After a 10-game stretch to open up the season against easier opponents, the challenge of the 2014 season for the Boston College Eagles baseball squad really opens up tonight when they kick off a two-game series with the Florida Atlantic University Owls in Boca Raton.
For the Birdballers, this is the first real crucial stretch of the '14 campaign. Their first ten games delivered the message of a team "finding itself" within the framework of who can be a starter, who can play the right roles in the field, and who is capable of hitting where in the lineup. They've found some major success, found some holes to work on, and now start hitting the beef of their order with the anticipation of a team some believe could be ready to break through.
For those reasons, the next five games are so important. FAU (8-3) is a team that won 40 games last year, plays in a major conference in Conference USA, and came within a game of advancing to the Super Regionals. They're a team with some major pop in their order, some top-of-the-line pitching, and play at a high level. For BC, it's the first time this year they'll face this type of team, and it's the first real "big stage" for them to showcase if they're going to be a much improved team. It's one thing to beat up on teams that went 20-30 or 10-40 last year. It's another thing to do it to a team that was so close to being on the ultimate stage.
Entering this week's games, the Owls are 8-3, winners of five of their last six. They just took two of three from St. John's, and they already hold wins over Miami. To open the season, they destroyed Notre Dame by winning two of three by a combined 29-9.
BC Hitting vs. FAU Defense
FAU pitching has been utterly dominant this year. The team has a cumulative ERA of 2.64, with 102 staff strikeouts to just 26 walks. They've allowed just 21 extra base hits, 19 of which are doubles. Opponents are hitting .223 against them. And they've allowed just 29 earned runs through their first 11 games.
That creates a MEGA tall order for the Eagle bats. The regular FAU starters - Drew Jackson, Jeremy Strawn, and Austin Gomber, have been pretty dominant. Gomber is 1-2 with a 6.75 ERA, which puts him as the most vulnerable, but he's also struck out 17 to just three walks. He's allowed 18 hits and 12 runs in 16.0 IP. But this is a guy that went 8-4 last year and threw 106 innings in 17 starts. He held batters last year to a .236 average. The good news is that BC might not see them; Tuesday's starter is Brandon Rhodes, who has a 1.86 ERA. I'd imagine the second start would go to a guy like Sean Labsan, who has an ERA of 0.00.
And speaking of an ERA of 0.00, nine pitchers (including Labsan) have that stat. That includes Bo Logan, who in five appearances has 10 IP and a 1-0 record. Logan has 15 strikeouts and no walks. Opponents are hitting .121 against him.
Let's run down some of the other pitchers. Cody Mizelle - four appearances, 7.1 IP, 11 strikeouts, one walk, no earned runs. Kevin Alexander - five appearances, 1.12 ERA, 10 strikouts in 8.0 IP, no walks.
BC's bats will need to pick their spots and be VERY patient against these pitchers. They're unlikely to see a high number of balls, so they'll need to be able to spot a few hits here and there and make the most of opportunities. The Birdball offense left a high number of men on base over the first couple of weeks this year. Do that against this team and it's all but a guaranteed loss.
BC Defense vs. FAU Hitting
Heading into the season, BC highly touted their pitching staff as being deep and talented. Now is their chance to prove it. They'll face an Owl lineup with five regular players hitting over .300 and another spot starter on the bench with a .308 average. They'll face a team with four homers already on the season. They'll face a team that dropped over 30 runs on Notre Dame and that beat Miami, 5-2.
Stephen Kerr enters the series hitting .389 with four RBI, 10 RBI, and a .477 on base percentage. Levi Meyer is hitting .342 with eight RBI and five runs scored. Tyler Rocklein is hitting .326 with eight RBI. Ricky Santiago is the most prone hitter I could find at .244, and he has two homers and 10 RBI. This is a team that flat out mash the ball.
That means BC is going to have to get nasty and play smart, funadmental defense. I have a feeling the depth of the BC pitching staff, which was stretched a little bit over the weekend will need to be at the ready moreso this week than they have been in the past. Whoever is first out of the pen will need to be on top of his game and be able to shut down a team already with 68 runs scored in 11 games. As a team, FAU is hitting .294 with a .372 on base percentage. That means the pitchers, who won't be as talented as the hitters are, will need to be smart and outfox the hitters.
Look, when the schedule was released, I circled FAU as the first beating I anticipate BC taking. No matter how much BC is improved, I know the Owls are a solid team. They're one of those teams that scares the dickens out of good baseball teams. Conference USA is a sneaky good baseball conference, and there's no reason the Owls, knocking on the door of the top 25, shouldn't be in the rankings. They just pummeled St. John's, and they did very bad things to Notre Dame earlier this year. I have that vibe that this is going to be a couple of long games; I just hope BC doesn't get stretched too thin heading into Miami over the weekend.
I would anticipate BC getting swept and being brought back to earth. Yes, the Eagles are 6-4, but let's not forget that they've played teams that aren't very good. They went to Florida and played northern teams from the MAC. For that reason, I think the Eagles get swept. But it's going to be a good learning tool, and it's going to be something they can use heading into the weekend. This is going to be a tough week to be a Birdball fan, but if I've been preaching patience, this is where we need to utilize it. I'd be perfectly happy if BC kept these games very close and competitive. I'd be elated if they won a game. If they swept, I'd probably name my first son after whoever hit the game-winning RBIs. I don't feel that's an indictment of BC; it's more a compliment to FAU. This series could be a great reality check for all the wrong reasons. But in the end, it could be something I hope BC learns from and uses as a tool we'll eventually look back on as a positive. You want to play the best, and they'll certainly get a chance to do that this week.
Audio for the games is provided by clicking here.