The SoCon baseball tourney moves to Greenville

It’s SoCon baseball tourney time, live from Riley Park in beautiful downtown Charl…

Oh.  They moved the tournament this year.

That’s right.  After 19 consecutive years in Charleston, the powers that be in the Southern Conference wilted from the non-stop complaints of a select few and moved the tournament (for at least one year) to Greenville, where it will be held at Fluor Field.  (The tourney returns to Riley Park next year.)

The tournament regularly made money (!) when it was held in Charleston.  Don’t expect it to do so in Greenville, where it will lack the kind of community support that has made it successful in the Holy City.  Of course, the conference doesn’t realy need the money.  Wait, what’s that you say?  The economic climate in the country has hit the SoCon hard?  The league is cutting costs, including not holding media days for football and basketball?  It’s going to reduce the number of teams that qualify for conference tournaments in sports like women’s soccer, men’s soccer, women’s tennis, men’s tennis, volleyball, and softball?  It’s going to force conference baseball series next year to be held over two days rather than three, with Saturday doubleheaders, to save on travel expenses?  It’s going to do all those things and then cut off its nose to spite its face by moving its baseball tourney just to please a small group of whiners?

Yes, it is.  (The league is also not printing media guides next year, although that strikes me as a good permanent move, what with being able to publish the guides online.  It would be nice if the conference updated its historical records information in hoops and baseball, which hasn’t been done in several years.)

The complaints came over a perceived home field advantage for The Citadel (and for the College of Charleston to a lesser extent).  The loudest of the voices was that of UNC Greensboro coach Mike Gaski, who campaigned to move the tournament for about a decade, or not too long after his 1998 squad had been defeated by The Citadel in the tournament championship game.  That was UNCG’s first year in the league after having lots of success in the Big South.  Gaski’s crew had won the regular season in the SoCon by a half-game over The Citadel, and by one game over Western Carolina, in a very tight three-way race.  Then the tournament rolled around.  The Spartans had actually swept the Bulldogs in Charleston earlier that season, but when the games really mattered, The Citadel prevailed twice over UNCG by a combined score of 21-1.

There really should not have been much to complain about — 21-1 strikes me as being rather decisive — but that was just the start of the drumbeat for moving the tourney.  The thing is, though, UNCG hasn’t won the league regular season title since then.  The Spartans did make it to the tourney title game in 2001, as the 5 seed, when they lost to (of course) The Citadel, which probably rankled Gaski even more.

As everyone knows, home field advantage in baseball isn’t nearly as important as it is in football or basketball.  There is no comparison between The Citadel playing tournament games at Riley Park and UT-Chattanooga getting to host the SoCon men’s hoops tourney on its home court.  That is borne out by the numbers.  While UTC has won the basketball tournament both times it has hosted it, I think some people would be surprised if they took a look at the baseball tournament history since the SoCon set up shop in Charleston.  There have been 19 tournaments held in Chucktown, and here is the breakdown over that time span:

The Citadel — 5 regular season titles, 7 tournament titles
College of Charleston — 3 regular season titles, 1 tournament title
Western Carolina — 3 regular season titles, 4 tournament titles
Georgia Southern — 5 regular season titles, 3 tournament titles
Elon — 2 regular season titles, 1 tournament title
UNC Greensboro — 1 regular season title, 0 tournament titles
Furman — 0 regular season titles, 2 tournament titles
Wofford — 0 regular season titles, 1 tournament title

The Citadel is +2 overall in 19 years of hosting the event (in terms of tourney versus regular season titles).  Meanwhile, the other local school reputed to have at least something of an edge by the tournament being held in Charleston, the CofC, is -2.  So much for a huge local advantage.

After Gaski and UNCG, the school with the most fans critical of the tournament being held in Charleston is probably Western Carolina — but the Catamounts have had their fair share of success there, and are +1.  Really, it’s Georgia Southern that logically would have the biggest complaint (-2), but its fans don’t seem to have had nearly as much of an issue with the tournament being held in the port city (it’s not an inconvenient location for them, for one thing).

The school that appears to have had the biggest benefit to playing in Charleston, as far as tourney vs. regular season success goes, is Furman, with no league regular season titles but two tourney titles since 1990.  Thus, the conference in its infinite wisdom is moving the tournament so the Paladins can be the host team…

You know what this is really about?  It’s about programs not being as successful as they once were, and not getting in the NCAA tournament, and looking for an excuse.  Western Carolina dominated the league in the mid-to-late 1980s, winning five straight tournament titles from 1985-89, all of which were held either in Cullowhee, Boone, or Asheville.  In those five years, WCU also happened to win the league regular season (or division) title four times.  The Catamounts also won a division title in 1984, but didn’t win the tournament that season.

UNC Greensboro won the Big South in 1994 and 1997, winning that conference’s tournament title both years as well.  It entered the Southern Conference following the ’97 campaign.

Western Carolina fans remember the glory days of winning the league every year.  The Catamounts have generally still been competitive, and among the better teams in the league, but they don’t win the conference title every year, and that is reflected in WCU’s tournament results.  The same can be said for UNCG, which has usually been good, but hasn’t enjoyed as much success as it had in the Big South immediately prior to joining the SoCon.

Unfortunately for Gaski and the Spartans, the year the tournament finally moves to Greenville has coincided with that of one of his worst squads, and UNCG has not qualified for this year’s tournament.  I suspect the coach finds that particularly galling.

I hope that Greenville does a decent job hosting the event.  I think it’s safe to assume that there will be a tarp at Fluor Field.  As some of us remember, that wasn’t the case when the tournament was held in Asheville.  The league can’t afford to repeat the 1989 debacle, which just screamed “Mickey Mouse conference” (and which led directly to the tournament moving to Charleston).

I suppose any of the eight teams in the tournament could win it, but I would rank them like this:

Elon — clearly the best team in the league; NCAA lock
Georgia Southern, The Citadel, Western Carolina, College of Charleston — all think they can win the tourney
Appalachian State, Davidson — dangerous, but probably not dangerous enough to win the tournament
Furman — happy to be the host

The latest projections from Baseball America,, etc., suggest that as many as three teams from the SoCon can make the NCAAs.  I am a little dubious about that.  Elon is definitely in, but if the Phoenix win the league tournament I don’t know what other team, if any, will join them as a regional participant.  That will depend on how the other teams fare in Greenville.  My best guess is that Georgia Southern is best positioned to get a bid from among the other schools.  I think The Citadel and the College of Charleston have to win the tournament (that’s probably a given for the CofC at this point), and that Western Carolina may have to at least reach the championship game.

The seedings were thus very important for the contenders, and the short straw was drawn by WCU and the CofC.  Not only do those two squads have to play each other in the first round, but the winner likely has to face Elon in the next game.  Georgia Southern’s second-place league finish means that the Eagles avoid all three of those teams until at least Friday (the same is true for The Citadel).  That said, this tournament has a history of early-round upsets, and neither Appalachian State nor Davidson are easy outs.  Even Furman has to be given a puncher’s chance.

As for The Citadel, I would like the Bulldogs’ chances a lot more if the relief pitching were a little better.  Drew Mahaffey is a quality closer, but the setup corps has left a lot to be desired.  Fred Jordan only appears to have faith in one other reliever, Raymond Copenhaver, but Copenhaver has had his ups and downs this year.

Of course, one solution to the problem with the relief pitching is to have the starters all throw complete games, similar to what happened in 2004 (when The Citadel had a tournament-record five complete games, two by Jonathan Ellis).  If a particular starter is effective, then Jordan is likely to leave him in the game as long as he possibly can.

The Bulldogs appear to be playing better defensively, and the offense is close to its peak level entering the tournament, which is good.  If the bottom of the order can be at least somewhat productive, The Citadel should score a lot of runs, because batters 1-6 have been getting the job done.

I favor Elon to win the tournament, but I am hoping the Bulldogs can have a special week.  I would also find it a bit amusing if The Citadel wins the tournament in a year when it’s not held in Charleston.

Undefeated in Carolina Stadium

The Bulldog baseball team enjoyed its first visit to the brand-new Carolina Stadium, winning 5-3 in 11 occasionally dramatic innings, and cementing a season sweep of the Gamecocks.  Admittedly, it’s only two games, but this is the first time The Citadel has beaten South Carolina on the diamond twice in one season since 1961, although it should be pointed out that the two schools didn’t meet twice annually during most of the 1960s, and for a few years in the 1970s.

(The Citadel also won its first basketball game against the College of Charleston at Carolina First Arena, so these debuts at “Carolina ______”  stadia are going rather well.)

At the end of this post you can see some pictures of the new park I took during the game, from a bunch of different angles, somehow forgetting to take photos of the concourse and the concession areas until the batteries in my camera died.  I’m also not the most skilled of photographers, so they aren’t the best pictures in history.  It’s a nice stadium, definitely SEC-caliber.  Some observations about the park, and the game:

  • There was a sign noting that, in an effort to be eco-friendly, one half of the scoreboard was lit using a hydrogen fuel cell.  Why only half, I have no idea.
  • Speaking of the board, I noticed that the “Carolina Stadium” lettering was not lit.  I assume that either it wasn’t working, or more likely that the folks at USC are still looking to sell naming rights to the stadium, and didn’t want to pay for custom-designed lighting that will only be temporarily used.
  • There is a grass area down the first base line near the right field wall called the “Bi-Lo Berm”.  I have to wonder how long Bi-Lo will continue to sponsor the berm, given that the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.
  • The field itself looked fantastic, which was very impressive, particularly given the weather over the past few days.  I give the groundskeeper an A.
  • The parking situation is abysmal.  I’m just waiting for the first pedestrian fatality (it will probably happen after a game, after darkness).   If anything, it’s worse than it was at Sarge Frye Field, which is really saying something.  For someone like me, who would be inclined to go to USC games every now and then just to watch good baseball, it’s a reason not to go.
  • The stadium holds 9,000.  The announced crowd last night was 6,923, which is a nice crowd for a weekday game, although to be honest I didn’t think the park was at 75% capacity.  I thought it was more like 60%-65%.  The Citadel brought a fair amount of people, which wasn’t that big a surprise.
  • Having a true freshman throw 134 pitches in a game is normally asking a lot, but I can’t really fault Fred Jordan in this case, given the actual performance by T.J. Clarkson.  Clarkson didn’t exactly run out of gas, either, as he retired the last nine batters he faced.  I wondered if he had a little trouble getting loose in the early going, but he ended the game on a roll.
  • Drew Mahaffey pitched in both games this season against South Carolina.  In those two games, he faced 12 batters, retiring all 12, with 8 strikeouts (6 swinging), a foul out, a tapper back to the pitcher, and two routine fly outs.  In the first game, he entered the contest with runners on second and third and no outs.  Neither scored.
  • In two games this season against the Gamecocks, Bryan Altman had an OBP of .818, with seven hits (including a homer) , two walks, two runs batted in, and four runs scored.
  • This is a pretty good USC team, but it’s not as good as some more recent editions.  I think part of this is due to its lineup not having a true scares-you-every-time-he’s-at-bat kind of player.  Past Gamecock teams have usually had a couple of those guys.

I haven’t posted much about the baseball team.  One reason for that is I’ve been a little busy.  The other is that I was going to wait a little into the season so I could get a handle on this year’s club.  The thing is, though, that the Bulldogs have played 35 games and I still don’t have a real good handle on the team.  They have a .600 winning percentage in league play, and a .600 winning percentage out of conference  — and yet I really can’t say the Bulldogs are a consistent outfit.  Here are some of my thoughts on the team (some of which could be wildly off the mark, to be sure):

  • The lineup, from 1-6, is excellent.  Those six guys can all hit, and with some pop.  The two freshmen have both acquitted themselves very well.  I worry a little about two lefties at the 4-5 spots, where a late-game LOOGY could come into play, but that’s a minor quibble.  William Ladd is currently batting .351 (824 OPS), and looks to have locked down the seventh spot in the lineup (nice outfield assist in last night’s game, too).  That leaves the designated hitter (for games Richard Jones catches) and shortstop as question marks in the batting order.  The DH spot will likely be something of a revolving door, based on matchups, which is fine (although Sid Fallaw has received the majority of the opportunities so far).  Shortstop is another matter.
  • The Bulldogs have been erratic defensively, which makes it all the more important to have an everyday shortstop.  That would have been Kyle Jordan, of course, but you just can’t have a player with a 367 OPS as a regular.  His terrible season-long slump has been a major problem.  I’m not sold on Altman as a regular shortstop.  Johnny Dangerfield hasn’t been bad, but his bat isn’t quite big enough to make up for the defensive deficiencies in the middle infield when Altman moves over.
  • The pitching has been mediocre, even though The Citadel does lead the Southern Conference in ERA, thanks to A)  its home park, and B) the incredible lack of quality pitching in the league this year (SoCon ERA, as a conference:  6.35).  Mahaffey has been outstanding in the closer role.  The starting pitching hasn’t been that good, but it generally hasn’t been terrible, either.  The midweek starters haven’t been bad at all.  What the Bulldogs don’t have is an ace.  The middle relief/setup men have been poor.

The Citadel, right now, strikes me as a team you wouldn’t want to face in the Southern Conference tournament, but a team probably not consistent enough to win the entire tournament.  However, I can see that changing for the better.  If Raymond Copenhaver (and/or someone else) can shore things up in the 7th-8th innings, and get the game to Mahaffey, the Bulldogs have plenty of starting pitchers capable of a solid 6-inning effort.  In post-season play, having four (or five) of those kinds of pitchers will work to The Citadel’s advantage; that’s the type of depth you need to win a conference tourney.

First, though, The Citadel has to make sure it qualifies for the SoCon tournament, which means it has to finish as one of the top eight teams in the league.  The Bulldogs are well on their way to making it, but there are still 15 conference games left, starting Friday at UNC-Greensboro.  UNCG is currently 2-11 in the league, in last place, and will be desperate to win the series and climb out of the cellar.

It would be ironic if the Spartans ultimately do not qualify for the conference tournament, since UNCG coach Mike Gaski campaigned for many years to move the league tourney out of Charleston, claiming it was an unfair advantage to the two Charleston schools.  The conference brass finally buckled under his criticism (among that of others), and moved the tournament for this season to Greenville.  Now there is a decent chance the Spartans won’t even make the field.

Pictures from last night: