CORPUS CHRISTI – The Texas A&M – Corpus Christi baseball team will take to the road for its final regular season series of the season, as it will travel to Huntsville, Texas, for a three-game set with Sam Houston State beginning Thursday.
This will be a meaningful series for both teams, as whoever wins the series is guaranteed to clinch at least a share of the Southland Conference regular season title. If either team is able to sweep, that team will clinch the title outright, as the Islanders (30-22, 19-8 Southland) and Bearkats (37-15, 19-8) are currently tied atop the Southland standings with a one-game cushion over Northwestern State and Nicholls.
This opportunity is unchartered territory for the Islanders, as they finished second a year ago, but have never won a Southland title. On the other side, the Bearkats have won the last two regular season titles with a 24-9 conference record in 2012, followed by a 20-7 league record a year ago — three games better than A&M – Corpus Christi.
SHSU has been tough at home this year, going 21-6 at Don Sanders Stadium. However, the Islanders have been very good on the road this season, accumulating a 17-9 record away from the Coastal Bend, including an 11-1 record in Southland road games. The team has tallied sweeps against Northwestern State, Abilene Christian and New Orleans, with its only road loss coming via a ninth-inning rally by Houston Baptist.
The Islanders have put themselves in this position by winning their last five conference series, while the Bearkats have swept their last three Southland opponents, with Texas A&M snapping their recent 11-game win streak.
Game one of the series will be played a day earlier than normal, as first pitch between the two sides is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, in preparation for next week's Southland Conference Tournament which opens Wednesday.
The opener will feature two pitchers who have eaten up tons of innings, as Matt Danton (7-2, 3.18 ERA) will faceoff against Tyler Eppler (7-5, 3.70). Both righties rank in the top five in the Southland in innings pitched, with Danton leading the league in that category at 90 2/3 innings, while Eppler is fifth at 87 2/3. At seven wins, the pitchers are tied for the fourth most in the league.
The important game two of the series on Friday at 6:30 p.m. will match southpaw Trevor Belicek (4-5, 3.81) against the Bearkats' Jason Simms (5-2, 2.55). Belicek is coming off his best outing of the season, throwing nine shutout innings, while striking out a career-high 12 batters against Lamar. He allowed just two singles and two walks, not allowing any runner to get past first, tallying five 1-2-3 innings en route to being named the Southland Conference Pitcher of the Week, as well as an NCAA Top Performer. The right-handed Simms owns the eighth-lowest ERA in the conference to go along with the fifth-lowest batting average against at .236.
For the Islanders, Devin Skapura (4-3, 4.55) will return to his role as the series finale pitcher on Saturday at 1 p.m., while SHSU has yet to name a starter for what could essentially be a conference championship game if the teams split the first two.
Offensively, the Islanders are led by Brandon Tierney, who comes into the game leading the team in batting average (.351), hits (67), hit by pitches (15) and slugging percentage (.476), while also reaching base safely in the last 23 games.
Tyler Ware — who is tied for the team lead in RBIs (32) and home runs (3), while also ranking 11th in the nation in triples (6) — comes into the series just one game shy of that mark, as he has reached safely in the last 22 games.
Cody Stephens also boasts a streak of his own, as he is currently riding an 11-game hit streak, and is tied with Ware in RBIs at 32, with 24 of those coming in conference play, while leading the team in doubles with 13 after just four all of last season.
Fellow senior Russell Vaughan has been very hot during league play, as he boasts the sixth highest batting average (.378), as well as the fourth best on-base percentage (.491) against league foes.
Leading SHSU in several offensive statistics, is Anthony Azar. The senior is third in the conference in batting average (.366), fifth in hits (70), third in home runs (9), third in RBIs (42), fifth in on-base percentage (.453) and first in slugging percentage (.571).
Fans can follow along with the game by listening to audio provided for free on GoIslanders.com, while live stats and video can be found at GoBearkats.com.
As always, fans can also keep up with the team on various social media outlets by following the team on Twitter and Instagram (@IslandersBSB), as well as on Facebook (IslandersBaseball).