Let's get one thing crystal clear: Patrick Somers, William Kankel and Mike Mason aren't in the same league as Southern Miss RHP Todd McInnis, the 2009 C-USA Pitcher of the Year. While the Owls' offensive exploits at Cougar Field during the C-USA Baseball Championship have been something to behold, battering inferior pitchers is something a lineup this talented should do. To the tune of .459/.537/.937 with 13 homers? No, but batter nonetheless? Yes.
What have we learned while watching the Owls power Cougar Field with their aluminum bats? Well for one thing, opponents might want to ignore the Owls' modest 10-9 record against southpaws. This lineup has settled in with Jr. RF Chad Mozingo atop the order, Sr. C/DH Diego Seastrunk supplying protection for cleanup hitter/So. 3B Anthony Rendon, and the bottom of the order providing the potential for surprising pop. Jr. SS Rick Hague is entrenched in the No. 2 hole, and while there has been some flux immediately ahead of Rendon and in the two spots immediately following GDG, the Owls know exactly what they are offensively. That level of comfort has been revealed down the stretch, and in particular this rousing week.
No. 2: Sr. CF Steven Sultzbaugh is not to be trifled with during the C-USA Baseball Championship. Last year he hit .438/.471/.500 over three games in Hattiesburg. Through three games this week he is batting .800/.769/2.000 with three homers and 12 RBIs. No, that slugging percentage is not a typo. For whatever reason Sultzbaugh caught fire down the stretch last season, and if this week plus his last three starts of the regular season (5-for-12 with two runs and six RBIs) are to be taken as gospel, Sultzbaugh is warming with the weather again. Leave him in the 9-hole and let him terrorize pitchers a few weeks longer.
All that is dandy, but the truth is East Carolina started Somers and saved its frontline pitchers for pod play. UH started its ace, Michael Goodnight, against Marshall and made the inconceivable mistake of starting Kankel in a must-win contest. Mason was the beneficiary of some dubious Rice baserunning 20 days ago, and given a second crack at the Marshall lefty, the Owls proved that they should have swept that series at Appalachian Power Park. None of those guys can hold a candle to McInnis, and McInnis (6-5, 2.91 ERA, .215 BAA, 1.15 WHIP) was first and foremost on The OG's mind following the corralling of the Thundering Herd.
"We're going to be really tested tomorrow night ... McInnis will probably be pitching," The OG said. "He's really good, so we'll find out just how zoned in we really are."
What's that you say? Rice roughed up McInnis to the tune of five runs (four earned) on four hits and three walks in two innings during a 10-2 victory two weeks ago? Yes, they did. But McInnis left that start with a minor arm injury, and we are left to presume that he is healthy following last weekend's 5-3 win over Memphis (6.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K). The Golden Eagles are on the NCAA Tournament bubble and likely need a C-USA tournament title and corresponding automatic bid to gain entry into an NCAA regional. It should come as no surprise that Southern Miss coach Scott Berry entrusts McInnis with his season on the line.
That's not to suggest that the Owls should cower in fear from this challenge. If we've learned anything over the past few days it's that this stacked lineup is capable of the near-impossible.
"We're not going to try to change anything," Mozingo (.325/.397/.442) said. "We'll just look at him as a pitcher who's throwing a fastball at us and just try to hit whatever he throws at us and keep the same mentality. And just keep the same swagger we've been coming with."