South Alabama might be the most opportunistic team in college baseball
Look at the overall record -- 32-17 -- and conference standings -- first in the Sun Belt -- and then go down the Jaguars' statistics sheet. Let's be honest, you're kind of left scratching your head a bit. It's not that the Jaguars don't do some things really well. They do. But this team doesn't stand out in some key areas where teams which experience a lot of success typically do.
The more typical feeling about Sun Belt teams is that they possess a lot of power, whether it be home run or gap power. Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama's opponent this weekend, ranks 20th nationally in homers as a team, 21st nationally in homers per game.
But South Alabama, the Sun Belt leader by two games over Georgia State, and 2 1/2 over the Ragin' Cajuns? The Jags rank 281st nationally in homers, and 265th nationally in doubles.
Don't worry, we were as confused you probably are right now before talking to South Alabama head coach Mark Calvi. But it now is crystal clear and all makes sense.
"This group of guys just have really good makeup and they just grind. They love going on the road and we've gotten some real breaks along the way," South Alabama head coach Mark Calvi said. "You just have to be in position to win at the end, and that's our team. We're really opportunistic. Offense, defense, whatever, we just play really hard, and it has paid off for us this season.
"We are who we are. And the one beauty of this team is that everyone on it knows their role. Everyone knows what they need to do each time they come to the ballpark."
South Alabama doesn't play in a homer-friendly ballpark, so Calvi and his coaching staff have recruited accordingly by snagging a lot of guys who do a terrific job of finding other ways to get on base.
Leadoff hitter and spark plug outfielder Cole Billingsley is one of them. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder might not be an overwhelming physical presence, but he's a scrappy, mature player who gets the most out of his talents. Billingsley not only leads the team with a .344 batting average, but also has good speed -- 23 stolen bases in 27 attempts. Interestingly enough, despite all of his speed, Billingsley only has seven doubles this spring, with the entire team only having 57.
"Cole is a great outfielder, he's terrific defensively for us. He's a really good baseball player with great instincts. He's a good runner. He's not a burner, but he's very smart out there and gets good jumps," Calvi said. "He's probably got 7-10 bunt base hits this season. His body has changed and he's gotten a little stronger, but that hasn't changed his game at all.
"He's really just one of those guys you can't let your guard down with. He's a distraction for opposing teams."
With just total nine homers, there isn't really anyone in the South Alabama lineup that scares opposing pitchers. However, the Cajuns will have to deal with third baseman Brad Collura, who's hitting .320, and like Billingsley, has athleticism and can cause issues on the bases (16 for 21 in stolen bases). The Jags also are happy to get Adam Ballew, who recently missed time because of a concussion, back on the field.
As is the case with Billingsley and Collura, Ballew has added eight stolen bases. And all three of those guys will make pitchers work, as evidenced by a combined total of 69 walks and 16 hit-by-pitches. As a team, the Jags have 225 walks and 54 HBPs, which ranks 19th and 57th nationally, respectively.
"What can I say about us offensively? When the top of the lineup is on base, they can run, and it presents some better pitches for the middle of our lineup," Calvi said. "We might see a couple of pitches, then hit a tapper, or bunt, and just make the other team kind of work for it. We're the type of team that just tries to score a run an inning, then turn things over to the bullpen at the end of the game."
Calvi devises his pitching strategy from the years he spent with legendary former head coach Ray Tanner at South Carolina. Calvi said Tanner always talked about how the start means very little if the bullpen can't hold up its end of the bargain. So, while the Jaguars certainly want good starts, the goal of that unit is to just give them a chance to win, with hopes the bullpen can seal the deal.
The Jaguars have one of the top bullpen arms in the country in righthander Ben Taylor. Taylor started for the Jaguars at times last season, and struggled immensely when doing so. That prompted Calvi to talk to Taylor with the idea that he permanently move to the bullpen to maximize his arm strength. There, Taylor has been terrific with six saves and an 0.60 ERA in 30 innings, along with quality stuff, sitting 90-94 mph with a sneaky, deceptive fastball.
"You know, as a starter, he'd be 89-90 (mph), and then dip to 86-88 pretty quickly, and he'd be pretty pedestrian after that. So, I told him I know you're a starter by trade at your junior-college, but I want to be in our bullpen. I think that's the best place for you," Calvi said. "I just wanted him to go out in the bullpen, come in, and throw as hard as he could with good stuff. He loves the role, and he's been great at it."
You also can't talk about the success of the bullpen without also mentioning Shane McKinley (0.56, 16 IP), Hunter Soleymani (1.59, 17 IP), Cameron Cochran (2.70, 20 IP) and Cody Van Aken (2.77, 48.2 IP).
While the South Alabama weekend rotation clearly doesn't have a lot of star power, righthander Kevin Hill is a guy to watch this weekend in Lafayette, and potentially in the NCAA postseason. Hill will sit 88-91 mph with his fastball, and can touch a few 92s and 93s on occasion. However, the big key for the righty who has a 2.06 ERA in 65.2 innings, is throwing four legitimate pitches for strikes.
"His pitches have some life, and last year, he didn't understand the magnitude of being a Friday night guy for us. He'd give up three or four runs, then get into a groove," Calvi said. "This season, he comes out in a groove and doesn't have to settle in. It's been a huge difference for his stuff and command."
All these things and more will need to come together if the Jaguars want to make a run at the postseason. Despite an impressive overall record, the Jags have an RPI of 88 and just a 4-9 mark vs. RPI Top 100 teams. So not only is beating Louisiana-Lafayette this weekend important, it's likely the Jaguars will also need to go the distance in the Sun Belt tournament in two weeks.
South Alabama has spent the entire season not overly concerned about outside elements or how anyone perceives it. That formula has worked well: taking things one play at a time, and striking when the opportunity arises.