Anyone wanting to slow down the University of Charleston this weekend during the Mountain East Conference baseball tournament has one really tough mission to do it. They have to catch the Golden Eagles first, and that’s no easy task.
When UC (33-17), the South Division’s No. 1 seed, opens its tournament with a 3:30 p.m. game against North Division No. 3 seed Fairmont State (25-23), it will do so as one of the preeminent base-stealing teams in NCAA Division II. The Golden Eagles’ aggressiveness as served them well all year and the team hopes it will be a key ingredient toward a second straight MEC tournament crown.
The rest of the six-team, double-elimination tournament at Epling Stadium in Beckley includes North No. 1 seed Shepherd (34-14) vs. South No. 3 seed UVa-Wise (25-25) at noon and North No. 2 seed Notre Dame (25-25) vs. South No. 2 seed Concord (33-15) at 7 p.m. All games are scheduled for Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley.
Charleston (33-17) is tied with Chestnut Hill for No. 7 nationally with 124 stolen bases. The Golden Eagles’ 2.48 stolen bases per game is eighth nationally, and both numbers make them the runaway leaders in the MEC.
It’s part of a strategy that UC coach Andrew Wright calls a race to a lead. He wants the Golden Eagles to put the foot on the gas early and score as early as possible.
“That’s why the race to a lead is so important for us,” he said. “It allows us to go out and play and be aggressive. If we can’t do that and we’re down by two or three runs, we’re going to be a little more conservative with our base runners.
“But we feel when we get a lead early in the game, we can put the hammer down,” he added, “and put the other team on their heels defensively.”
The leading speed demons on the Charleston roster are senior Gianfranco Morello and sophomore Jordan Bailey. Morello leads the MEC with 24 stolen bases while Bailey is second in the conference with 21. Yet they’re not close to being the only baserunners opposing teams have to worry about.
Six Golden Eagles have stolen at least 12 bases this season. Eleven have stolen at least three. It isn’t a case for Charleston that foes must worry about one speedy runner. They have to worry about a bunch of them, which means they have to spend a lot of time worrying.
“It’s nice to have, especially when you get into a situation late in the game where you don’t want to give up an out by bunting,” Wright said. “That allows us to play a broad offense where we’re not just a one-trick pony. We’ve got a chance to do a few different things, and hopefully that puts the other team into a little bit of a guessing game.”
It also makes other teams think twice about pitching strategies, Wright said. Lean on breaking balls or put a ball in the dirt, chances are better than not that Charleston can move the runner over. The other hope is that constant threat to steal can lead to seeing friendlier pitches.
The Golden Eagles enter the MEC tournament third in the league with a .304 batting average.
“We’ve had a guy get on first and we don’t even have to steal, because a guy will be picking off and picking off and all of a sudden, the ball ends up down the right field line,” Wright said. “The hope is it creates better pitches for other guys.”
The tournament concludes Sunday in Beckley with the championship finals.