Members of the Coastal Carolina baseball team didn’t need any reminders this week regarding who they would be playing this weekend.
The Chanticleers have been well aware of the dates Texas State would be visiting Springs Brooks Stadium since the schedule was released in November.
Texas State was one of just two Sun Belt teams to have a winning record against the Chants last year – along with Georgia Southern – winning three of four including the game that ended Coastal’s season in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
The Bobcats defeated Coastal 7-5 in Statesboro, Ga., last May 26, and because the tournament was shortened to single elimination because of weather cancellations, the Chants were bounced from the tournament and did not receive an invitation to an NCAA regional.
“I haven’t forgotten for one moment since we walked out of Georgia Southern that they sent us home last year and beat us three out of four times,” Coastal coach Gary Gilmore said. “They have their whole team back except for one guy. So we’ve got our hands full this weekend.
“I do think they will be a contender for our league title, and I guarantee they come here thinking they’re going to put a whoopin’ on us so I expect us to be ready.”
Texas State (14-5-1) enters the series ranked 30th by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and is 11-1-1 in its past 13 games, which includes a sweep of Appalachian State in its opening Sun Belt series.
Coastal’s prolific offense, which leads the Sun Belt in batting, runs, doubles, home runs and stolen bases, will be challenged by a Texas State pitching staff that leads the conference with an ERA of 2.98 and opponent batting average of a measly .212.
The Chants will be particularly tested by the Games 1 and 2 starters, Nicholas Fraze and Connor Reich.
Fraze is 4-1 with a 0.84 ERA and Reich is 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA. Fraze has allowed just 14 hits, 13 walks and three earned runs in 32 1/3 innings while striking out 33. Reich has allowed six earned runs, 15 hits and 10 walks in 29 innings while striking out 26. Opponents are batting .131 and .147 against the aces.
The Chants (16-7) are ranked 27th by Collegiate Baseball and have won four straight, including a conference-opening three-game sweep of Arkansas State on the road and a 9-5 win over Clemson on a walk-off grand slam by Lee Sponseller on Tuesday.
“There’s definitely a chip on our shoulder coming into this [series] and we’re going to use that to our advantage and hopefully pull out three wins,” said CCU relief pitcher Jay Causey of Conway.
Because of a forecast low temperature of about 40 degrees Friday night, the opening game of the series has been moved ahead one hour from 6 to 5 p.m. The remaining games are set for 2 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
Topping the nation
CCU senior third baseman Seth Lancaster of Hanahan is off to an impressive start this season, and as of Thursday he leads the NCAA with 32 runs scored and also ranks fifth in doubles with 11 and sixth in walks with 23. He also likely leads the nation in catcher’s interference calls, as he has reached base six times this season after making contact with a catcher’s glove.
Lancaster is not alone in top-10 national rankings, as CCU senior first baseman Kevin Woodall Jr. ranks sixth in home runs with nine and ninth in RBI with 29.
As a team, the Chants rank second in the NCAA in walks drawn with 145, third in doubles with 62, third in runs scored with 207, fifth in hits with 243, 10th in home runs with 30 and 10th with a .502 team slugging percentage.
Coastal’s greatest challenge this season might be its ability to overcome injuries to key parts of its pitching staff.
The Chants lost star starters Andrew Beckwith and Alex Cunningham, who were keys to the national championship run in 2016, to graduation. They lost reliever Bobby Holmes to an injury late last season and he is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and lost lefthander Austin Kitchen to a knee injury in the preseason. Holmes and Kitchen led the Chants in appearances over the past two years and have a combined 123 appearances in their careers.
Scott Kobos, a lefthander who joined the Chants from junior college despite being drafted last year in the 38th round by the Cleveland Indians, was expected to pick up much of those innings and possibly start.
But Kobos has also been lost for the rest of the season to an injury. He had surgery on his left elbow Monday and plans to request and receive a redshirt season considering he pitched just 13 inning in four appearances.
Coastal has managed to go 16-7 despite the pitching losses.
“Every season you have to have some moments that make you or break you. We had way too many last year that broke us,” Gilmore said. “This year this group finds ways to win, and it’s a testament to who they are. . . . We have issues that pop up now and then, and we find ways to play through it.”
Tigers to return
With Lugoff native Monte Lee at the helm of the Clemson baseball program, the Chanticleers expect to see a lot more of the Tigers in Conway in the coming seasons.
Lee is in his third year as the Clemson head coach after spending seven seasons leading the College of Charleston program, and playing Coastal Carolina regularly during his tenure there.
“I’m very good friends with Monte and I know his staff guys are really, really tight with my guys,” Gilmore said. “For them to agree to come here year in and year out from here on out is a huge testament to who he is and the class with which he does things in that program, because everybody doesn’t do that.”
Lee replaced Jack Leggett, who coached the Tigers from 1994 to 2015, and according to Gilmore was not fond of traveling to Coastal for games.
Clemson and Coastal have a long history that includes 54 games beginning in 1986. But from 1995 through 2017, the teams played 36 games, with just one of them on the CCU campus in 2015 after Springs Brooks Stadium opened. Clemson also played in Myrtle Beach once in 2005, and five of the 36 were NCAA tournament games. The rest were played in Clemson.
Gilmore, whose win over Clemson on Tuesday gave him 900 at CCU, explained: “When [Lee] got the job I called him and I tried to kind of shame him into playing us here because he had come from a mid-major school and he got that job. I kept telling him I could never get coach Leggett, coach Leggett never played on our field in the whatever it was, 16 years or more we competed against each other.
“. . . [Lee] said you guys are the national champions and I respect that, and Clemson needs to play you and we need to play you on your field just as well as on our field. That means the world to me. Talking about the respect and things, [winning] 900 games, that to me is what that whole thing is about.”
So bronze and teal will compete with orange, purple and white in the seats at Springs Brooks Stadium at least once a year for the foreseeable future. The two color patterns filled the stadium Tuesday, as the 4,130 tickets sold to the game set an on-campus record for the baseball program.
“Coastal Carolina has been one of the best programs in the country for a long, long time. I’ve been coming to Coastal Carolina for my whole career,” Lee said. “I have a lot of respect for Gary Gilmore and his coaching staff and his program, they’ve been one of the best programs in the country for a long time, even before they won the national championship.”