walk-offs and a blowout, it’s the type of series that can swing things wildly for both teams. If you win those close, tense games, it can serve as a springboard for the rest of the season. On the other hand, if you lose those types of games, it can be a tough thing to bounce back from emotionally.
“It was just one of those games where it stinks that one team had to lose,” said Houston Baptist head coach Jared Moon. “The last six, seven innings were high-emotion, high-intensity innings. It worked out for us, and that’s tough to bounce back from sometimes if you’re the team that loses that game, and I think that showed the next day (in the blowout win) when we were able to pound the ball a little bit and take advantage of some of their pitchers’ struggles.”
Let’s be clear, though. Although they’re not a team annually found at the top of the SLC standings, HBU is not necessarily a Johnny-come-lately to the party. In 2015, they won the Southland’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, gave host team Houston a scare in the regional opener, and then did the same to Rice in an elimination game at Cougar Field.
In 2016, there was optimism surrounding the team once again, but injuries largely derailed an otherwise promising season and the Huskies finished the season 24-29 overall with a 12-18 record in Southland Conference play, which kept them out of the conference tournament at the end of the regular season.
For Moon, that’s been a big catalyst behind what might otherwise look like a shocking turnaround from the 2016 season to the 2017 season.
“I thought we were a really good team last year, we had a ton of injuries, and it just didn’t work out for us,” he said. “We never had a chance to field a true lineup. But this year, it’s no different. We pretty much have the same pitching staff that we had last year. I thought we pitched well last year, but everybody was hurt. Knock on wood, we’ve had everybody healthy this year, and we’ve had some pitchers step up and do really good jobs.”
As for what has led the Huskies to their 18-9 mark in league play, look no further than the pitching staff that Moon alluded to, which was fantastic once again against the Bearkats.
Friday starter Addison Russ got things started by throwing 6.1 innings, giving up four hits and just one unearned run. He did issue six walks, but he countered that by striking out seven. To this point of the season, he’s a tough-luck 2-4, but he’s got a quality 2.76 ERA. In 81.2 innings, he’s struck out 72 and walked 34.
In what ended up being a 14-inning game on Friday, HBU obviously needed someone to eat up some innings, and that someone was Zach Carter, a guy who has been a starter for the Huskies, but more recently has held down a bullpen role for the club. He threw 7.2 scoreless innings and allowed just three hits and two walks along the way, not only giving his team the chance to score the winning run, but also saving the bullpen for the rest of the weekend. For the season, he has a 3.16 ERA in 57 innings of work and has limited opposing hitters to a .233 batting average.
“Addison Russ, I think, is one of the better pitchers in the league,” said Moon. “He did a fantastic job. Even when we came out of the ‘pen with Zach Carter, Zach was a starter for us earlier in the year, kind of pitched his way out of it, but we’ve been using him out of the bullpen and (Sunday was) probably the best he’s thrown all year.”
Certainly those two have been a big part of HBU’s success not only this weekend, but all season, but they’re far from alone. Christian Thames has been steady as well, and he was nearly perfect in the Saturday game in throwing a complete game, giving up just four hits and one unearned run with no walks and four strikeouts. On the season, he’s now 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA.
Finally, like Carter, Daniel Endsley has held down a couple of roles this season, and although he got roughed up as the starter in the Sunday game to the tune of six hits and five earned runs over 3.1 innings, he’s been very solid this season. He has a 2-2 record with a 2.72 ERA.
Bullpen depth might be a bit of a concern for the Huskies moving forward in the conference tournament and in a regional, should they get there, but J.T. Newton is a “dude,” in baseball parlance. He’s the type of closer who can come in and put out fires in short relief and throw multiple innings if need be. Over 43.2 innings, he has a 1.85 ERA, six saves, and a 39/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Good pitching can often get ruined by poor defense, but that really hasn’t been an issue this season. As a team, they’re fielding at a very solid .974 clip, and over the weekend against the Bearkats, they won the error battle with only three errors compared to SHSU’s five in the three games.
For Moon, that’s the blueprint.
“Pitching and defense is where it’s at,” he said. “Even this weekend, we made some great plays defensively in the infield, turning some double plays that on average shouldn’t be turned, made a couple of diving plays. We’ve been pitching very consistently most of the year, and playing really solid defense. It’s just a matter of, when we hit, we’re pretty good. When we don’t hit, our pitching still keeps us in the ballgame and gives us a chance to win.”
That was certainly the case on Sunday, when the Huskies scored nine runs in support of Endsley and Newton, who both had rough outings. For that matter, they also plated nine runs on Saturday, but Thames was so good that anything beyond the two runs they needed to win was just gravy.
Leadoff man Zane Otten, as he has been all season, was the catalyst over those two games, going a combined 6-for-10 with four runs scored. The team’s top hitter, he’s hitting .344/.386/.419 with six doubles, three triples, and 17 stolen bases.
Although they’re not a team with power up and down the order, Spencer Halloran provides some punch, while also establishing himself as one of the team’s better on-base guys. He’s hitting .318/.401/.480 with 12 doubles, four triples, and three home runs. Jake Pulcheon has a similar profile to Halloran, even if some of his numbers aren’t quite as good. He’s hitting .297/.413/.408 with eight doubles, two homers, and a team-leading 32 RBI. He had a big series over the weekend, going 6-for-10 with a double, a home run, and six RBI.
There’s still a lot of work to be done for this year’s team, but it’s not crazy to draw a comparison between the 2015 HBU regional team and this 2017 team. On the way to clinching the SLC automatic bid in the conference tournament back in 2015, HBU pitchers threw four consecutive complete games. That was a team led by quality starting pitching and an opportunistic offense topped by a couple of fire starters.
Despite the work ahead, Moon feels the current bunch compares favorably to that regional club.
“I think our pitching is better than what it was that year. Defensively, I think we’re as good. We were more consistent offensively two years ago. Two years ago, it was great for us, we got hot at the right time, going through the tournament pitching four complete ballgames was unbelievable, but I think this pitching staff has the capability of doing that. Where our (conference) tournament is played in Sugar Land, it’s definitely a pitcher’s park, the wind usually blows in or, if not, straight across. If you can pitch and play defense, you got a chance to beat anybody.”
And with what they showed in the series against Sam Houston State, that should force the rest of the Southland to stand up and take notice.