Score early, because given the quality of closers in the league this year, if you’re not leading late, you’re chances of coming back are about as good as making ice in Death Valley.
Each of the top four seeds in the tournament that starts Wednesday in Jackson, Tenn., has a closer who won’t give you much. They have been a part of 76 of their teams’ combined 150 wins (60 saves, 16 wins) and have a combined earned run average of 1.59.
“It makes being ahead late more important,” Jacksonville State coach Jim Case said. “There are some fantastic closers in this league, guys who have done it all year long. There aren’t too many hiccups.
“Certainly, we feel great about our guy — he’s been nails. But those teams, when they’ve got a lead late, good things are happening to them.”
Jacksonville State’s door-slammer, sophomore right-hander Travis Stout, is pretty good, but he isn’t even the lead dog in this pack. He has a JSU-record 17 saves, three wins and a 1.47 ERA and has been virtually unreachable in league games (2-0, 12 saves, 0.49), but Austin Peay senior right-hander Tyler Rogers has seven wins and an OVC-record 20 saves.
Add Tennessee Tech sophomore right-hander Seth Lucio (3-1, 1.30, 11 saves) and senior righty Josh Davis (3-1, 1.63, 12 saves) of pitching-rich Belmont and you can see why teams start packing things up in the ninth inning.
“It’s one thing to have a closer, it’s another to have a closer,” Tech coach Matt Bragga said. “Having a guy into the game who can close that game out and you’re pretty darn certain he’s going to close that game out, that’s a huge element.
“You think of the Yankees. They’re up 3-2 in the ninth, the game’s over. I feel exactly the same way if we’re up 3-2 in the ninth and we put Lucio out there, I just believe in him so much I know that game is absolutely over. There are some really, really good (closers) out there that when they get the rock you’re going to have to battle like crazy to beat them. It can happen, but you have to battle like crazy.”
All four were on the mid-season watch list for the top reliever in Division I baseball, making the OVC second only to the Southeastern Conference for players on the list. The national saves leader at the end of the regular season and four others will be announced as finalists June 5.
Rogers, who benefits from a unique submarine style similar to former JSU closer Todd Hornsby, shares the Division I lead for saves and is three short of tying the NCAA record (Southern California’s Jack Krawczyk in 1998). He is tied with Hornsby for the OVC’s career saves record (32).
Stout is third nationally in saves. He has 12 in league games and has allowed only one earned run in 18 1/3 conference innings.
Rogers, Stout, Davis and Lucio may be the headliners, but they aren’t the only relievers to watch in the tournament.
Belmont’s Jessie Snodgrass (5-2, 2.47) has made an OVC-record 42 appearances, which is nine short of the NCAA record (Florida’s Connor Falkenbach). Tennessee Tech’s David Hess, who doubles as a starter and a reliever (21 appearances, 5 starts), was just named Collegiate Baseball’s national pitcher of the week after striking out 11 of the 14 Belmont batters he faced in a relief stint Thursday.
“Every team has a good one (reliever) and you’re going to have to deal with it at some point during the ball game,” Belmont coach Dave Jarvis said. “The one thing you know is you’re going to see a quality arm and effective pitcher at the back end of a close ball game.”
Rogers has the biggest numbers, but the Gamecocks have gotten to him. He saved the series opener between the two teams, but in the getaway game, the Gamecocks roughed him up for five runs in the one inning he worked.
“You see guys over the top, whether their stuff is deadly or whatever, at 90 with a slider or whatever, but it’s rare you see a guy underneath throwing upper 80s. We put some runs up on him,” JSU center fielder Michael Bishop said. “I think we’ve got a mental edge on him going into the tournament.”
The Gamecocks weren’t so fortunate against the others. Lucio worked the final two-thirds of an inning in their getaway game, the only one Tech won in that series. Davis pitched twice in their series, yielding nothing and saving the opener.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.