In what promises to be a wide-open Southland Conference baseball tournament, UNO and Nicholls State might have more self-belief than anyone else.
The fourth-seeded Privateers (33-22, 13-11), who face No. 3 seed Lamar (32-21, 13-11) around 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, are the only one of the seven teams in Lake Charles with three consecutive league series wins. That stretch includes back-to-back victories against No. 2 seed Incarnate Word and No.1 seed Nichols.
“I’m confident in our squad,” said UNO second baseman Tyler Bischke, who hit momentum-turning home runs on Thursday and Saturday against Nicholls. “We have a lot of momentum coming into the tournament, which is what we need. I think we’re ready.”
The Colonels will play host McNeese State (33-21), which defeated Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 4-0 in a Tuesday matchup, on Wednesday night. Nicholls (30-22, 15-9) clinched its first Southland regular-season championship by winning the second of three games at UNO this past weekend. Understandably, the Colonels were not totally focused for the finale after celebrating their huge accomplishment a night earlier.
“I have confidence in our guys,” second-year coach Nicholls Mike Silva said. “There are a lot of really good teams in our league. Postseason baseball is always crazy. It’s going to be fun. Winning that first game is really important for everyone, and if we do that, I like our chances.”
The margins are small in a conference where Nicholls and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi were separated by only three games during the regular season. Not one of the 21 series played between the tournament participants ended in a sweep.
UNO’s edge starts with having first-team All-Southland fifth-year senior Brandon Mitchell (10-3, 4.00 ERA) on the mound for the all-important opener. After going 1-6 last season and 11-10 for his career, he became the program’s first 10-game winner since its last regional appearance in 2008. He has thrown at least six innings in nine consecutive starts, earning the league’s pitcher of the week honors twice.
“He bottled up all the wins for one year,” UNO coach Blake Dean said. “I’ve always been hard on him. This is what I expected out of him when he came here as a young guy. He’s finally put it together for one year, and he’s been magical. Hopefully I get to see him do it again.”
The Privateers are no one-man show, though. Southland Conference hitter of the year Tristan Moore, who has a league-best 19 home runs, leads a potent offense. UNO scored 10 or more runs in six of its last eight games.
The defense paces the Southland in fielding percentage (.980), ranking 18th nationally. The Privateers also have turned a league-best 46 double plays, including four in three games. Slick shortstop Kasten Furr, who somehow was left off the Southland’s all-defensive team, made one error in 232 chances.
“They (the fielders) are amazing,” Mitchell said. “I trust them every time I’m on the mound with any ball that’s hit. I have no doubt in my mind the play is going to be made.”
Nicholls, seeking its first tournament championship and NCAA regional bid since 1998, is strong across the board as well. The Colonels lead the Southland by a wide margin with a .315 batting average in conference games and are second to the Privateers in runs (180-176). They have the third-best ERA in the league and have a slightly better fielding percentage in conference games (.980-.978) than UNO. Their four first-team all-conference selections were a league high — first baseman Edgar Alvarez, shortstop Parker Coddou, outfielder Xane Washington and pitcher Jacob Mayers.
The Colonels hope to feel just as good at the end of the tournament in Lake Charles as they did on Friday night at Maestri Field.
“It’s an extremely humbling moment,” Silva said minutes after the Colonels clinched. “I stood in front of the podium two years ago when I took the job and I think some people thought it was a pipe dream when I said we were going to win championships right here in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Those young men in the locker room bought in and our community bought in. It took everybody.”