As the Southern baseball team left Lee-Hines Field on Tuesday night, it was easy to take the 7-3 loss to Loyola as another sign of trouble.
Loyola is an NAIA school that had lost four straight games, including a six-run loss at Southern a week earlier. It has already been eliminated from contention for its conference tournament.
But you have to look at where Southern started to understand why there is reason to be optimistic about what lies ahead.
As most Division I baseball teams hit the diamond in late January to begin preseason practices, Southern sent its hitters to the batting cages and its pitchers to Seymour Gymnasium.
Batters took their hacks in the cages for the entire preseason as the infield at Southern underwent ill-timed, but much-needed, renovations. The pitchers went to Seymour for flat-ground bullpen workouts and into the parking lot for sessions of long toss.
Then the season started, and injuries started to mount.
Outfielders Gavin Webster, D.J. Wallace and Tyler Kirksey and shortstop Jeremy Lopez were among the Jaguars who missed significant time early in the season because of injuries. Third baseman Caleb Hatcher returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing more than a month of his junior season, and outfielder Sean Washington has not played in recent weeks because of an ailing leg.
All that said, the Jaguars are in a good spot as they enter their final weekend of Southwestern Athletic Conference Western Division action.
Southern, which ascended to first place in the West after sweeping Grambling last weekend, will be at home against Prairie View beginning Saturday with a chance to secure a No. 1 seed in the SWAC tournament, set for May 15-19 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Whether the Jaguars (17-17 overall, 12-9 in SWAC) can mount an NCAA run will depend on how they address a couple of glaring concerns.
The first is an offense that carries a .257 batting average and averages just five runs per game. The second is a bullpen that has given up 83 runs in 103.1 innings.
But what the Jaguars have that will make them dangerous in the postseason — no matter the offense’s struggles, no matter the bullpen’s unreliability — is a talented, experienced starting rotation capable of owning any SWAC opponents over the course of three games.
Combined, senior left-hander Jesse “Doc” Holiday, junior right-hander Jose De Leon and senior right-hander Danny Garcia have 67 career decisions.
The trio gave up only three earned runs against Grambling in 25 innings.
Now the Jaguars gear up for the stretch run, hopeful they can get everyone healthy for the first time and build momentum late in a season that began in sneakers and batting cages.
Not only are the Jaguars sitting atop the West chase heading into the final weekend, but they also must feel good that their best days of baseball are still in front of them.