The winner of the UNO-Nicholls State baseball series this weekend will have plenty to celebrate.
The Colonels (29-20, 14-7), who lead the Southland Conference by two games over Northwestern State and Incarnate Word, can clinch their first championship since joining the league in 1992.
“So I’ve been told,” said second-year coach Mike Silva in deadpan style. “I’ve heard that a time or two.”
While the Colonels are chasing history, it is no mystery why the regular-season ending series that starts 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Maestri Field is vital to the Privateers, too. UNO (31-21, 11-10), which is three games back in fifth place, likely needs to win at least twice to avoid falling into the dreaded play-in game between the No. 6 and 7 seeds at next week’s Southland Conference tournament in Lake Charles.
That scenario would likely force the Privateers to burn two-time Southland Conference pitcher of the week Brandon Mitchell (9-3, 4.03 ERA) on Tuesday before the double-elimination portion begins. No Southland team is in range for an at-large bid to an NCAA regional, so winning the tournament is the only ticket to the postseason.
“We’ve got to find a way to take two games (from Nicholls) obviously,” said UNO coach Blake Dean, who will ride Mitchell on Thursday, go with a wholestaff approach on Friday and throw up-and-down Tyler Leblanc on Saturday. “That’s our best hope to get two of three.”
Silva will start Devin Desandro (2-4, 5.71) on Thursday, rely on star freshman Jacob Mayers (8-1, 1.93) Friday and determine Saturday’s starter based on the results of the first two games. He stressed having fun rather than feeling stress in Nicholls’ unprecedented position.
“When you are on these runs, the teams that go haywire don’t enjoy it,” he said. “They start looking at hoisting a trophy. I want them to enjoy the bus ride together to the park. I want them to enjoy the time in the hotel together. I don’t feel pressure to finish this thing. These guys just need to go out and play.”
Both teams have every reason to be confident.
Nicholls has far exceeded its preseason prediction to finish sixth, winning five of seven Southland series in addition to beating LSU at Alex Box Stadium last month. The Colonels are batting .320 in league play with five regulars at .345 or higher. Fifth-year senior outfielder Xane Washington, hitting .376 with a conference-leading on-base percentage of .481, leads a veteran lineup that makes good contact in at-bat after at-bat.
“He’s been awesome,” Silva said of Washington. “He always had the ability. It was just him really understanding how to be consistent with his approach between the ears and then not trying to do too much. When you have tremendous ability, you can try to do too much.”
Silva, who inherited a team that finished second-to-last in the Southland in 2021, guided the Colonels to fourth a year ago and has them on top now.
“He just brought the culture of the team in the right direction,” Washington said. “The chemistry is something you can’t replicate anywhere else. You can tell when you walk into the locker room that we love each other. We have the most intense matches of ping pong that you’ll ever see almost every day, and it carries on to the field.”
UNO owns the best RPI in the league (102 as of Wednesday) and beat Incarnate Word by double digits twice last weekend. The Privateers hit five home runs in the finale, running their season total to 77 — one shy of the fourth-best mark in school history.
Tristan Moore, batting .348, has a league-high 18 homers. Six more players have hit between six and nine long balls. The Privateers also rank eighth nationally in fielding percentage and lead the Southland in double plays.
“Everything is coming together at the right moment,” Moore said. “It’s the perfect timing since the tournament is coming up. Our bats are getting hot and we’re dialed in.”
Despite its two-game lead, Nicholls is not assured of the No. 1 seed in the tournament with a 1-2 weekend because it dropped two of three to Incarnate Word and Northwestern State.
UNO can finish as low as No. 7 if it loses the series or as high as No. 1 if it sweeps the Colonels and gets help from others.
“It’s Hail Mary possible,” Dean said. “We’re playing decent. The wind seems to be blowing out, which is advantageous for us.”