It’s going to take a sweep — and a little help — but if it comes down to Saturday to clinch, JSU coach Jim Case has a pitcher who is familiar and comfortable in such high-stakes situations.
The Gamecocks (30-23, 20-7) open a three-game series with Morehead State at Rudy Abbott Field today assured of a spot in next week’s OVC tournament, but they're looking for more.
Mound staples Casey Antley and Taylor Shields are scheduled to pitch the first two games for JSU, and if they do their parts, clinching would ride on the arm of sophomore left-hander Tony Urban.
The newcomer has been the Gamecocks’ Game 3 conference starter for only a couple weeks, but he relishes the chance to pitch in a big game, and Case is comfortable with letting him.
“I feel like this will be good for me because it’ll get me ready for the conference tournament feeling that pressure,” Urban said Wednesday. “It's going to be a lot more pressure, but I feel like Thursday and Friday we're going to come out guns blazing and do well, so it's kind of going to take a little bit off of me on Saturday.
“And I want to be there. I love the pressure. That’s what makes baseball fun to me. It's exciting, honestly. I’ve been thinking about it for like the past couple days and now that I know Saturday is the biggest game … the added pressure is kind of fun to me.”
Last year, he was the Sunday starter for his junior college team the first half of the season and got the ball when his team was fighting through the elimination bracket of its conference tournament. This year, in a game at Murray State, he was the last man available in the bullpen of a 15-inning game and upheld his end. And then there were the Belmont and Southeast Missouri starts in which he was virtually untouchable.
“I think he earned his way into it,” Case said. “If you look at his last outing (Eastern Kentucky) you would say it certainly wasn’t his best, and if you look at the one before that (Belmont) it might have been the most important game pitched for us all year.
“He has earned that opportunity. There’s developed a battle for that spot because (Adam) Polk has thrown well of late, but we made a decision before (Tuesday) night that we wouldn’t worry about Polk for this weekend, stretching him out (at Auburn) more along the lines of (gearing him for) the tournament. But Tony has earned that opportunity.”
The Gamecocks cannot get the No. 1 OVC tournament seed, but they can share the OVC regular-season title and earn a first-round tournament bye if they sweep Morehead and Belmont (26-16, 21-6) takes two at league-leading Tennessee Tech (37-14, 22-5). In that scenario, the Gamecocks will be the No. 2 tournament seed.
If the Gamecocks sweep and Tech takes two from Belmont, the Gamecocks will fall to the No. 3 seed.
Don’t think they won’t be checking out the results from points north after their own games are over.
They could fall to fourth if they win two and streaking Austin Peay sweeps SIU-Edwardsville at home, but it’s not their nature to look in the rear-view mirror.
“The entire year we haven’t really thought about or worried about people coming from behind us,” center fielder Michael Bishop said. “Because the only way they can come from behind us is if we don’t play our game. If we take care of business there’s nothing to worry about there.”
Urban was projected to be in the mix for a weekend starter coming into the spring, but didn’t perform early in the year out of the bullpen. His first start came against UAB on April 10 and he gave up one earned run in three innings. He worked the final 2 1/3 innings in the Murray game. He finally became the Game 3 starter a month ago, and in his four OVC starts, he has a win, two losses, a no-decision and a 3.86 ERA.
He got roughed up last Sunday at Eastern Kentucky, giving up four runs in 1 2/3 innings. But in his previous two starts he gave up one hit and retired 17 straight at SEMO and worked into the eighth against Belmont, retiring 19 of 20 at one point, helping the Gamecocks salvage a game in the series.
The Gamecocks will recognize their five seniors — Robby Lilly, Adam Miller, Zach Elbert and Pleasant Valley products Ben Haynes and Cody Ponder — before Friday night’s game.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.