Story by Will Carter / Sports Editor
After a rocky start to the season, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (7-10) have kindled a fire heading into their first weekend of Conference USA games, winning three-out-of-four games in the past week.
A flaming hot Old Dominion Monarchs (14-1) squad is hitting the road to Murfreesboro for only their second road trip of the season. A 3-1 win against Virginia Commonwealth University was the one away affair. Currently, the Monarchs are on an 11-game win streak.
“Yeah, they’re probably favored to win three games, but that’s why you play the games,” Blue Raiders head coach Jim Toman said. “Old Dominion is really good, but our guys are going to be loose. That’s a good thing.”
The Monarchs are one of the most well-balanced teams across the entire conference. In seven different pitching categories, they rank in the top three of all twelve teams in C-USA. It’s much the same at the plate as they rank in the top three of eight separate categories, including the top rank in triples, home runs, and slugging percentage.
One category the Blue Raiders have them beat in is the Ratings Power Index (RPI) which is based on strength of schedule and winning percentage. Middle Tennessee is the No. 144 ranked team in RPI, whereas Old Dominion is No. 181. The 2-1 series win over Auburn certainly boosted the Blue Raiders.
With the No. 17 ranked earned run average (ERA) in the nation at 2.73, the Monarchs’ pitching staff has been dealing this season. Their opponent’s batting average of .227 is another indication of the bullpen’s stellar production.
Redshirt senior Nick Pantos has been the best arm so far for Old Dominion having won three appearances, and posting a 2.29 ERA in 19.2 innings of work. He also leads his team in strikeouts with 28.
Senior Andy Garriola and sophomore Carter Trice are the hottest bats so far this season for the Monarchs with the two posting batting averages of .323 and .317 respectively. The duo totals 60 plus at-bats and six home runs each. Trice is the Monarchs RBI leader with 20.
The key for the Blue Raiders it seems is for the team to be loose and stay in the fight. Freshman righthander James Sells echoed Toman’s notions.
“We know we’re gonna have a good team (in Old Dominion), but we played a good team last week in Auburn,” Sells said. “We’re just gonna go in, throw strikes, put balls in play, and see what happens.”
Conference play is the most important time of the year, and the Blue Raiders have an opportunity to prove themselves as a team to watch out for in C-USA.
As the Blue Raiders have been known to say, “Don’t let them get hot.”
First pitch at Reese Smith Jr. Field on Friday is set for 6 p.m. Saturday’s matchup is set for a 3 p.m. start with the series wrapping up on Sunday at 1 p.m.