Competition in the Conference USA baseball tournament begins Wednesday at MGM Park, marking the third consecutive season that the event has called the Mississippi Gulf Coast home.
As the regular season champion, Florida Atlantic will start play as the No. 1 seed and the favorite to win the tournament and clinch the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Owls made it to the title game a year ago, but came up shy in a 12-3 loss to Southern Miss.
FAU is 37-18 overall and finished 22-8 in league play.
With eight Owls batting .299 or better, FAU is the league’s best hitting team with the conference’s best overall average of .298. The Owls also lead the way in homers with 56 and in RBIs at 364.
Sophomore first baseman Andru Summerall has put together a breakout season for the Owls, hitting .301 with eight homers and a team-leading 54 RBIs. He also paces the team in doubles with 16.
Senior right-hander Blake Sanderson has been FAU’s top starting pitcher with a 7-2 record and a 3.68 ERA. The Owls feature C-USA’s top closer in senior right-hander Zach Schneider, who has a 3.31 ERA and leads the conference in saves with 14.
La. Tech deals with hardship
No team has had a more challenging close to the season than Louisiana Tech, which had its baseball stadium in Ruston destroyed by a tornado on April 25. Softball, tennis and track facilities also took a direct hit.
The school is in the process of determining where they will build a new baseball stadium with the current site among the possibilities.
The Bulldogs lost five straight following the loss of J.C. Love Field, but rebounded to win six of their last 10 games.
The Bulldogs (34-22) played their final conference home series at Ruston High School against Western Kentucky, taking two of three from the Hilltoppers.
La. Tech features a pair of George County products in senior third baseman Tanner Huddleston and left-handed starting pitcher Logan Robbins (4-4, 5.23). Huddleston is hitting .312 with six homers and 43 RBIs.
Three to watch
▪ WKU junior outfielder Jake Sanford — The Native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, became the first player in C-USA history to win the conference’s triple crown. He hit .402 with 22 homers and 65 RBIs after transferring in from McCook Community College in Nebraska.
▪ USM junior outfielder Matt Wallner — The Minnesotan set USM’s career record for home runs in just three seasons, hitting his 54th in the regular season finale against UAB. Likely the best MLB prospect in C-USA, the left-handed hitting junior is batting .315 with 19 homers and 51 RBIs.
▪ Rice junior right-hander Matt Canterino — The Texas native joins a long list of elite pitchers to take the mound for the Owls. He is 6-5 with a .290 ERA in 14 starts this season. He has 112 strikeouts and 21 walks in 93 innings.
FAU is safely in the NCAA field with the conference’s best RPI ranking of No. 38, but the rest of the conference has work to do to garner consideration for an at-large bid.
USM (34-19) has the best chance, but it likely needs a run to the C-USA title game. The Eagles lost three consecutive weekend series to close out the conference slate, dropping to a second place finish. The Eagles also need to improve on their RPI ranking of No. 56.
Louisiana Tech (34-22) has the second best RPI ranking in the conference at No. 53, but the Bulldogs were swept on their home field by USM early in conference play. That makes it hard to see La. Tech getting an at-large bid over USM.
Tournament tickets are on sale at the south box office at MGM Park in Biloxi. Single-game tickets are $15 each and day passes are available for $35 each. For more information, call (877)344-2174.
Games that take place on the first four days of the tournament will be shown on ESPN-plus, a digital subscription service that costs $4.99 a month.
The championship game, which takes place at 1 p.m. on Sunday, will be shown on CBS Sports Network.
C-USA tournament schedule
Game 1 — Marshall 6, Louisiana Tech 4 (12 innings)
Game 2 — Southern Miss 6, Rice 4 (10 innings)
Game 3 — FAU 6, UTSA 5
Game 4 — WKU 7, Old Dominion 4
Game 5 — Rice 4, Louisiana Tech 3
Game 6 — UTSA 3, Old Dominion 2
Game 7 — Southern Miss 10, Marshall 5
Game 8 — FAU 6, WKU 1
Game 9 — Rice 6, Marshall 3
Game 10 — UTSA 15, WKU 8
Game 11 — Southern Miss 6, Rice 0
Game 12 — FAU 11, UTSA, 4
Championship Game, 1 p.m. — Southern Miss vs. FAU