March 7, 2008
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The USC Upstate baseball team heads into its second conference weekend in the Atlantic Sun in a five-way tie for second place in the league ready to face one of the teams it is tied with in Mercer. Mercer, which has won six division and league titles in 28 years in the Atlantic Sun Conference, will host the Spartans in a three-game set, starting with a doubleheader slated for a 12 p.m. start on Saturday before a 1 p.m. game on get-away Sunday.
Mercer enters the series with a 5-4 record and a 2-1 record in the Atlantic Sun. In the last week, the Bears downed Campbell in two of three games and swept a two-game set with Florida A&M. The Bears are benefited by the presence of four-year starter and Preseason All-A-Sun selection Billy Shaugnessy.
The series will be a return to the home state of five Spartans, as sophomores Jacob Breen, Tyler Oliver, Jimmy Tanner and Michael Winfield and freshman Karlton Schilling all reside in the Peach State.
South To Statesboro
The Spartans will play their third-straight five-game week as the Spartans travel to Georgia Southern for a two-game set on Tuesday and Wednesday. Georgia Southern is a traditionally strong program from the Southern Conference that finished 2007 with a 34-28 record and made the semifinals of the 2007 SoCon Tournament. The Eagles have started the 2008 year with a 4-5 overall mark. This is the first time the Spartans and the Eagles will meet. Live video will be available through Georgia Southern's Web site.
Never Sweeter Than The First Time
Senior Kyle Bowley and sophomore Matt Branham each posted quality starts by throwing eight innings, allowing USC Upstate to heat up and sweep East Tennessee State, 11-1 in eight innings in the first game and 8-3 in the second game, as Upstate won its first Atlantic Sun Conference games in school history at Cardinal Park on March 1. Coming off an injured hamstring that kept him from the lineup for three games, all Spartan losses, senior Andrew Runion paced the team with a 4-for-9 day at the plate, including a double, three RBIs and two runs. Junior Eric Guillen thrived in the No. 8 slot after starting the first five games of the year at the top of the order in the No. 2 slot, went 4-for-7 with two runs scored.
Where It Starts
Head coach Matt Fincher built USC Upstate into a Division II contender based on pitching and defense. So far, the Spartans have entered their Division I era based on the same premise, with starting pitching leading the team to its four wins. Senior Kyle Bowley is 2-0 in two starts with a 1.20 ERA, which is fourth in the conference, in 15 innings pitched. Following him in the rotation, sophomore Matt Branham is 2-0 in his two starts with a 2.40 ERA, which is ninth in the conference, in an identical 15 innings pitched. Branham and Bowley are tied for the league lead in innings pitched while freshman Robert Stegbauer, who has a 4.40 ERA in 14.1 innings pitched, is fourth in the league in work. Even senior Scott Eckard, although struggling with an 0-2 record, is ninth in the conference with 12 strikeouts. Through 10 games, the Spartan starters have a 4.04 ERA.
Junior Phillip Morgan has continued to thrive early in the season, as the catcher is currently ranked among Atlantic Sun Conference leaders in four categories. Hitting .357 in 10 starts, Morgan is currently second in the conference in RBIs with 15, tied for sixth in hits with 15, tied for eighth with two homers, and seventh in total bases with 24. In the five games last week, Morgan posted eight RBIs and hit .350. He added an RBI in all five games and posted three in the first game of the doubleheader against ETSU on March 1.
Casey At The Bat
Senior Casey Rivers has been a pleasant surprise this season for Upstate. A senior from Hudson, Mass., Rivers has taken over the second base position thanks to a week that saw him hit .400 (8-for-20) in five games. Rivers was on fire against ETSU, hitting .583 (7-for-12) with six runs, two doubles and three RBIs to pace the Spartans as they took two of three games from the Bucs. He scored five runs and added two RBIs in the doubleheader sweep of the Bucs on March 1 before adding two doubles in the final game of the series.
Senior Kyle Bowley has shown the ability to be a DI ace so far this season, embarking on the most effective back-to-back starts in his career. Against New Jersey Tech on opening night, Bowley was spectacular, striking out seven batters in the first three innings and cruising through seven innings of work, retiring seven in a row at one point. He finished the game with eight strikeouts against just one walk, falling one shy of his career-high of nine strikeouts. In his second start, Bowley was even better, pitching a complete-game, eight-inning five-hitter against East Tennessee State, allowing just one run and striking out six.
Bowley has thrown back-to-back starts allowing just one run three times in his career, although he had never thrown more than 12 combined innings the other two times. As a sophomore, Bowley pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings in a win against Lander on April 10 and then allowed two earned runs in 8 1/3 innings in a loss against North Florida on April 17 in the only stretch of his career where he allowed fewer earned runs in more innings in back-to-back starts.
Making Pitchers Say D'oh
Junior outfielder Kyle Simpson is currently third in the Atlantic Sun in runs scored, having posted 13 runs through 10 games. The centerfielder is tied for first in Atlantic Sun games with teammate senior Casey Rivers, having crossed the plate six times last weekend at ETSU. He also had quite a midweek before that, facing two teams that made the NCAA Regionals during the 2007 season, as he went 4-for-9 with four runs and four RBIs. On Feb. 26, Simpson went 2-for-4 with two runs and three RBIs against Wofford, hitting a three-run homer to cap an eight-run sixth inning. On Feb. 27, Simpson went 2-for-5 with two runs and an RBI against Charlotte, as he was responsible for all three Spartan runs in the game.
The Middle Men
So far this season, the Spartans have done a majority of their damage during the middle innings with 42 of their 59 runs being scored between the fifth and seventh innings. Through 10 games, the Spartans have done more than a third of their damage in the sixth inning, scoring 20 runs in that frame. They've added 13 in the fifth inning and nine in the seventh.
Three Earn All-Tournament Honors
Three USC Upstate players earned all tournament honors after the Spartans finished second at the Courtyard by Marriott Baseball Classic at Harley Park with a 2-1 record. Junior Phillip Morgan led the way, posting a .462 batting average and adding two runs and four RBIs in the three games. Sophomore Jimmy Tanner hit .375 with a run and an RBI to earn a slot on the team and senior Kyle Bowley also garnered a slot on the team with a .286 average at the plate and a 1-0 record and a 1.29 ERA on the mound.
Bowley Bowling For Records
Already possibly the most accomplished two-way player in school history, senior Kyle Bowley entered his last year at Upstate in position to enter the top 10 in at least eight offensive categories and four pitching categories. Bowley is just 49 hits away from becoming the seventh player in school history to reach 200 hits in a career and he is already tied for sixth with 39 career doubles. On the mound, Bowley's 14 wins is tied for sixth in school history and his 188.1 innings pitched is sixth.
Already At The Top Of The List
Senior pitcher Scott Eckard enters the 2008 season already having written his name all over the Upstate record book. He struck out seven in a 10-4 win over Armstrong Atlantic State on April 21, 2007 to give him 206 career strikeouts to become the school's strikeout king. Eckard surpassed former Spartan Brandon Williams, who compiled 202 strikeouts from 2003-06 and is currently in the minor leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. It was even more impressive that Eckard was very effective in the win since he was making his first start since an emergency appendectomy 10 days earlier. Eckard finished the season the school's all-time leader in complete games (12), shutouts (4) and strikeouts (212).
Ready To Get To The Top Of The List
Senior pitcher Scott Eckard still has a few more records to chase during the 2008 season, even though he already holds the school record for complete games, shutouts and strikeouts. he needs just two wins to give him 20 in his career, which would surpass Eric Hunter, who went 19-6 from 1986-89, for the top slot in school history. He also needs to toss just 24.1 innings to pass Trevor Berryhill (2002-05) for the top spot and his 3.40 ERA is third-best in school history with Chris Fowler's (1989-92) school-record 3.15 close ahead.
A Summer Superstar
Senior Kyle Bowley was named to the National team in the Coastal Plains League All-Star game, finishing second during the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby and earning the game's Offensive MVP award. Bowley, a first baseman for the Stingers, hit four homers during the Home Run Derby at Columbia's Capitol City Stadium. In the All-Star game, Bowley came on as a sub in the top of the sixth inning and keyed a five-run rally with a no-out double that drove in a run from third. He scored two batters later on a single. In the seventh inning, he added another RBI single up the middle with no outs to give the National team its final run in a 9-3 victory. Bowley finished the game 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored to earn the Offensive MVP honor.
Spartans Succeed In Summer Leagues
Six other Spartans also enjoyed decent summers playing baseball in various collegiate summer baseball leagues. Sophomore Matt Branham, a 6-5 right-hander, was a vital part of the Columbia Blowfish' bullpen in the Coastal Plains League. In 12 appearances and 27.2 innings pitched, Branham picked up one save while striking out 14 and walking just six. Senior Scott Eckard, a 6-1 left-hander, led the Sanford River Rats on the hill all season, posting a 1-1 record and a 1.80 ERA in five starts. He has tossed 25 innings, allowing just 17 hits for a paltry opponents' .200 batting average. He has also added 33 strikeouts, which was 10th in the league, and walked just eight.
Junior Dennis McCraney, a 6-1 southpaw, was a key left-handed gun in the Carolina Sox' arsenal in the Southern Collegiate League. He was 1-0 with a 4.07 ERA, having appeared in eight games and tossing 24.1 innings. Sophomore Jimmy Tanner, a 5-11 catcher/first baseman, played primarily first base for the Battle Creek Bombers in the Northwoods League. He posted a .288 average, notching 46 hits, adding eight doubles and 19 RBIs to go along with 13 runs scored. Junior Phillip Myers also found success with the Bombers, going 2-3 for the team, appearing in 14 games and starting four. The 6-5 southpaw struck out 20 and walked 17. Junior Phillip Morgan played summer ball with the Spartanburg Crickets at USC Upstate's Harley Park. He posted eight doubles, 22 hits, 10 runs and two homers.
Nowak Moving Up The Chain
Former USC Upstate baseball star Chris Nowak has continued to shine during his professional baseball career, as he led the Montgomery Biscuits to its second-straight Class AA Southern League Championship in 2007. The 6-4 infielder was named the unanimous Southern League Championship Series MVP after hitting .611 (11-for-18) with three home runs during the series. Nowak finished his first full season at Double-A with a .304 batting average, seven homers and 55 RBIs. He also stole 18 bases and added a hefty .396 on-base percentage. In his final 15 games, Nowak was on fire, hitting five homers and batting .467 (28-for-60). Nowak is expected to begin this season in AAA Durham for the Devil Rays.
Quite The Streak
Head coach Matt Fincher has helped at least one Spartan in each of the last four seasons to go pro, including two players after the 2007 season. Chris Nowak, now in the Devil Rays chain, started the string in 2004 and Eric Davis continued the string in 2005, when he played a season for an independent league team, the Amarillo Dillas. Brandon Williams was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 2006 season and he is entering his third season in pro ball. He went 1-2 with a 2.53 ERA pitching mainly out of the bullpen for the State College in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. In 2007, both Bret Story and Bradley Blanks signed pro contracts after the season. Story, who was signed as a free agent with Texas, played his first season in the Arizona League. Blanks signed a pro contract with the Evansville Otters of the Frontier League.
A Rough Schedule
In a 54-game schedule, the Spartans won't play just the six games against 2007 NCAA Tournament teams dictated by the conference schedule, but four more games against tournament teams in what could easily be the toughest entrance to the ranks of Division I for any of Upstate's athletic programs. The numbers look stacked against the Spartans, with 17 games against teams that finished 2007 in the top 115 in RPI according to Boyd'sWorld.com and only nine games against teams with RPIs above 200. For Upstate, though, it's nothing new. In their last season in Division II, the Spartans played 22 of their 59 games against teams ranked in Collegiate Baseball's Top 30.
A History of Upsets
In his decade at the helm, head coach Matt Fincher's clubs proved a thorn in the side of many of the best baseball teams in Division II. Fincher's Spartans have beaten 48 teams ranked in the Collegiate Baseball Magazine Top 30 and 20 wins have come against teams in the top 10. The Spartans even pulled off historic wins on March 23, 2003, when Upstate downed top-ranked Kennesaw State, 8-7, and on March 18, 2006 when Upstate beat top-ranked Georgia College & State University, 11-1. In all, the Spartans won at least one game against a team inside the top 25 in each of Fincher's years with the program and have won at least one game against a team ranked in the top 10 in each of the last five years.
Since opening in 2004, Harley Park has been no picnic for opposing teams to enter. The 500-seat complex has helped make Upstate a formidable force in Division II before moving up to Division I in 2008. In five seasons at Harley Park, the Spartans have produced a 78-49 (.614) record, with 19 of those wins coming against teams ranked in the Collegiate Baseball Top 30.