With 10 games remaining in the regular season, Winthrop is at a make-or-break point. The Eagles' goal is to finish in the top four in the conference standings. If that happens, they will earn the first-round bye in the Big South baseball championship at The Winthrop Ballpark beginning on May 25.
Winthrop (21-22, 9-9 Big South) heads into this weekend in fifth place in the 10-team league. It has three Big South series left and a nonconference game at home with The Citadel.
The conference series -- at Coastal Carolina, at VMI and home against Liberty -- are all three-game sets. All three schools are ahead of Winthrop in the standings. The trio of teams are 1-2-3 atop the league in team pitching and 2-3-4 in team batting.
"We can control where we finish," Winthrop coach Joe Hudak said. "I'm excited about playing these games."
The top eight teams qualify for the tournament. Presbyterian is not eligible for the postseason as they complete their transition to Division I.
The Eagles are coming off a 14-6 loss at No. 4 South Carolina. The team jumps from the fire to the oven when they begin a three-game series at No. 7 Coastal Carolina on Saturday.
The Chanticleers (39-6, 17-0) had a 17-game win streak halted on April 27 at Virginia, but returned to Conway to sweep UNC Asheville. They have won 20 of their last 21 games.
Winthrop pitcher Matteo D'Angelo will start Sunday's game. He liked the way the schedule played out for his team. He viewed going to USC ahead of the Coastal series as a positive.
"South Carolina is a good preparation game for Coastal instead of going there from the Presbyterian series," D'Angelo said. The Eagles took two of three from PC last weekend.
D'Angelo has been one of the best pitchers in the conference the last four weeks. He is 6-3 with a 3.56 ERA. In his last five starts he's thrown no less than seven innings and is coming off a complete-game shutout on Saturday over PC.
"Matteo's last four starts have been exceptional," Hudak said. "He is pitching like he did last year. He keeps the ball down. He is doing what we tell the other pitchers to do."
Hudak has made a change in his weekend rotation. Robert Lake will start Saturday, followed by D'Angelo; Monday's starter will be Dom Patterozzi instead of Wade Newman.
Newman (4-3, 6.32) has lasted just three innings in each of his last two starts.
"I had a talk with Newman and he figured it was coming," Hudak said. "In his last start there was only one ball hit hard off him but we needed to make a change. For this weekend, it's what's best for the team and I think Dom is excited to get back into a starting role."
Patterozzi was shut down last season and had shoulder surgery. It was six months before he could throw and then he was limited to 15-20 tosses from short distances. Coming back took some time and a lot of patience. His velocity isn't where it was last year. He is throwing in the mid-80s but he has run it up to 91 mph a few times.
"It's good to throw without pain and it's not like the velocity isn't there," Patterozzi said. "I've put a lot of work in even though the numbers aren't there for me."
Patterozzi owns an 0-3 record and a less-than-dazzling 8.77 ERA in 12 appearances that include five starts. Monday will be his first start of the year against a conference opponent.
Ironically, it was against Coastal Carolina in 2009 when he knew something was wrong in his shoulder. It was his last game of the season. He is looking forward to getting back into the starting rotation and with his return coming against the Chants he feels like he has come full circle.
"Everyone wants to pitch against the best teams," he said. "I'm going to go all out, especially against Coastal, and hopefully pitch nine innings. That's what I'm shooting for."
Coastal's Jose Iglesias leads the Big South in RBIs with 59. Winthrop catchers will be under the gun trying to throw out Scott Woodward and Rico Noel. Both players have 40 stolen bases.
The Chanticleers' three starting pitchers are all among the top 10 in the Big South in ERA. Anthony Meo (9-1, 1.76) leads the league. Cody Wheeler is 8-0 with a 3.65 ERA and Jim Birmingham sports a 4.01 ERA to go with a 6-2 record.
Coastal's last six Big South games are on the road; at Liberty (May 14-16) and at Radford (May 20-22).
The Eagles will have to go through tough pitching against VMI's Jason Farley (4-2, 2.86) and Adam Lopez (11 strikeouts/game) as well as Liberty's Shawn Teufel (9-1, 2.16) and Steven Evans (6-1, 3.48) before the regular season ends.
VMI (30-16, 11-10) is currently in fourth place. The team has fallen from the early season highs when they received Top 25 votes. The Keydets snapped an 11-game slide on Sunday.
They only have one game, Tuesday against non-conference Richmond -- prior to hosting Winthrop May 14-16. PC plays at VMI May 20-22.
Liberty (34-12, 15-3) holds second place in the Big South heading into the weekend. The Flames have won five in a row and 12 of their last 14.
Liberty starts a three-game series Charleston Southern tonight and then hosts Coastal Carolina before coming to Rock Hill.