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Injury-maligned Bulls try to escape AAC basement

USF has had seven pitchers on shelf for various stretches this season

TAMPA ― If he were so inclined, he could go off on a tirade, or at the very least, a tangent.

USF baseball coach Billy Mohl could logically connect the rise of year-round youth baseball to the latest surplus of arm ailments on his staff.

The man who watched eventual big-league draftees Pete Strzelecki and Shane McClanahan undergo Tommy John surgery before tossing their first Division I fastballs could grouse, grumble and groan over the seven USF hurlers who have missed all or part of the 2019 season.

But he doesn’t. The burgeoning travel-ball industry and its perceived collateral damage is a rant for another day. On this mild, cloudless April afternoon, Mohl remains measured.

“The pitching injuries were very similar to ’16,” he says from the third-base dugout at USF Baseball Stadium. “We had five arms out in ’16 (when USF finished 24-33), we have seven out this year. ... So it’s been a challenge.”

The most significant one of Mohl's two-year tenure.

Though on a four-game win streak that included a home sweep of The Citadel last weekend, USF (19-20, 2-10) is in ninth place in the American Athletic Conference standings. Only the top eight teams qualify for next month’s conference tournament in Clearwater.

The Bulls have 12 league games in which to make up ground, starting with this weekend’s three-contest home series against Houston (25-16, 8-7).

“We’ve got to get ourselves out of the basement,” Mohl said. “It will be a good challenge. (The Cougars) are starting to play better, but they’re winnable if we show up to play.”

The Bulls will show up with a staff noticeably different from the one Mohl envisioned a few months back.

Versatile 6-foot-8 right-hander Carson Ragsdale, a Bishop McLaughlin alumnus who posted a 3.38 ERA in 16 relief appearances last season, underwent Tommy John surgery in the fall.

Former Calvary Christian star Graham Hoffman, a right-handed closer candidate, made one appearance before being shut down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (which requires the Tommy John procedure).

Sunday starter Ben Koff, a right-handed juco transfer, followed him to the shelf in late March. Junior lefty Noah Yager has been limited to eight appearances (2-1, 2.81 ERA) by thoracic outlet syndrome, caused when blood vessels or nerves in the space between the collarbone and first rib are compressed (per mayoclinic.org).

Symptoms include shoulder pain and possible finger numbness. “They’re gonna evaluate him entering the weekend,” Mohl said. “But he’s doubtful.”

As a result, the Bulls enter this weekend with a 4.61 team ERA (fifth in the AAC) and a conference-low 304 strikeouts.

“It reminds me a lot of (2016), actually,” said senior outfielder Chris Chatfield, a Spoto High alumnus whose five home runs rank second on the team.

“That year, we came in thinking we were gonna have a great year because we had a lot of depth pitching-wise. Then all of the sudden, five or six guys fell off with Tommy John and everything. The same thing happened this year.”

Mohl’s hope moving forward is to piece together just enough pitching consistency to complement a steady if not spectacular offense. USF’s .267 team batting average is tied for fifth in the AAC, and its .379 on-base percentage ranks third.

Its 35 homers, led by senior first baseman Joe Genord’s 12, are tied for fourth with Houston. Genord had six RBIs as the Bulls rallied from a 6-0 hole for a 12-9 victory in Game Two of a Saturday twin bill against The Citadel.

“Now obviously, the quality of pitching that we’re gonna get in conference play is a lot more difficult than what we faced this previous weekend,” Mohl said. “But it just shows that these guys haven’t quit. They haven’t mailed it in, they’re fighting for each other.”

Moreover, the pitching hasn’t been completely bereft of bright spots, though Mohl acknowledges some guys have been thrust into “roles that are too big for 'em right now.”

Sophomore right-hander Baron Stuart (2-2, 5.18) is coming off his best outing, scattering five hits over eight innings in last Friday’s 9-1 romp of The Citadel.

Fellow weekend starter Collin Sullivan (3-3, 4.85 ERA, 55.2 IP, 57 K) has had his moments, including a six-inning, 10-strikeout jewel against Samford on opening night. Meantime, junior righty Nelson Alvarez (2.70 ERA, five saves) has been mostly steady in his limited chances as a closer, and likely will be used in higher-leverage situations going forward.

“Unfortunately, some of the cards we were dealt were difficult to deal with,” Mohl said. “But these guys have no quit in 'em.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.


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