As the final weekend of divisional play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference approached, Roger Cador, ever the smooth publicity man, was in full salesman mode.
His Jaguars were gearing up for a three-game series against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a set which gets under way with a noon doubleheader Saturday at Lee-Hines Field.
Southern is closing in on a No. 1 seed for the SWAC tournament later this month, and getting there is rather simple. The piping-hot Jaguars (28-14, 14-7) have won 13 in a row, and if they can manage a sweep this weekend, they’ll clinch the Western Division title, no questions asked.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (8-34, 6-15), on the other hand, faces a skyscraper-tall order. The Golden Lions can still overtake Texas Southern for the fourth and final Western Division berth in the tournament — but to do so, UAPB needs a sweep of Southern, along with a TSU loss at Prairie View on Wednesday.
In other words, Cador said, the Jaguars and Lions have a lot invested in this three-game series. It’s sort of like a late-season pennant race, and in the world of baseball, what could be better?
“Let me say something: The schedule maker did a great job,” Cador said. “We’re trying to play for first place. Arkansas (Pine Bluff) is trying to get in. So the schedule maker really did his job well this time.”
When Southern’s defense and hitting caught up with its pitching staff (SU leads the conference with a 3.84 team ERA), the team took off. The Jaguars raced to the top of the Western Division, and at the moment, they lead Prairie View by a half-game.
The Panthers host Grambling in a three-game series this weekend, then wrap up divisional play Wednesday with a makeup game against Texas Southern.
Even if Southern and Prairie View finish in a tie for first place, Southern will enter the SWAC tournament as the No. 1 West seed (the Jaguars won four of six divisional meetings against Prairie View this season).
Meanwhile, there’s Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which has managed only six wins in division play this season. The Golden Lions did win one of three home games against Southern last month. Since then, however, the Jaguars have won 16 of 17 games, mostly for two reasons.
First, they’ve maintained their discipline at the plate. Rather than attempting to hammer each pitch over the fence, SU’s hitters have often worked the count and hit to all fields.
Second, a group of veterans — including catcher Clint Ourso and pitchers Daniel Garcia and Jesse Holiday, among others — started to assert themselves as leaders.
“I want them to do it. It’s important, because they live with each other 24 hours a day. When practice is over, I go to my home and they go to theirs,” Cador said.
“I think peer pressure is so important, because at some point they started to believe in each other. They looked to the leaders and the veterans to say the right things, and they did.”
The Jaguars will alter their pitching rotation this weekend, but only a little.
On most weekends, left-hander Jesse Holiday starts the first game Saturday, and sophomore Jose De Leon follows in the second game. Senior right-hander Brian Foster then wraps up the weekend.
But because De Leon pitched last Sunday against Jackson State — a day later than usual for him — Cador has decided to hold him off until the weekend finale, thereby giving De Leon his usual amount of rest.
Foster, who didn’t pitch last weekend against JSU, will start Saturday’s second game.
By the end of the series, he and his teammates might have something to celebrate.
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