In the Southland Conference baseball tournament last year, Southeastern Louisiana advanced to the championship game for the first time in school history, then suffered a 13-4 loss to Texas-Arlington in the final.
“It was an unforgettable experience.” senior pitcher Kaleb Manuel recalled.
The Lions hope to write a similar script with a different ending when they open play in this year’s Southland tournament against Lamar at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Sugar Land, Texas.
Southeastern (33-22) is the fourth seed in the eight-team tournament after going 16-11 in Southland play during the regular season.
The other games scheduled for Wednesday have No. 3 seed Oral Roberts meeting No. 6 seed Stephen F. Austin at 9 a.m., No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi facing No. 7 seed Central Arkansas at noon and No. 1 seed Sam Houston matching up with No. 8 seed McNeese State at 4 p.m.
The four-day tournament is being played at Constellation Field, the 7,500-seat home of the minor-league Sugar Land Skeeters.
Southeastern will start Manuel (4-4, 3.71 ERA) against Lamar in the opener.
“Hopefully,” coach Jay Artigues said, “we’ll get down there and play our best baseball.”
The key for Southeastern could be as simple as scoring three runs.
In games this season when the Lions have mustered three runs or more, their record is 33-6. In games when they have scored two or fewer, they are 0-16.
After sending Manuel to the hill Wednesday, Artigues said he plans to come back with freshman Tate Scioneaux (6-3, 3.70) in Southeastern’s second game.
Which pitcher he starts in a possible third game will depend on the health of sophomore Andro Cutura (1-3, 4.80), who left in the first inning of his final regular-season start because of a shoulder injury.
Regardless, Artigues said Southeastern’s advancement in Sugar Land will likely depend upon run production.
“We need to scratch a few runs across,” he said. “When we score three runs this year, we’re 33-6. So we need to try and scratch some runs and put some pressure on that other team offensively. When we’re scoring some runs, I like our chances.”
The Lions enter their sixth straight Southland tournament — and eighth overall — knowing the only way for them to make their first NCAA regional appearance since 1994 is to claim the conference’s automatic bid.
That wasn’t necessarily the case in years past.
Southeastern held out hope of garnering an at-large NCAA bid after winning 39 regular-season games in 2010 and again after entering the Southland tournament with a 35-20 mark in 2011.
“We know this year we need to win the tournament,” Artigues said. “We need to do whatever we’ve got to do to win that first game and try to stay in the winners bracket.”
Manuel said he believes the Lions will thrive knowing they must win the tournament to move on.
“I think we rather this mindset because now we have one goal,” he said. “We have to win this tournament to get into a regional.”
Outfielder Harry Slade (.323 average, one homer, 35 RBIs) and catcher/infielder Jameson Fisher (.323 average, three homers, 24 RBIs) lead the Southeastern offense.
Freshman closer Mason Klotz from Livonia ranks second in the Southland with nine saves.
McNeese will send third-team All-Southland pitcher Blake Ware (5-6, 2.80) to the mound Wednesday when the Cowboys face Sam Houston, which is ranked No. 27 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball. The Bearkats will counter with Tyler Eppler (4-2, 3.64).
Sam Houston swept three games from McNeese in Huntsville, Texas, during the regular season.
The Cowboys are making their second straight appearance in the Southland tournament and their 12th appearance overall.
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