At the end of another hot afternoon at Lee-Hines Field, on the final weekend of the regular season in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the Southern baseball team gathered near the pitcher’s mound for a round of happy handshakes.
They capped their 11-1 eight-inning victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff with a brief, low-key postgame celebration. The alma mater played through the public address system as the Jaguars huddled in left field. Their latest win was a microcosm of their winning streak, which now stands at 16 games.
They got great pitching. They got strong defense. And at the plate, they kept working until the dam broke.
As a result, Southern closed out the regular season with its 16th consecutive victory.
This one, coupled with Prairie View’s loss to Grambling, clinched the outright Western Division title.
This week, the Jaguars play a three-game exhibition series against LSU-Eunice — a tuneup for the conference tournament, which gets under way May 16 at their home park.
Southern (31-14, 17-7) will face Mississippi Valley State, the No. 4 team from the Eastern Division, in its first-round game.
The Jaguars will try to win their 15th SWAC championship in the 28-year Roger Cador era.
“You still have to win the games you play. I don’t know if (winning the West) gives you an advantage, because whoever you’re playing in the first game, they’re going to throw a good pitcher at you,” Cador said. “So we’re going to have to execute.”
Much in the same way they’ve executed since April 6, when this winning streak began with a 4-2 victory over Texas Southern.
Sunday’s victory, like so many others, began with pitching.
On the steamiest day this season (the official temperature at Southern was 84 degrees, but players and fans agreed it felt a whole lot hotter), sophomore right-hander Jose De Leon realized in the first inning that he didn’t have the usual amount of velocity on his best pitch, the fastball.
That meant he had to get by with his slider and circle changeup.
His catcher, Clint Ourso, did much of the mental heavy lifting, calling the pitches and navigating De Leon through the rough spots.
De Leon (7-3) did the rest.
“Knowing that you can rely on something else if your fastball isn’t working, that’s crucial,” he said. “It’s a big thing, having a second pitch and third pitch. In a game where you don’t have your fastball, then you can rely on something else.”
Though he finished with only five strikeouts, De Leon worked around some early trouble and lasted seven innings. De Leon gave up one run on five hits and two walks — and, in doing so, he gave Southern’s hitters a chance to wake up.
The Jaguars were tied at 1 with UAPB (8-37, 6-18) until the sixth inning, when they scored two runs using the kind of approach that often helped them during this 16-game winning streak.
B.J. Rowry, a right-handed hitter, laced an opposite-field bloop single that scored Taylor Roy from second base (Roy reached on an infield hit, then moved to second on a fielding error).
Later, Cameron McGriff hit a two-out, two-strike single through the left side of the infield, scoring Rowry to give the Jaguars a 3-1 lead.
Wilmy Marrero singled and scored in the seventh, and Southern blew it open in the eighth against UAPB reliever Elliot Jackson.
The Jaguars sent 10 men to the plate, and Vince Coleman — in the game as a late-inning defensive replacement — came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.
Coleman smoked a double down the left-field line, clearing the bases as the SU dugout erupted.
Tyler Kirksey, who entered the game as a pinch runner, brought home Coleman on an RBI ground ball, giving Southern the 10 runs it needed to end the game early.
“I’m telling you, that’s good stuff, when they’re able to get those kinds of hits,” Cador said. “And it’s encouraging for those other guys.”
It also seemed to give the defense a boost. Rowry, Ourso and D.J. Wallace all made tough catches in foul territory; the Jaguars stranded two runners at third base; and shortstop Jeremy Lopez turned several sure hits into outs, with diving catches and rangy plays on the left side of the infield.
It added up to yet another win for Southern, which prepares for the conference tournament at home, and on a roll.
“We’re feeling real good,” Marrero said. “Real, real good.”