Friday, April 26, 2019

Kinda, sorta hot Paladins set to host Kansas

Furman reliever Hank Nichols collected the win in each of the Paladins'
extra-inning victories this week. Photo courtesy of Furman
The good news for the Furman baseball team is that it has won five of its last six games entering its non-conference home series against Kansas this weekend.

The better news - in a really odd sort of way - is that the Paladins haven't played all that well lately. Over those last six games, Furman has scored 26 runs - with nine of those in one win - and committed 12 errors. Two of those errors came in the ninth inning in each of the Paladins' midweek games this week and both led to game-tying runs that forced extra innings.

Yet Furman (17-24) somehow found a way to answer each time and improve to 4-1 in extra inning games this season. Finding ways to win often mean getting clutch performances from unlikely sources. On Tuesday, eighth-place hitter Bret Huebner (.231/2/13) delivered a walk-off RBI-single. The next night, in just his 24th at-bat this season, M.J. Sasapan (.208) chopped a single up the middle to end the Paladins' fifth walk-off win this season.

"We've lost as a team and stayed united and now we're learning to win as a team. It's not pretty right now, but we're figuring out what we need to do to win," Furman coach Brett Harker said. "That was a big problem early in the year.
"It's frustrating because you want to play clean baseball. That's why we do everything we do. But the bottom line is having to learn how to win whether you play your best or not."

It's no coincidence that Furman's offensive woes lately have coincided with the absence of John Michael Boswell from the lineup. Boswell (.323/5/30), who leads the team in RBIs, has missed each of the last six games due to injury and he remains out indefinitely. Fellow first baseman Anthony Fontana (.296/0/13), who's made eight starts and batted .357 since March 27, has also missed the last five games. On Wednesday, Sasapan got his shot after Trent Alley left with a minor injury.

Injuries are not, Furman's offensive struggles of late have been perplexing. After the Paladins were swept at Samford on March 24, the team batting average was .232. While that average has gone up to .263 currently, clutch hits have been hard to come by.

Furman has not had a hit in its last 14 at-bats with the bases loaded and has left at least 10 runners on base in 10 of its last 18 games. In two of those eight that Furman didn't reach double digits in runners stranded, the Paladins didn't have 10 reach base in the first place. This trend comes after leaving at least 10 men on base only twice over the Paladins' first 23 games. Those two games were a 16-11 win over Morehead State and a 12-7 loss to South Carolina, so it wasn't like the offense was absent in either of those.

A flaw last season that hasn't gotten better this season in strikeouts. Furman has struck out 378 times over 41 games (9.2 per game) this season. This comes after striking out 8.3 times per game last year. Two years ago, the Paladins averaged only 6.1 strikeouts per game.

"We have some power numbers that are coming at the expense of an alarming rate of strikeouts," Harker said. "For however frustrated anybody is in the stands, I can promise you that the kids in that locker room are working at it and doing everything they can. We just have to continue to prepare and find ways to make adjustments to get better."

Defensively, Furman has committed 29 errors in April and made at least one in 13 of 15 games this month. Ironically, the only two error-free games this month were a 2-1 loss at UNCG and a 5-1 loss at Western Carolina.

With all that covered of what's going not so well at the moment, the thing that is going well currently for the Paladins is pitching. Back to the Samford series, where after game two on March 23 Furman had a team ERA of 6.59. One month later, that ERA has been shaved to 5.35. Knocking more than a run off a team ERA over one month in the middle of the season is nothing to sneeze at.

Former midweek starter John Michael Bertrand (3-2, 3.74 ERA) has gone 2-0 with a 2.34 ERA over his last three starts to solidify his spot leading the weekend rotation. Others have stepped up. That was exhibited this week when Furman needed just five different pitchers to work the 21 innings of the two extra-inning games. That would've been unheard of for this staff in back-to-back midweek games earlier this season.

Sophomore Jordan Beatson, who's primarily worked in relief in his Furman career, allowed one earned run in a career-long 6 2/3-inning outing against USC Upstate on Tuesday. Freshman Mason Kenney made just one mistake - a two-run home run - in five innings in his first collegiate start Wednesday against Georgia State. Former weekend starter Nik Verbeke allowed just one unearned run in five innings of relief Wednesday before Hank Nichols came on to work a scoreless 11th and earn his second win in as many nights. Verbeke has an 0.73 ERA in his last five appearances, while Nichols hasn't allowed a run in his last four appearances.

"Our midweek pitching has just been lights out. We've really thrown the ball well, at a time when honestly I didn't know how we were going to get nine innings and then we needed to get 11," Harker said Wednesday. "Our front end guys are good and we think they can keep us in every game. Now we've got guys coming out here and giving us depth that honestly, in the past, we haven't had."

Furman will look to keep up the momentum as Kansas (20-19) comes to Greenville for the teams' first ever meetings in baseball. This series came about as a result of both teams having the weekend off in their respective nine-team conferences. This weekend series is part of a stretch of five games in six days and of an eight-game homestand. That will be capped by a visit from VMI as the Paladins resume Southern Conference play next weekend.

If pitching can remain steady - if not continue to improve - and proven run producers turn things around at the plate, that could leave Furman right where it wants to be heading into next month's SoCon Tournament.

"When you start seeing our depth (develop), that's when you say, 'this is a team that's fourth place in the SoCon and can make a run at this tournament.' " Harker said. "You're using guys in this five-game stretch that you're not typically going to use to find out who can handle it.
"Opportunity is what life is all about. It doesn't matter what circumstances happened for you to get that opportunity. Take advantage of it."

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