The Following is an editorial by Region 8 Sports Anchor Blake Guinn. Words in Italics are the words of Blake Guinn.
The Setup: The Arkansas State baseball team will enter the Sun Belt Conference tournament on Wednesday as the cellar 8 seed of the bracket playing the 1 seed Troy. They lost a weekend series against UALR in the final series of the season. After an injury to one of their star players both in the field and at the plate, along with the graduation of one of their greats from last years runner-up team, the season has been an uphill battle for the baseball Red Wolves, but as history will tell us about the Sun Belt, don't count them out just yet.
The end of the season was rough on Tommy Raffo's Red Wolves. They faced their toughest stretch of schedule (most of it on the road) and had to fight for their lives to even get into postseason play this season. I have been asked several times by people, "What happened to this team? They were so good last year and at the beginning of the season." Here is the best answer I can give you to what happened down the stretch:
The loss of Zach George was more costly than we could have ever imagined. The Red Wolves lost infielder and 3 hole hitter Zach George early in the season to an ACL tear. Anytime you lose your 3 spot hitter in your line-up and a versatile infielder it's tough, that being said, watching the team struggle on offense has really shown me his value in the line-up. George's loss has impacted hitters around him. When George was lost for the season, it forced Ryan Emery to become a 3 hole hitter and put the pressure on Logan Uxa. By having to move Emery to the 3 spot in the order, it created a hole in the 2 spot that could have been filled by Emery or even in the lead-off spot that would have been a nice fit for a contact guy like him. Also, when Logan Uxa began to struggle at the plate, he could have been slid into the 2 spot to give him some easier AB's with George protecting him in the 3 spot. That being said, with George absent, it forced Raffo to keep Uxa in the 4 spot and try to have him work out the slump from the clean-up slot. It also put more pressure on Uxa to execute on defense. He was forced to move from the outfield to first base when George went down. As we have learned from baseball, pressure in the field can affect performance at the plate. Bottom line, Both Emery and Uxa were impacted heavily by the loss of Zach George. This created a trickle down effect that impacted the entire line-up along with the loss of production.
The schedule was much more favorable at the beginning of the season. What many fail to realize is that the Red Wolves played many home games to start off the season against weaker opponents. The warning signs were still there, however, that the team might struggle later. Later in the season the team was forced to go on the road against Troy, where they lost two of three, also they had to travel to Lousiana-Lafayette, who always plays well at home. Earlier in the season the midweek games provided somewhat of a breather for the Red Wolves to work on things and build some confidence, at the end of the season, their midweek contest was an SEC opponent. The truth of the matter is, their schedule made them look better earlier in the season than they actually were.
The lack of pitching depth hurt the Red Wolves late in the season. The Red Wolves lost their star pitcher Jacob Lee to graduation after last season. The good news for the Arkansas State though, was that Daniel Wright stepped up big for them this season. If Raffo could have found a 2nd and 3rd starter without losing the best pitchers from his bullpen things might have panned out well. Unfortunately for him, his best starters came in the form of Bradley Wallace and Cody Woodhouse, two guys that really made his bullpen solid. Both Wallace and Woodhouse threw effectively as starters but once they turned the game over to relievers things seemed to unravel. Early in the season Raffo went to Freshman Adam Grantham, who after a solid start began to struggle and made little to no appearances late in the season. Raffo also experimented with closer John Koch in a starter's role, but after a couple of turns through the line-up seemed to run out of gas. It is fair to say Koch never reallly settled back into the closers roll. We also can't forget the lack of run support the staff got down the stretch either.
All that being said, you might be thinking right now that this team doesn't stand much of a chance in this weeks Sun Belt Conference tournament and wouldn't say you would be mistaken in that assumption. One thing I would remind everyone about, don't ever count out any team in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves will have a tough road and they certainly have their backs against the wall going up against the team that won a share of the regular season Sun Belt title. But the season might not be over just yet and here is why:
Daniel Wright is more than capable of winning game 1. As Tommy Raffo said, Daniel Wright is their best pitcher. He will be the starter in game 1 and if anyone can beat Troy, it's him. He has shown to be as close to a sure thing as the Red Wolves have. If he can hold the Trojans to 3 runs or less, Raffo's small-ball style of play could manage to put enough runs on the board to win.
It's baseball folks. We can't forget that this is baseball, not college football or even basketball. Baseball is a sport that any team can win on any given day regardless of pitching, fielding, or hitting. No teams go undefeated in college or professional baseball and there are plenty of circumstances when the best team on paper doesn't win it all.
There is no lights out team in the field. Looking at this year's Sun Belt Conference baseball teams, I don't think there is one team that is totally unbeatable. Dispite Arkansas State's struggles, they aren't that much worse than the best teams in the league. It would be foolish of anyone to could out lower seeds like A-State and UALR (Just ask the UALR team from a few seasons ago).
The Wrap-Up: No one should pick Arkansas State to win it all. But history has told us that no one should totally ignore ANY team in the field. It's the Sun Belt and we don't call it the FUN BELT for anything. That's why the new logo looks like a lolley pop.