Thursday, May 16, 2019

Furman takes momentum into final series

Furman catcher Dax Roper has 12 hits and 12 RBIs
over his last six games. Photo courtesy of Furman
While Samford has wrapped up the Southern Conference baseball regular season title and No. 1 seed in the tournament, there's plenty of dust to settle right behind the Bulldogs in the standings. The next four teams will face off against each other in the final series of the regular season beginning Thursday.

This includes fifth-place Furman (23-28, 11-10), which has been playing its best baseball of the season lately. The Paladins have won five of their last six games, including a win at South Carolina sandwiched between consecutive series wins for the first time this season. After taking two out of three games at Wofford last weekend, Furman pulled a 1/2-game ahead of sixth-place ETSU (31-17, 10-10) and 1 1/2 games back of the Terriers (31-22, 12-8).

The Paladins host Mercer (28-24, 13-8), which is tied for second with UNCG (32-16, 13-8). The Spartans host Wofford, also beginning Thursday. Furman can finish anywhere from third to sixth. If things hold as they currently are, the Paladins would face the Terriers at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Fluor Field. A third- or sixth-place finish would have Furman playing the final of four games that day.

While finishing sixth is obviously not what the Paladins are shooting for this weekend, Coach Brett Harker is more concerned with his team maintaining its consistent play  going into the tournament - no matter the seed.

"We're playing good baseball at the right time," Harker said. "Hopefully we can keep that momentum going against a really good opponent with Mercer rolling into town."

Talk of possibly finishing in the top half of the SoCon seemed out the window just two weeks ago when Furman dropped the opener of its home series against VMI. The lowly Keydets piled up a season-high 18 hits in their 10-4 win that Friday. The Paladins fell behind 3-0 by the middle of the third the next day before rallying to take an 8-3 lead through five innings. One batter into the sixth, a weather delay hit Latham Stadium and the teams sat around for more than four hours before play resumed.

After coming back from the lengthy delay, Furman didn't slow down in recording an 11-4 win. The Paladins posted a 13-5 win the next day to take the series. Along with wrapping up that series win, the Paladins also wrapped up their exams for the semester. The rest of the week, Furman played like a team that could more fully focus on baseball.

"We're playing really well. A lot of it is guys having a lot of stress of classes off their shoulders," Harker said. "And a lot of it is that we're just maturing. We might have some veteran guys at some positions, but we're not super experienced.
"We're not perfect and we're still screwing some stuff up that drives me nuts, but we're finally getting enough reps to play a lot more consistent. We're just a tougher team to beat over nine innings now."

Playing without an ill reigning SoCon Player of the Week in Dax Roper, Furman got a heck of a game caught by Logan Taplett in his place to win at South Carolina for the second year in a row last Wednesday.

"Any time he gets back in there, you'd think he's caught every game this year," Harker said of Taplett. "He's just so comfortable back there and does a great job calling the game, connecting with the pitchers and reading the hitters.
"It's all the things that he had to get a whole lot better at last year. It's amazing when you catch as many innings as he did last year how much you learn and grow in that position."

The momentum kept up at Wofford on Friday when Furman claimed the series win on the first day by sweeping a doubleheader, 7-3 and 9-3. Weather forecast concerns created the doubleheader and left Saturday open for the senior Paladins to participate in graduation that evening.

The next day, Furman fell behind 7-0 through five innings before rallying to take an 8-7 lead into the bottom of the ninth. The Terriers responded with a walkoff homer to salvage the final game, 9-8. While it was kind of a rotten cherry on top of a pretty nice cake for Furman, Harker was proud of how his team got up off the deck.

"I'm as proud of them as I could be. It's extremely hard to sweep a team and almost impossible on the road," Harker said. "We played so well on Friday, and with the weather and graduation and everything, we take all of Saturday off which is a very odd thing to do. Sunday, we were just getting dominated. The 10-run rule is in effect and it's looking like we might not even play nine innings.
"Then the guys show up, start going opposite field very well and all of a sudden we climb back in the game. Eric Taylor just kind of ran out of gas at the end, but we put ourselves in position to win a game in which we were down seven with four innings to play."

It's no coincidence that Furman's improved play has coincided with Jabari Richards getting hot again at the plate. Richards leads the Paladins with a .350 average, despite going 3-for-27 with no RBIs over an eight-game stretch from April 20-May 3. Richards' slump ended on May 4, when he had a squeeze bunt for an RBI to plate the Paladins' first run in that 11-4 win over VMI. His next time up, he bunted for a single. Since that at-bat, Richards has gone 11-for-23 with eight runs, six RBIs and four walks.

Meanwhile, Roper has gone 12-for-24 with 12 RBIs over his last six games. As a team, Furman is batting .339 with 59 runs scored over its last seven games.

The Paladins will face a strong test in a battle of teams that have won each of their last three SoCon series. Mercer is 10-1 in SoCon play since April 13, including a series win over Samford. The Bulldogs only other series loss this year came at South Florida to open the season. Game one of the series is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, while Friday and Saturday are set for 1 p.m. starts.

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