TAMPA – Maybe USF is getting hot at the right time.
The Bulls remain in the cellar of the American Athletic Conference, but
things are looking up as they head into the stretch drive. After taking two of three from conference foe Houston over the weekend, the Bulls head into Tuesday night’s game against visiting Stetson having won six of seven.
USF (21-21/4-11) needs to keep the momentum going as they enter play this week one game behind eighth place Wichita State with nine conference tilts remaining.
The top eight teams qualify for the conference tournament, so the Bulls have a little work to do in order to make the cut. The tourney will be held May 21-26 at Spectrum Field in Clearwater.
Of course, taking it one step at a time and not looking beyond their next game is the way to go about their business.
“You can’t look down the road,” second-year coach Billy Mohl said following Saturday night’s 7-1 loss to the Cougars. “You have to look at what is presented to you (today). If you start worrying about the conference tournament, regionals and all that kind of stuff, you set yourself up for failure.”
We will look ahead, though, for the sake is what is remaining on the schedule. After hosting the Hatters, conference play resumes with a three-game weekend series at Memphis. The Tigers are 6-8 in the American with just a 2.5-game lead over the Bulls.
Next Tuesday, USF travels to Gainesville to play the Gators before heading up to UConn for three weekend games. The Huskies are 7-8 and in fifth place in the conference.
On May 14 the Bulls host Jacksonville before their final conference series (May 16-18) of the season, one that could determine their fate, against visiting Wichita State.
This season has been marked by one injury after another, particularly on the pitching staff. It has resulted in some players needing to grow up pretty fast.
“Some pitchers have been forced into bigger roles and they’re going out and doing everything they can,” said Mohl. “They are competing. It’s just that they are in bigger roles than they should be.”
As an example how injuries beset the staff, look no further than a 4-1 win February 17 against visiting Samford, the Bulls’ third game of the season.
That Sunday afternoon Pat Doudican started. Ben Koff came on to throw 4 2/3 innings of shutout relief to get the win. Graham Hoffman threw 2 1/3 innings (six strikeouts) to pick up the save.
All three were expected to have an impact this season and all three went down due to injury with only Doudican returning, which he did with an inning of relief Saturday night. In Hoffman’s case, the appearance against Samford was his only outing this season.
Indeed, there has been plenty of juggling by Mohl, who also serves as the pitching coach. He has used nine different starting pitchers.
“It is what it is and they know what we are up against,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for other guys to step up.”
Baron Stuart stepped up against Houston on Friday night. The 6-foot-4 sophomore right-hander limited the Cougars to five hits and three runs in seven innings to pick up the win in a 5-3 decision.
Alec Wisely, a senior right-hander who entered Sunday’s start with a 6.18 ERA, blanked the Cougars over 6 2/3 innings.
It is such performances the Bulls are likely going to need in the season’s final three weeks if they are going to prolong their season.
“They are going to keep fighting,” Mohl said of his staff. “Their backs are against the wall and they have been for a while. They are going to keep coming at you.”
The lineup has not gone unscathed as JD Dutka started four games at second base before being lost for the season with a broken hand. For the most part, though, it has remained intact.
First baseman Joe Genord (.351-12-46) is among the conference leaders in the major offensive categories. Centerfielder Kyle Phillips (.330), Sunday’s hero and shortstop Alex Bello (.310) and third baseman Jake Sullivan (.308) are each over .300.
Second baseman Jordan Santos, who was splitting time with Dutka before the latter was injured, is hitting .281 and has drawn a team-high 34 walks.
Bello, listed at 5-foot-6 and 167 pounds, hit a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth Sunday to give the Bulls the series win over UH. Earlier this season he started a handful of games at third before taking over at short.
Mohl likens Bello to Rudy Ruettiger, the walk-on at Notre Dame who was the inspiration behind the 1993 movie “Rudy.”
“He’s kind of our spark plug,” he said. “When you watch the kid play the game, he plays hard all the time. It doesn’t matter if we are winning or losing, he’s feeling good or not feeling good. He’s kind of like our real-life Rudy. He energizes our ball club and I am really glad that we have him.”
Mohl is glad things are starting to turn in his team’s favor, momentum that needs to carry into this weekend at Memphis.