Safe to say Sam Houston State got a great crash course on handling expectations, particularly in the cases of outstanding junior left-handed pitchers Cody Dickson and Caleb Smith.
Both Dickson and Smith entered the 2013 college baseball season as rising and heralded MLB draft prospects. As a result of those two being stalwarts in the SHSU starting rotation, the Bearkats, rightfully so, were expected to do big things from the get-go this season.
That certainly didn't happen, as the Bearkats got off to an unimpressive 9-9 start, while Dickson and Smith also got off to a relatively slow start. However, the tide has turned for the Bearkats in recent weeks. They've accumulated impressive midweek wins over Texas, Rice (two of them), Baylor and Houston, and suddenly are sitting 19-13 overall, an impressive 7-2 in the Southland Conference.
Most importantly, the Bearkats have put themselves in a position to perhaps earn an at-large bid to the NCAA postseason with an RPI of 52 with still some good marquee RPI opponents, such as two games in the next week against Texas A&M, left on the regular-season schedule.
"We really identified some stuff with our pitching early on. I really thought our two left-handers [Dickson and Smith] were really trying too much," Sam Houston State coach David Pierce said. "They wanted to go out there and give us a complete game and strike everyone out each time out.
"They eventually figured out they need to pitch the way it gives this team the best chance to win. Since that point, our starting pitching has been pretty good."
The Bearkats are fresh off one of the more complete weekends they've had this season, sweeping McNeese State at home. In that series, Dickson struck out seven, walked three and allowed just two runs on four hits in six innings of work.
SHSU LHP Cody Dickson is having an impressive campaign. (SHSU photo)
Smith also put together a respectable performance, only striking out two, but also allowing just two runs (one earned) on three hits in five innings. Also worth noting, No. 2 starting pitcher Andrew Godall, who has a 3.30 ERA in 43 2/3 innings, allowed just one run in a short stint.
Dickson has been SHSU's most consistent weekend starter so far this season with a 3.06 ERA in 50 innings, along with 52 strikeouts, 28 walks and an incredibly low .156 opponent batting average. Stuff-wise, Dickson has consistently been 90-94 with his fastball, along with a good added changeup, a sometimes plus curveball and a good breaking ball that he throws 78-79.
"Dickson is our most consistent guy right now. I'm really excited about him because he's just going out there and pounding the strike zone," Pierce said. "Those 28 walks he has. All of those were before his last three starts. Pretty impressive."
Smith hasn't been quite as sharp as Dickson so far this spring, but the upside is there. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound, junior left-handed pitcher has a 3.25 ERA in 44 1/3 innings, along with 42 strikeouts, 29 walks and a .231 opponent batting average. Stuff-wise, Smith has been 88-92 with his fastball, with a plus changeup that serves as a wipeout pitch.
"We moved him to Sunday early on because he was pressing so much. He and our other guys just weren't accustomed to the pressure," he said. "He's learning how to handle that and he's ready to make a very strong stretch run."
Despite the glitz and glamour surrounding the big arms of Dickson and Smith, one could accurately describe 6-foot-5, 215-pound, sophomore, right-handed pitcher Tyler Eppler as the club's overall most consistent pitcher this spring. Eppler has tallied some huge midweek wins this season, and has a fantastic 2.90 ERA in 31 innings. The good teams SHSU has faced in midweek action only have tallied a .221 average against him.
"He's just been terrific since the first day of the season," Pierce said of Eppler. "He definitely has a chance to move into the rotation by season's end. We'll just have to see how things progress with the other guys.
"I can't really recall, even during my days at Rice, having the same midweek guy the entire season," he continued. "It's a real luxury to have, and he's just been relishing the fact he gets to go up against some name programs."
While Pierce is very pleased with his squad from a pitching standpoint heading down the final stretch of the regular season, he feels like the offense could improve on a few things, particularly the execution of the short game, including drag bunts, base-running, and other key areas.
But from an overall standpoint, he can't be too disappointed with his offense. After all, the Bearkats are hitting a very respectable .295 on the season with seniors Jessie Plumlee (.397/2/9) and Kevin Miller (.348/0/14) leading the charge.
"You know, we kind of have gotten where we need to be when it comes to the offensive lineup," he said. "We have a senior leader in Jesse and Kevin, while Azar is finally back in the mix and doing well for us. We also have been pretty balanced and continue to show more consistency from an offensive standpoint."
The Bearkats also have high hopes for shortstop Carter Burgess and youngster Hayden Simerly down the stretch, while first baseman Ryan O'Hearn, who really put together an impressive freshman campaign, is a potential breakout candidate. Burgess is hitting .344 with 17 RBIs, Simerly is hitting .313 with four homers and 19 RBIs and O'Hearn has yet to find his niche, hitting just .231 with no home runs and just 10 RBIs.
"I thought we really put together some nice at-bats this past weekend against McNeese State," he said. "As for O'Hearn, we just told him that you're our first baseman, and you're going to be in the lineup no matter what, so just relax. Early in the season, I think he felt like he needed to hit .340 or something to be productive."
For many college baseball teams, high expectations can often be the death knell for the season, or the spark the team needs to compete at a championship level.
SHSU's season didn't start as planned, but all the pieces are coming together at exactly the right time.
MID-MAJOR HOT BOARD
Bryant: The Bulldogs certainly got off to a slow start this spring, but have played an impressive brand of baseball the past couple of weeks as the nation's leader when it comes to winning streak. Peter Kelich continued to lead the pitching staff with an impressive 2.01 ERA in 44 2/3 innings of work, while outfielder Kevin Brown is hitting an impressive .368 with four homers and 25 RBIs.
Delaware: There's been plenty of talk about UNC Wilmington in the Colonial Athletic Association for a good reason, but also keep an eye on the Blue Hens. Delaware has a fantastic 9-3 league record to go with a 22-8 overall record. First baseman Jimmy Yezzo continues to lead the way at the plate with a .444 average, 18 doubles, two triples, seven homers and 42 RBIs, while at the plate, Matt Soren has a 1.69 ERA in 42 2/3 innings of work.
Radford: Joe Raccuia's club first made a big statement a couple of weeks ago with a big series win over Campbell. Now, they continue to experience success with a solid 19-11 overall record, 7-2 mark in conference play. Jeff Kemp is leading the offense with a .310 batting average, seven homers and 26 RBIs, while the Highlanders have an outstanding bullpen with Michael Costello, who has a 1.83 ERA in 19 2/3 innings, leading the way.
Campbell: The Camels are having an outstanding campaign and have one of the nation's more explosive offensive lineups with Clayton Brown, Brent Graham and Ben McQuown leading the way. Brown is hitting .457, Graham is hitting .390 and McQuown is hitting .364. Also worth noting, the Camels' RPI continues to slowly creep up each weekend. Keep an eye on Greg Goff's club moving forward.
Coastal Carolina: The Chanticleers are still the kings of the Big South until someone knocks them off their perch. The Chants are coming off a big series win over Liberty with versatile outfielder Jacob May, who's hitting .313 with three homers and 10 stolen bases, leading the charge. Meanwhile, on the mound, keep an eye on starting pitcher Ben Smith, who has a 1.37 ERA in 46 innings.
Richmond: Though Saint Louis got a lot of love before the season, the Spiders are quickly gaining some steam in the Atlantic 10 race this spring. The Spiders have a very solid leading hitter in Jacob Mayers, who's hitting .379 with four homers and 24 RBIs, while on the mound, starting pitcher Zak Sterling has a 2.20 ERA in 45 innings. He also has struck out 35 and walked 19, while teams are hitting him at a .228 clip.
Saint Louis: To no surprise at all, the Billkens are in the midst of a very solid 2013 campaign. They're hitting a very respectable .298 with Grant Nelson leading the way at the plate with a .383 average, three homers and 15 RBIs. Meanwhile, on the mound, starting pitcher Alex Alemann has a 2.65 ERA in 54 1/3 innings, along with 41 strikeouts and 21 walks.
Belmont: The Bruins are close to entering the Perfect Game College Top 25 after yet another impressive weekend. BU is 23-7 overall, 10-2 in the Ohio Valley, and has one of the nation's elite starting pitchers in veteran Chase Brookshire. Brookshire is having a sensational campaign with a 1.15 ERA in 47 innings of work. He also has 47 strikeouts, just five walks, and teams are hitting him at a .193 clip.
UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks seemed rather vulnerable earlier in the season, but have played very well for the most part the past few weeks. UNCW has a solid lineup with Michael Bass (.406/4/20) leading the charge, while on the mound, right-handed pitcher Jordan Ramsey is increasing his stock with a 1.60 ERA in 56 1/3 innings.
North Florida: The Ospreys appear to be heating up and have one of the nation's more productive offenses with a .325 batting average. Paul Karmeris is hitting .371 with two homers and 21 RBIs, while Donnie Dewees is having a terrific campaign, hitting .356 with 10 doubles, three triples, three homers and 27 RBIs.
Maine: The Black Bears started the season on a slow note, like many northern schools tend to because of the weather, but they're off to a nice start in the America East with an 8-3 conference mark. Michael Fransoso leads the offense with a .331 average, two homers and 26 RBIs, while on the mound, Mike Connolly has a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings of work. He also has struck out 23 and walked nine.