TAMPA — USF baseball coach Lelo Prado would just as soon have the next three days be irrelevant.
Ideally, the Bulls could relax and finish the regular season at home against Notre Dame with little on the line, with their position in next week's Big East tournament locked up, with top players resting on the bench.
Instead, his Bulls (26-25, 11-13) are still battling to clinch one of the last spots in the conference tournament, which starts Tuesday in Clearwater.
The three-game series against Notre Dame starts tonight. The first two games start at 7, and Saturday's game is at 1.
"We've got to get to a point where we're not playing the last weekend to get into the Big East tournament," said Prado, who went 13-14 in conference play last year in his first season at USF. "That's the biggest disappointment for me, but when you've got so many young guys, they're going to do stupid things sometimes."
Eight teams make the cut, and USF is tied for seventh, with the tiebreaker edge over Villanova (11-13) and Rutgers (10-14). To miss out on Clearwater, the Bulls would have to finish with a worse conference record than Rutgers and Villanova. By Prado's standards, missing the league tournament in your own back yard would qualify as a stupid thing.
"I talk about pride every day," Prado said. "My whole coaching career, I've never not been in the conference tournament. No question, if we don't get in that, it's a huge disappointment. This coaching staff is pretty miserable for being in seventh place."
USF's hopes took a hit Saturday when freshman centerfielder Ryan Lockwood, whose .415 batting average is the second-best season mark in Bulls history, broke a bone in his left hand, limiting him to pinch-running the rest of the season. Lockwood, whose 30-game hit streak is longest in the nation, is the latest in a series of injuries to key players.
USF has shown its youth — 27 of 35 players are first-year Bulls, including 17 freshmen.
"It's not only young, but new players," Prado said. "These guys don't know what it takes at this level. They've done it at junior college, but this is completely different. They're rookies, and they've played like rookies a lot of the time."
The Bulls, yet to sweep or be swept in nine conference series this season, want to finish the season decisively, to point a young team in the right direction for next season.
"(Tonight) is definitely the biggest game of the year. It sets the tone," said junior Daniel Thomas, tonight's starting pitcher. "It'd be a shame if we didn't make it (next week). All these young guys, it'd be great to see what that's like, to be a part of that."