Southern University’s baseball team battled the jitters almost throughout the Southwest Athletic Conference tournament last week until an unlikely ally stepped in — rain.
The Jaguars came from behind twice and fought off elimination and then breezed to a 15-0 victory in the championship game on Sunday against Alabama State for the school’s first conference title since 2009 and the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
The final was due to start at 11:30 a.m., but was pushed back to 3 p.m., which turned out to be significant, Southern coach Kerrick Jackson said.
“All of our earlier games, the stage was big for us,” he said. “We had jitters going on so we made some mistakes early, gave up early runs and did things that aren’t characteristic of who we are. We were able to recover from most of them.
“I really believe the rain delay on Sunday is what helped us. We went back to the hotel and laid around in a conference room because they had already stripped the beds in our rooms. We were there 2½ hours and it allowed our kids to mentally relax, mellow out a little bit. That allowed us to come out and play our best.”
Did they ever. Southern jumped to a 3-0 in the second inning against SWAC Pitcher of the Year Darren Kelly and by the fifth inning it was 7-0. Tyler LaPorte had a triple and a homer with five RBIs; Johnny Johnson had four hits and three RBIs; Bobby Johnson two hits and three RBIs; and Javeyan Williams four hits and four runs scored.
That made it easy for starter Eli Finney to win his second game of the tournament. He went 8 1/3 innings and allowed three hits with six strikeouts to improve to 5-2.
“When he’s locked in, that’s who he is,” Jackson said. “It’s the same thing he did against LSU, pitched both sides of the plate and changed speeds, down in the zone. They’re an aggressive club so he was the right matchup for them since the changeup was working. When they started to look soft, he would go hard in and when they looked hard in the would go soft away. Kept them off balance all day long.”
The key now is for Jackson to manage almost two weeks off. Southern is tentatively scheduled to play an exhibition game in Chicago on Friday but arrangements have not been finalized. Jackson gave his team off Monday and will practice Tuesday and Wednesday.
If the Friday game is played, they will return Saturday and await their regional assignment. Jackson said even though Finney has emerged as the team’s ace, he won’t necessarily start the first game.
“It will be a matchup,” Jackson said. “We started him in the tournament because we knew it would give us an opportunity to bring him back Sunday. In this format you want to play matchups or have your better guy go Game 2 because it can put you in the finals, or it’s keeping you from going home. A lot of it depends on where we’re going and who we’re playing.”