Both teams will bring a must-win mentality when UNA faces Valdosta State in their Gulf South Conference baseball tournament opener today at 6:30 p.m. in Rome, Ga.
A tough draw for UNA, the Blazers (26-17, 14-9 GSC) are eighth in the latest NCAA Division II South Region rankings, meaning they would be the region’s first team out of the national tournament if it started today.
The top seven teams in next week’s final region rankings and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion will advance to the eight-team South Regional for a shot at a world series berth.
UNA (36-14, 15-9 GSC) is situated more comfortably in the region, tied for fourth. But with six GSC teams in the regional top 10, including Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9, the Lions are seeking to protect their position.
“We definitely need stay in the top four,” UNA second baseman Michael Schmidt said. “There are a lot of teams in the tournament that would love to have our spot, a lot of teams with an opportunity to move up. We’re going out there with mind-set that we want to win it all. That was always our goal, and that would put us in a good position in the region.”
In league play, the Lions lost five of their eight series openers this season.
In the tournament format, UNA will change up its starting pitching rotation. Chad Boughner (10-2), who has been the third-game, weekend starter the last two seasons, will open against the Blazers tonight.
“You’ve got to go with your best guy there, and everybody knows who that is,” UNA coach Mike Keehn said. “He’s been our most consistent pitcher all year long. He’s just the guy who’s going to give us the best chance to win that first game. In a double-elimination tournament, it’s tough to fight through the losers bracket.”
For the second game, the Lions could to turn to regular first-game starter Johnny Hornbuckle (6-6), who has struggled over the second half of the season, losing five of his last eight starts with one indecision after beginning the season 4-1.
He lasted 2 1/3 innings in his last outing, a series-opening loss to UAH last Saturday, giving up two homers and four earned runs on five hits.
“He’s just missing up,” Keehn said of Hornbuckle. “His breaking ball hasn’t been as tight as it was last year. Against UAH, everything was up, and he was getting hit hard. Sometimes that wakes guys up. The level of hitters against UAH was much deeper than we’ve faced the last couple weeks. If it was above the belt, they didn’t miss it.”
The pitching, as a whole, is looking to move on after a tough Saturday at UAH, where it allowed a combined 27 runs and 35 hits in the first two games of the series.
“We’ve got to get back to what we do well and just pitch, not throw,” Boughner said. “We’ve got to work down in the zone. Against UAH, they just came out ready to play a little bit better than we did, they executed better and everything they hit found a hole.”
Regular weekend second-game starter Michael Watkins (6-2) and midweek arms Andrew Hillis (4-1) and Drew Batchelor (1-0), with a combined 10 starts between them, are the most experienced options after Boughner and Hornbuckle.
Typically a middle reliever, freshman Drew Mobley also has a midweek start this season.
The Lions also will have relievers Brantley Claunch (6-1, 1.93 ERA) and Ben Seabrook (12 saves) available after both missed the regular-season series at Valdosta State — Claunch with shoulder soreness and Seabrook with a migraine.
“Everybody is kind of in the same predicament with pitching depth,” Keehn said. “I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have a good No. 1. Some are better than others at No. 2. A lot of 3s are real similar.
“When it gets past that, it’s just who’s going to step up. You’re going to have to have a guy do well who hasn’t been in that environment if you’re going to move on.”
UNA allowed 14 hits and committed three errors in a 10-2 series-opening loss at Valdosta on March 31. Boughner gutted out a 7-6 win in the series, allowing six earned runs on 13 hits in 8 2/3 innings, but the Lions lost the 7-inning game 5-3 while allowing 10 hits.
Now, they’ll face a tough out in a team that essentially needs a win to extend its season, one that was in first place in the conference heading into the final two weeks and one that swept conference player of the year (designated hitter Christian Glisson) and freshman of the year (catcher Bryant Hayman) honors.
Tonight’s winner will likely face top-seeded Delta State, which opens against eighth-seeded Christian Brothers, in the second round Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
“It’s an important game for us,” said Keehn, who saw his team slide onto the bubble last year but claim the last at-large regional berth after going 1-2 in the GSC tournament. “Playing Valdosta, offensively, they can be extremely dangerous. We can’t do what we did last time down there and make a bunch of mistakes. They’ll thrive off errors and will put up a bunch of runs.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or bryan.app@TimesDaily.com.