Winthrop will kick-start the Big South Conference tournament Tuesday with some breakfast baseball.
The Eagles, hosting the league’s championship this week at Winthrop Ballpark, face Charleston Southern at 9:30 a.m. in the tourney opener. The choice to play at either 9:30 a.m., or 8 p.m., was the Eagles’ to make.
“If you play that 8 p.m., game you’re gonna’ have a delay, a sun delay. That’s inevitable right here. That game may not start until 8:30 or 9’o’clock,” said Winthrop coach Tom Riginos. “If you play the early game, you know exactly when you’re gonna take BP (batting practice), infield, outfield, and then, win or lose, you still get to rest all day. Me, I’m a big routine guy, it just helps us to keep a routine.”
Charleston Southern, the Big South’s best-hitting team with a collective .301 average, swept Winthrop two weeks ago, part of a run of 13 wins from the last 17 games. That series loss for the Eagles came in the midst of a five-game losing streak, but they responded by winning two out of three against Longwood to capture the South Division title, thanks to a tie-breaker with Coastal Carolina, which was also 13-13. Several unsightly losing streaks blight Winthrop’s results this year, but the Eagles have made a habit of winning the games they’ve needed. That knack helped them cross off several items on a preseason checklist that the team made.
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“Our first goal was to make sure we made the conference tournament; checked that off,” said Riginos, as the Liberty Flames’ batting practice pinged in front of him at Winthrop Ballpark. “Win the Southern Division; checked that off on Saturday. Now, the next one is to win the tournament. It doesn’t matter who you play. You’ve just got to play, and play well.”
Riginos hopes that the patterned early start can help the Eagles (24-32), the tournament’s No. 2 seed, overcome the Bucs, the No. 7 seed. The Bucs (30-24) finished league play 12-14, even more impressive considering they won just two of their first 13 Big South contests. Coach Stuart Lake was thrilled with his team’s rebound from such a poor start. In a press release from the school, he cited the school’s softball team, which won the Big South Conference tournament last weekend as the No. 7 seed, as a shining example for his baseball program.
“We’ve given ourselves a chance, going in (to the Big South Championship) as a No. 7 seed, just like softball,” Lake said. “Now we have a chance to play our way into a regional, which is all we could ask for when we were 2-11 in conference play.”
Conversely, Winthrop did its heavy lifting early in the season, winning four of its first five conference series, including the biggest over Coastal Carolina, which helped the Eagles claim the division crown. Last week’s series win over Longwood helped restore a modicum of that early season confidence.
Charleston Southern out-scored Winthrop 24-12 two weeks ago. Winthrop threw too many bad pitches, according to Riginos, and there is no question that Eagle starter Sam Kmiec will be eager to rebound against the Bucs Tuesday morning. Kmiec has had a strong season, but allowed six earned runs on nine hits in 6.2 innings of work during an 8-6 loss to Lake’s club on May 9.
“I don’t think Sam had his best stuff, but, I think this is good for us, he had his ‘A’ game on Friday,” said Riginos, citing Kmiec’s five innings against Longwood last weekend when he allowed just two hits and no runs in five innings of work during a 4-3 win. “He’s given us a chance every Friday night.”
The Bucs have almost 100 more RBI than Winthrop this season, but Riginos and his team understand that bashing the ball all over the park or into gaps just isn’t the Eagles’ game. Senior T.J. Olesczuk has flirted with a .400 batting average all season, and freshman catcher Babe Thomas is 6-for-21 at the plate in the Eagles’ last seven games, with three homers, seven RBI and five walks to boot. But production at the plate just hasn’t been consistent for the tournament hosts, who have a Big South-worst .236 team batting average.
“It’s been a grind,” said Riginos, helping out a reporter struggling to describe the Eagles’ offensive output. “After 56 games, we are who we are. We’ve got to make sure we get our bunts down, we’ve got to make sure we have timely hitting. We have to make sure if T.J. (Olesczuk) or Cody (Dolan) have guys on base, we’ve got to get some runs in. We’ve got to make sure we pick up runs when we can.”
The winner of this week’s tournament earns an NCAA Tournament berth, a reward that’s evaded Winthrop since 2006. Sitting above “making the conference tournament” and “winning the South Division,” an NCAA trip is the first item on the Eagles’ season checklist.