The Sun Belt is a pretty straightforward baseball conference. There’s top-ranked Louisiana-Lafayette, and then there’s everyone else, including UT Arlington.With the No. 1 Ragin’ Cajuns coming to Arlington in a week, next weekend, this weekend’s series with Georgia State will give the Mavericks a taste of what to expect when they return to Clay Gould Ballpark.Following a 7-4 loss to Houston Baptist, the Mavericks’ longest road trip of the year continues with a three-game set against the Panthers, starting at 5 p.m. Friday at the GSU Baseball Complex in Atlanta.Even though neither team is above .500, both reside in the cluster of eight teams separated by a total of four games. The Panthers do represent the best offensive team in the conference not named La.-Lafayette, which means UT Arlington’s rotation has a tall task ahead of it over the next 10 days.“We know we’ve got to score some runs, but we’re ready for the challenge,” coach Darin Thomas said.It would inspire more confidence if it weren’t for the fact that UT Arlington’s rotation has been a mess all season. Friday’s starter, Brad Vachon, hasn’t been the same pitcher as he was a year ago when he notched seven wins and held hitters to a .218 batting average. This year, opposing batters are hitting .296 and he’s five runs away from matching his run total from last season.“We can usually tell within the first two innings with him,” Thomas said. “If he doesn’t get enough depth on his slider or command his fastball, it’s usually a rough outing for him.”Zach Thompson hasn’t been much better, but the Mavericks have won their last two Saturday games with him on the mound. They finally got some relief in the form of Daniel Milliman, who’s been the glimmer of hope on Sundays. In his two Sunday starts, he’s thrown 12 1/3 innings and only allowed two earned runs. Opposing batters are hitting just .176 against him.“One good thing about our starters is that they haven’t thrown a lot of innings, so they should be fresh and ready to go,” Thomas said.But Georgia State’s lineup is much more powerful than the ones South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe brought the last two weekends. As a team, the Panthers are hitting .299 with 36 homers and 224 runs. First baseman Nic Wilson is hitting .358 and leads the Sun Belt with 12 homers.But like UTA, the Panthers’ pitching staff has disappointed. The second-worst unit in the Sun Belt, Georgia State has a 5.74 team ERA and surrenders more hits than any other team.A big showing from the rotation this weekend would help the Mavericks separate from the bottom half of the Sun Belt and gain momentum as they enter the toughest stretch of the season. Before next weekend, they have a midweek tilt with Texas in Austin.
UTA at Georgia State
Georgia State University Baseball Complex, Atlanta
Friday: Brad Vachon (2-5, 5.23) vs. Kenny Anderson (3-2, 5.40), 5 p.m.
Saturday: Zach Thompson (2-3, 4.79) vs. Nathan Bates (1-1, 5.33), 1 p.m.
Sunday: Daniel Milliman (3-0, 1.73) vs. Tyler McClure (2-5, 7.48), noon
Records: UTA 14-19, 6-6 Sun Belt; Georgia St. 15-18, 4-8