Two tough series remain for Bulls baseball
After a 9-5 home loss to Central Florida on Tuesday night, the tone of USF's baseball season will largely hinge on its final two Big East series, against the league's top two teams in St. John's and Notre Dame.
The team's youth has been its best storyline, with redshirt freshman outfielder Ryan Lockwood, the transfer from Florida, putting together a 28-game hitting streak, the longest active streak in the nation. After sitting out two games with a groin injury, he went 4-for-5 on Tuesday, raising his average to a team-best .411. Four of USF's five pitchers Tuesday were freshmen, and this weekend, Prado will have two freshmen -- Randy Fontanez and Derrick Stultz -- starting after junior Daniel Thomas. If there's anything that typifies the team's middling 25-22 record, it's the pitching, where 12 players have earned decisions this season, but none has a record more than one game over .500; only one is more than one game under .500.
USF sits seventh in the Big East standings, a precarious position because only the top eight teams advance to the conference tournament, which the Bulls host in Clearwater in three weeks. This is a very young Bulls team, especially on the pitching side, but because USF was picked to finish third in the league's preseason poll, missing the league tournament -- in its own backyard -- would be an awkward step backwards in Lelo Prado's second season.
The good news? USF (10-11 in league play) has tiebreaker advantages over the two teams immediately below it in the standings, having taken two of three games from Villanova and Rutgers, who are both 9-12. Helping matters further, those two teams play each other this weekend -- a sweep either way would help the Bulls' chances of securing one of the final spots in Clearwater. USF can even clinch a spot in the tournament if the Bulls can somehow get a sweep at conference leader St. John's, combined with a sweep in the Nova- Rutgers series.
Thing is, USF hasn't had a sweep -- by the Bulls or against them -- all season. You can spin that either way -- they've been able to beat every league team they've played, which would give them confidence in Clearwater, but they've also lost to every team, dropping two of three to last-place Georgetown. There's been a lot of parity in the Big East this season -- with six games to play, there's a four-game difference between fourth and ninth place.
St. John's and Notre Dame are USF's final league opponents, but they're also the teams the Bulls are most likely to open against should they make it to Clearwater. To get there, the Bulls have to follow the profile they've created this season -- a team that can't sweep, but doesn't get swept either. USF has been in a similar position nearly every year in recent memory, so the motivation is familiar: Once you get to the league tournament, anything can happen there.