Santos Saldivar appears to be saving his best for last.
The senior right-hander has been a part of the Southern pitching staff for four seasons, getting his feet wet in the bullpen his first two seasons and being the No. 1 starter the last two.
Saldivar didn’t lose any of his nine starts last season, finishing with three wins and an ERA of 2.06.
He started slowly this season as he lost his first five starts, but in the last three weeks he has been dominant.
Saldivar had a 4.39 ERA during his losing streak — but in four appearances since then, his ERA has been 0.93. He has three complete-game victories and a two-inning save.
In his last start last Sunday, Saldivar had a career-high 16 strikeouts against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, topping the 13 he had against Grambling three weeks earlier. In between he struck out 12 against Prairie View.
He’ll try to continue the streak when the Jaguars (13-19, 10-6 Southwestern Athletic Conference) open a weekend series at Texas Southern (20-15, 12-6) with a 1 p.m. doubleheader Saturday. Each of Saldivar’s victories has triggered a Jaguars series sweep, setting the tone for an eight-game win streak in conference play.
“First of all, he knows how to pitch, then he conditioned himself for that (No. 1) role in the stretch run,” coach Roger Cador said. “Being the senior that he is, he knows he may have to finish games to save that bullpen for games two and three.”
Saldivar said it’s no coincidence that his current run began maybe an hour or so after pitching coach Dan Canevari called him out, among others, in a pregame meeting before the Grambling series.
After that meeting, Saldivar said, “the switch went on.”
Canevari said his main point was that as the Jaguars suffered through losing seasons the last two years, Saldivar might have lost his edge. He was pitching effectively, but not fulfilling the role of a No. 1 starter.
“He forgot that you don’t just pitch well, you pitch to win,” Canevari said. “He’s a good competitor and so in order for us to win he has to pitch to win and he sets the tone as the first guy out of the chute. I think that kind of got his competitive juices going again, which he needed.”
The SWAC has named Saldivar a pitcher of the week twice during this stretch.
“He’s taking command of the game more,” Canevari said. “He’s making better pitches when there are runners on base. If something doesn’t go well, he’s pitching around it. He’s making sure that he gets us out of the inning.
“When we score, he works really hard to get us a 1-2-3 inning or at least a shutout inning so we can get back on offense and get the momentum going. Those are things that you do when you’re competing and playing to win.”
Not only has Saldivar won the first game in each of the last three series, Southern has won each SWAC game since.
“We’ve rolled pretty good since then,” said Cador, who cited the pitching and two-out hitting as primary areas of improvement.
Texas Southern swept the Jaguars in the last SWAC series before the current streak began. Southern can overtake the Tigers for second place in the West Division by sweeping this series. Either way these teams figure to be the top seeds from the West in the SWAC tournament because first-place Arkansas-Pine Bluff is ineligible.
“You really want to maintain that fire that we have,” said Saldivar, who will be pitching about 15 minutes from his family’s home. “Winning eight in a row really gave us confidence. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Follow Les East on Twitter: @EastAdvocate.