Almost two weeks before heading to Fort Worth, Texas, for the Southwestern Athletic Conference baseball tournament, Southern will get a good look at what it may take to win the event.
The Jaguars welcome rival Jackson State, the SWAC Eastern Division winner, for a doubleheader that begins at 1 p.m. Saturday. Neither game at Lee-Hines Field counts toward the conference standings.
“It will be good to play them,” Southern coach Roger Cador said, “because we’ll get a really good idea of what to expect if we meet them in the (SWAC) tournament.”
JSU (26-18) will be favored to win the SWAC tournament — and, with it, the league’s automatic NCAA regional berth — after cruising to a 19-5 mark to win the East. The Tigers, who finished divisional play with a sweep of Alcorn State last weekend, swept five series in SWAC East play. They enter Saturday looking to extend a five-game winning streak.
Southern (19-20) has had its struggles this year, but the Jaguars are in position to join JSU as a No. 1 seed May 15-19 in Fort Worth.
Southern begins the weekend leading second-place Arkansas-Pine Bluff and third-place Prairie View in the SWAC West race. Either the Lions or the Panthers, who play three games at Prairie View this weekend, could overtake Southern for the West’s top spot. However, the Jaguars can finish no worse than second.
UAPB is 11-9 in the West; Prairie View is 9-9.
“It’s obviously a huge weekend to see if we continue to be in first place or finish in second,” Cador said.
Even though the annual Southern-Jackson series isn’t included in conference records, Cador said the matchup of two of the SWAC’s traditional heavyweights is always one that jumps off the schedule.
The rivalry blossomed when Cador and Robert Braddy, who retired as JSU’s baseball coach in 2001 with 12 conference titles to his credit, were going head-to-head in decades past.
“If you look at it over the years, we played for the championship in baseball so many times,” Cador said.
Such a scenario this year would pit the conference’s top hitting team against perhaps its best corps of starting pitchers.
JSU leads the SWAC with a .289 team batting average. Center fielder Charles Tilery isn’t officially the league’s leading hitter, but his .358 average ranks first among players with at least 100 at-bats.
Left fielder Bryce Taylor is batting .329, and third baseman Malcolm Tate is at .328.
Cador will start senior left-hander Jesse “Doc” Holiday (5-2, 2.97 ERA) in the first game Saturday and junior right-hander Jose De Leon (2-3, 2.83) in the second. Regular Sunday starter Danny Garcia (4-2, 3.96) could be used out of the bullpen.
After leaning heavily on his starting pitching late in SWAC West play, Cador said neither of Saturday’s starters will be asked to make lengthy appearances.
“We will limit pitches simply because we have extended them the last two games,” Cador said.
Southern lost a pair to Northwestern State during midweek action, bringing the Jaguars into the weekend on a three-game losing streak.