UNO’s impressive sweep of Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana’s bye in league play have taken most of the drama out of the last weekend of the regular season for the Southland Conference’s area teams.
Not that the Privateers are complaining. After entering the penultimate weekend a game behind the Colonels for the eighth and final spot in the Southland tournament, UNO won their head-to-head matchups 8-3, 2-0 and 12-5, taking a two-game lead with three to play.
“We still haven’t clinched a spot yet, but we at least have put ourselves in position where we have a pretty good chance,” UNO coach Blake Dean said. “I’m proud of what those guys did, but we still have to finish it to make sure we get in there.”
The only way Nicholls (23-30, 11-16) can overtake UNO (25-28, 13-14) is to sweep third-place Central Arkansas (32-20, 17-10) at home while the Privateers get swept by Northwestern State (31-21, 16-11) at Maestri Field on Thursday through Saturday.
The only ways UNO can miss the tournament are to lose all three to Northwestern State while either Nicholls or Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (25-26, 11-16) go 3-0— the Islanders play at cellar-dweller Abilene Christian — or win one of three and end up in a three- or four-way tie involving Nicholls and Corpus Christi (for reasons too convoluted to explain because of the league’s cumbersome tiebreaker procedures).
UNO, which appeared on the verge of missing the Southland tournament for the first time in Dean’s three-year tenure two weeks ago, has won five in a row, including a nonconference 14-9 road victory against 14th-ranked Southern Miss on Tuesday night. The Privateers are riding the immaculate pitching of ace Bryan Warzek (3-2, 2.81 ERA), who has allowed one run over his last two starts, a deep bullpen and their most torrid hitting of the season.
Senior third baseman Owen Magee, a Brother Martin graduate, hit for the cycle against Nicholls State on Friday night and has raised his batting average to a team-best .345. The Privateers erupted for a season-high 22 hits against Southern Miss.
“These past couple of weeks Owen has come into his own and basically carried this team on his shoulders,” Dean said. “That’s what we needed somebody to do. With him doing big things, it’s made everyone else around him better as well.”
UNO could finish as high as fourth in the Southland with a sweep, but Dean does not care what the seed is as long as the Privateers qualify for the tournament, which begins in Sugar Land, Texas next Wednesday. He said he might skip Warzek’s usual Friday start and rest him for the tourney start if they clinch a spot Thursday behind Brayson Smith.
While UNO competes for one of the bottom seeds in Sugar Land, Southeastern (35-19, 21-9) still has an outside shot to be the No. 1 seed after taking two of three from Central Arkansas last week in its final conference series. The scenario would require league-leading Sam Houston State (35-18, 21-6) getting swept at Incarnate Word, creating a tie at the top the Lions would win based on their series victory against the Bearkats.
With an RPI of 80 that precludes an NCAA at-large bid, Southeastern will be playing for momentum in a two-game home set with American Athletic Conference champion Houston on Thursday and Friday. The Lions almost certainly will have to win the Southland tournament to reach a third consecutive regional under coach Matt Riser.