With a 2-1 lead in the 9th inning during the second game of a doubleheader on Saturday May 3rd, Bulls ace Jimmy Herget stepped to the mound in the midst of a gem against #8 Louisville. He was dialed in and dealing, looking like the ace of the staff he's been since he stepped on campus. His line heading into the 9th was 8 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 K. His teammates had just scratched out a go-ahead run in the bottom of the 8th via a walk, two singles, a fielder's choice, and an error on Louisville's shortstop Sutton Whiting that should have been the third out. It all seemed to be falling into place for what would be a season-changing victory against their oft-nemesis Cardinals.
But Herget hung a breaking ball with his ~120th pitch, and UL's Grant Kay dramatically flipped his bat like a real jerk before rounding the bases after his game-tying home run.
The game still wasn't over, and after getting 1.2 shutout innings from Lawrence Pardo the Bulls loaded the bases in the bottom of the 10th with nobody out via a walk, a hit batsman, and a single from Kyle Teaf. The next three hitters were Luke Borders, Daniel Portales, and Hayden Kelley.
Borders struck out swinging. Portales and Kelley went looking. A leadoff triple by UL in the 11th sealed the Bulls fate, and they lost 3-2.
As usual there were absolutely no excuses from Lelo Prado. "You've got to execute when you get your opportunities. We practice that every day. You can't go up there and take the third strike. Portales did it, a freshman, and then so did the next guy (Kelley), a sophomore. You gotta put the ball in play. I don't care how you do it, you gotta put the ball in play."
You can question the success of USF Baseball relative to where it should be, but there is no way you can ever question the honesty you get from the head coach of the Bulls. He always is forthright and tells it like he sees it. You won't find a more stand-up guy with the media, or anyone for that matter.
And just like his manager, there were no excuses from Herget after the game. "I didn't make the pitches that I needed to make... I got too comfortable and decided to give him a hanger." Herget looked shell-shocked as I asked him questions afterwards, and I wanted to re-enact this scene with him.
He was magnificent. And forget the 9th inning, his offense simply didn't get him enough.
Of all the USF Baseball stomach punches over the years, this one was right up there. There was the blown 7-0 lead to UConn last season in the conference tournament winners bracket game. This one in '04 was so bad the Louisville media guide dedicated a page to it for years (the head coach of the Cards that day? Lelo Prado). And this doozy in '07 was so brutal because the Bulls Friday night ace (and current A's setup star Danny Otero) came in to pitch the 8th on a Tuesday as a closer... and gave up seven runs in the 9th, including a home run to Matt LaPorta that might still be in a low-earth orbit.
Last Saturday, the Bulls had a 4-2 lead entering the ninth against Rutgers. Down 2-1 in the 8th, a two-base throwing error gave the Bulls runners on second and third with one out. A pop out, an infield single, then back-to-back singles by Pardo and Levi Borders gave an edge to a cruising Casey Mullholland, who was in the middle of retiring 16 batters in a row.
But Mulholland gave up a leadoff double with his 100th pitch in the bottom of the 9th. Janick Serralonga came in and walked two hitters on nine pitches. Jordan Strittmatter contained as much as he could, but still conceded two of the three inherited runners to allow the Scarlet Knights to tie the game.
Despite putting three runners on base in the 10th and 11th, USF lost in the bottom of the 12th on a walk, wild pitch, walkoff single sequence off lightly-used senior Nolan Thomas. It puts the Bulls at 25-26 on the season, finishing conference play with six straight losses to UL & RU to end up 10-14 in the league.
When the shoe was on the other foot, Louisville got 3 straight K's to get out of it. The Bulls couldn't do it to RU despite having two runs in hand. Consecutive Saturdays showed the difference between where USF needs to be, and where they are right now.
* * *
It's no secret that Lelo Prado's contract ends after this season, his eighth back in his hometown where he also won two DII national championships at his alma mater the University of Tampa. When he came home after the 2006 season to replace Eddie Cardieri, he spoke of only one destination for the Bulls: Omaha. Barring winning the AAC Tournament in Clearwater in a couple weeks, USF will miss the NCAA's for the eighth straight year.
You can't completely count out the possibility of the Bulls winning the tournament as when you have the starting pitching the Bulls have in Jimmy Herget and Casey Mulholland it is possible. Conference tournament baseball is always a totally different animal, though the new format this year of two four-team round robin pools does make it harder for the Bulls to come out a winner since they've got two stud starters that can match up with anyone, but winning all three games in a bracket will be tough.
This is a chart of where the Bulls have finished in their conference against other Big East teams in the slash line stats and ERA since 2007. For 2014 they are for AAC play and stats are through this morning.
|2014 (9 Teams)||8th (.262)||6th (.355)||9th (.326)||5th (3.25)||5th (37)|
|2013 (10 Teams)||4th (.283)||4th (.371)||6th (.370)||5th (3.67)||5th (49)|
|2012 (12 Teams)||12th (.255)||11th (.344)||12th (.339)||1st (3.53)||7th (43)|
|2011 (12 Teams)||8th (.262)||8th (.338)||9th (.345)||5th (4.00)||5th (48)|
|2010 (12 Teams)||8th (.290)||7th (.382)||9th (.414)||6th (4.99)||5th (42)|
|2009 (12 Teams)||4th (.315)||3rd (.407)||8th (.441)||4th (4.79)||3rd (47)|
|2008 (12 Teams)||6th (.297)||2nd (.399)||7th (.418)||6th (4.81)||5th (56)|
|2007 (12 Teams)||7th (.279)||4th (.385)||11th (.363)||6th (4.36)||4th (60)|
|Avg Finish: (11.375 Teams)||7.125||5.625||8.875||4.75||4.875|
The lack of offense from the Bulls this year leads to some unusual stats. Jimmy Herget has a 6-6 record despite just a 1.38 ERA because his teammates simply don't hit enough against opponents Friday night starters. Junior shortstop Kyle Teaf (and if you're an MLB scout, take this kid... he's a joy to watch and works his butt off) is the only Bull to start and play in every game, but only has 39 runs despite being on base 112 times. As a team they only have eight homers, and don't steal a lot of bases either (26 SB's, caught 11 times). It goes to a pattern this team has had.
We included the sacrifice bunts because we're always complaining about how much bunting USF does and how our saber-inclined sensibilities hate this, but this shows they're just over middle of the pack for their league. Also the lack of power shown above (their worst stat being slugging %) shows they just don't hit it hard enough, so bunting might not always be as terrible as we think. Also keep in mind when looking at the raw numbers that the bats were changed for safety in 2011, which pushed offense down greatly.
The Big East/AAC has only been good enough to get an average of 2-3 teams a year to the NCAA Tournament, and the numbers above show USF just hasn't been good enough in any season. There's not a year where you can point to bad luck either since the season they dominated on the mound (3.53 ERA against in 2012), they were dead last at the plate.
This is USF's fourth year in the new baseball stadium, and the old Red McEwen was an absolute dump, so the Bulls haven't had a full recruiting cycle to the new digs yet. They do seem to be acquiring more talent than they did in the past as Herget and Mulholland are as good a tandem as USF has ever had on Friday and Saturday nights. But the bats simply haven't shown up yet.
We can get overwrought about the stomach-punch losses, but the numbers over a sample this big speak for themselves. Sometimes baseball is a real simple game. The pitching is there again this year, as it has been before. For USF to turn it around, they're going to need to hit the ball better.
And they're going to need to start doing it soon.