Southeastern Louisiana coach Matt Riser knew it wouldn’t be easy to replace the key losses from last year’s regional team. Gone was ace Andro Cutura (10-2, 1.95), the best pitcher in the Southland Conference last year. Gone was slugger Andrew Godbold, whose nine home runs accounted for more than half of the team’s total (16). Gone was Sunday starter Sean Kennel.
Then, in Southeastern’s fall world series, catcher Jameson Fisher (who hit .389 a year ago to lead the team) tore the labrum in his shoulder on a freak play, diving back to second base. The injury would cost him all of the 2015 season. And in January, closer Mason Klotz (1.32 ERA, 5 saves last year) dislocated the patellar tendon in his knee, an injury that has limited him to four innings this spring.And yet, Southeastern Louisiana is 33-13 overall, and all alone atop the Southland standings at 17-4. The Lions are No. 41 in the RPI, which means they have a legitimate shot to earn an at-large regional bid if they fail to win the conference tournament. How is it possible to lose so much and still be so good?
“It’s a credit to the type of kids we’ve been recruiting,” Riser said. “We’ve got a formula we’ve put together, kind of an MO. Obviously the talent’s got to be there, but we try to look a little bit more into the character of the kid. We try to be as consistent as possible, so we get the same type of kid every year. So you have some guys that have stepped up and done a good job developing in our program.”
Without Fisher and Godbold, senior Kevin Carr (.341/.434/.443, 11 doubles, 28 RBIs) and junior Daniel Midyett (.335/.431/.529, 7 HR, 39 RBIs) have developed into the key middle-of-the-order run producers. They’ve also helped fill the leadership gap.
“With Fisher going down, obviously that’s a big blow. That young man is obviously a very talented player, but even more as a person and a leader off the field as well,” Riser said. “Going into the year, that was kind of our centerpiece, not only from a talent standpoint but a leadership standpoint as well. The guys around them know, the best way to help Fish with the injury was to step up, and those two, Kevin and Midyett, both have. Kevin’s done a great job in the leadership role and done a nice job on the field keeping the energy right in the dugout. And Midyett has done a good job stepping up offensively.”
The switch-hitting Midyett doesn’t have the most raw power on the team, but Riser said he is so consistent with his barrel path that it increases his power frequency. He also has a mature approach and controls the strike zone well, with as many walks as strikeouts (24). This still isn’t a very powerful team -- Midyett has seven of SELA’s 18 home runs. But the Lions rank 14th in the nation in batting (.307) and 11th in on-base percentage (.402), and they’ve produced competitive at-bats up and down the lineup.
The catalyst atop the order is sophomore outfielder Jacob Seward, a 5-foot-9 spark plug who leads the team in batting (.378) and OBP (.473). He has 22 walks and just 12 strikeouts, illustrating his advanced ability to put the ball in play and let his speed work for him.
“He is a thorn in a lot of people’s behind,” Riser said. “He gets up there, he’s a 5-foot-8, maybe 5-foot-7 leadoff guy, you think he’s got no juice, you play everybody in, then he hits a ball over your head. So you back everybody up, and he hits a line drive to left center. He is just a pest. With his speed, he puts a ball in play and he can beat it out in the infield. The big part for him is his mentality and makeup, he’s had a ton of two-out RBIs. He’s driven in 29 runs as a leadoff guy, which is hard to do, but he’s had so many two-out knocks. He’s definitely been the catalyst, our little spark plug at the beginning of the lineup.”Perhaps Southeastern’s biggest strength has been its weekend rotation, which has thrived even without Cutura and Kennel. The lone returning weekend starter, junior righty Tate Scioneaux (6-2, 3.66), got off to a bit of a rocky start but has settled down and pitched well during conference play, making him a tone-setter atop the rotation. He pitches in the 88-92 range with late life that makes his fastball play up, and his go-to secondary pitch is his changeup, but he also mixes in a slider. The No. 2 starter is junior righty Jake Johnson (8-1, 2.94), a junior-college transfer with serious pro potential.
“Jake will sit anywhere from 90-93, and will touch 94-95. But when he gets up in the zone, it flattens up a little for him,” Riser said. “He’s really good when he’s at the bottom of the zone, he’ll sink it. A true three-pitch mix, can throw that slider and changeup at any time to keep them off that fastball. Being able to throw that changeup in a 2-1 count, it really gets them off the fastball.”
And Southeastern has a third rock-solid starter in Kyle Cedotal (6-2, 1.82, 74-11 K-BB in 74 IP), who was the team’s starting left fielder a year ago and also threw 42 innings in a swing role on the mound. This fall, the coaches talked with Cedotal about the need for him to focus on the mound and assuming a weekend starter job, and he ran with the role.
“He had a good summer in the Prospect League, then put in a lot of time and effort in the weight room,” Riser said. “He had always been athletic and lean, but he’s finally started putting on weight, gained about 10-12 pounds. So his velocity increased a little as well, has made him very effective and efficient for us. Last year we concentrated so much on the hitting part, he had a tendency to walk some guys and get himself in bad counts. … This year he’s absolutely dominated the strike zone.”
Cedotal’s fastball is now in the 86-90 range, and he keeps hitters off balance with a true four-pitch mix, highlighted by an 80-83 slider/cutter that serves as his go-to pitch in key situations. The key to his success has been getting ahead in counts and getting soft contact early in at-bats to keep his pitch counts down.
All three weekend starters have been very efficient, which has reduced the strain on the bullpen. Southeastern had to replace four seniors from last year’s bullpen in addition to Klotz, so that unit has had a few bumps in the road. But the bullpen has gelled as the season has progressed, led by freshman righties Mac Scelorer (2.92 ERA, 5 SV) and Kade Granier (4-1, 2.70), plus senior Kyle Keller (2.89 ERA, 2 SV). They all present hitters with different looks.
Scelorer attacks the zone with an 87-89 fastball that he spots to both sides and a good 12-to-6 curveball. Granier is a low three-quarters sinker/slider specialist who works in the 85-88 range with good movement. Keller has the biggest arm of the group, with a fastball that sits 90-92 and bumps 94, as well as a power slider at 84. Klotz is working his way back too and could provide another little boost down the stretch.
But Southeastern Louisiana isn’t focusing on who’s not around. The guys who have stayed healthy have performed at a high level, and they are good enough to get the Lions back to regionals for the second consecutive year. Last year’s team elevated the program, and this year’s team has designs on taking it even further.