Flying high with a 14-1 record in the Big South Conference last year, Winthrop traveled to Liberty and lost three games. The Eagles limped back home, where they lost two of three to Coastal Carolina, falling out of a regular-season championship and a No. 1 seed for the conference tournament.
The Flames again appear on Winthrop's schedule this year, again at a crucial time.
Recent history isn't welcome at The Winthrop Ballpark this weekend.
"You get to the point where you feel like you're turning it around, then last week, obviously, was a bad week for us," coach Joe Hudak said on Thursday. "Then (Wednesday) night, we played a bad ballgame.
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"We're all frustrated."
The Eagles (16-24, 6-6 BSC) host Liberty (21-20, 8-4) in a three-game series beginning today after losing four of their past five, including Wednesday's listless 9-3 loss to Elon. With only 16 regular-season games left to try and make some kind of run, Winthrop can ill afford another week like the last one.
The Eagles have to go at least 12-4 down the stretch just to finish at .500. An at-large bid to the NCAA tournament isn't looking very good.
But it's not impossible. No matter how improbable it may be for Winthrop to win all of its final 16, the chance is still there. Hudak isn't pulling the trigger yet on putting everything he's got into the conference games and ignoring the midweeks, but the opportunity for a feel-good winning streak is shrinking rapidly.
"We can't think that we can play like we played (Wednesday) for the next four weeks and then all of a sudden, come the conference tournament, push a button or flip a switch and we become this intense team that's ready to play ball," Hudak said. "It won't work that way."
Coastal, ranked 20th in this week's Baseball America poll and sitting on top of the Big South with a 10-2 record, seems to be running away with the league. The Chanticleers and Eagles each have three conference series remaining, but for Winthrop to have a chance at winning the regular-season title, it has to depend on Coastal playing bad enough to a), erase the four-game lead it's got now and b) erase the tiebreaker advantage gained with a 2-1 series victory over the Eagles.
A regular-season title isn't vital to Winthrop's postseason hopes. All the Eagles have to do is play well enough in the next nine BSC games to nab a top-four seed in the BSC tournament, thus avoiding the single-elimination first-round games. Winthrop is fifth in the league behind High Point (which has played three more conference games), but the Eagles hold tiebreakers over the Panthers and second-place VMI.
Liberty is in third place. A series win or a sweep this weekend over the Flames puts the Eagles in good position to finish second to fourth, with an outside shot at first. Winthrop closes the season against Radford and UNC Asheville, the last two teams in the standings.
The chance to rebuild what's becoming a wall of shattered dreams isn't out of the question. But every time the Eagles come out like they did against Elon makes the chance more remote.
"At this point, can't really take a week off," said Wade Newman, who's slated to start Saturday's game. "I know we can definitely do what we need to do to get it done. Taking a week off is probably not a good idea."
• NOTE: Newman, who's been pitching in the midweek games since coming back from an injury that cost him a year and a half, will start his first weekend game on Saturday. He'll take the spot formerly held by former Fort Mill High School standout Hamilton Bennett, who has been moved to the bullpen.
Hudak said it wasn't a knock on Bennett (0-8), who has had a lot of hard luck but has also been victimized by one bad inning in almost every start. The freshman is set to be back in the rotation next week, when the Eagles host Lipscomb in a four-game series.