Story by William Carter / Contributing Writer
The most important part of the season for any college team ramps up this weekend for the Blue Raider baseball team. Middle Tennessee starts conference play Friday as they travel to Birmingham, Alabama to take on the UAB Blazers. It will be the first Conference-USA games for both teams this season.
MTSU (11-8, 0-0) was handed three losses by the Memphis Tigers in a 4-game series last weekend with a 7-8 defeat in the 11-inning series finale. UAB (7-11, 0-0) came away with one win last weekend versus Indiana State. The Blazers more recently met Samford University on the diamond on Tuesday where they lost 1-5.
“There have been some guys slumping, but there has been a lot of good pitching,” MTSU coach Jim Toman said. “We just gotta play as hard as we can. If we play hard, then I will be happy.”
In 19 games this season, the biggest struggle for the Blue Raiders has been at the plate with the team hitting an average of .228. Shortstop Fausto Lopez and third baseman Cole Escher are the only Blue Raiders batting over .300 this season. After them, the team has a significant dropoff at the plate.
“We’ve talked to players at length about making contact and having a better two-strike approach. We pulled out the machines for batting practice and turned them up a notch,” Toman said. “I am very confident in them. They have been grinding, and I think we’re going to score more runs.”
On the flip side of things, Middle Tennessee has seen great success out of the bullpen this season. Opposing teams have a .219 batting average when a Blue Raider pitcher takes the mound. The team’s strikeout total has reached a staggering 196 with 50 coming from the right hand of junior Aaron Brown.
“Overall, the pitching staff has been tremendous,” Toman said. “It’s like all aspects of baseball. When some guys do well, then other guys want to do well.”
Opening up conference play against the UAB Blazers won’t be a walk in the park for the Blue Raiders. This season the Blazers have batted in 97 runs with a total of 109 runs, and have four players batting above an average of .300. They have also compiled 38 extra-base hits.
Pitching for the Blazers has been better than most this season as well. UAB has allowed a batting average of .242. Earlier in the year, they suffered a 5-6 loss to Auburn University who in recent years has been towards the top of the SEC.
“They have the advantage with the home-field. They’re a scrappy team and well coached, so we’ll have our hands full,” Toman said. “We just have to play all three facets. Everyone will be fired up, and I expect to play well.”
First pitch of the series is set for 5:30 p.m. Friday with the possibility of a doubleheader due to weather. The series will wrap up Sunday with game time scheduled at 1 p.m.
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