Entering the season loaded with unknowns, UT Arlington coach Darin Thomas has been pleasantly surprised by the quality of work his pitching staff has put in.
Since winter weather forced the Mavericks to enter Sun Belt play with only eight non-conference games, the young Mavericks have responded by winning four of their last five games.
“I thought not playing enough non-conference games would get to us on the mound, and it really didn’t,” Thomas said.
They’ll be put to the test this weekend against South Alabama (11-6, 2-1 Sun Belt) in a three-game series at Clay Gould Ballpark.
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After allowing 20 earned runs in the opening weekend, UTA (7-6, 2-1) has only surrendered 25 runs over in the past 10 games. Friday’s starter Chad Nack (2-0) and his aggressive approach on the mound has been key. In 24 2/3 innings, Nack has struck out 14 hitters and only walked two. Despite allowing six runs in one game, he has a 2.92 ERA.
With Nack setting the tone at the front of the rotation, the freshmen and sophomores behind him are taking on his mound personality. UTA has recorded 79 strikeouts and allowed 33 walks, giving the Mavericks a 2.4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It sets up well for a stout defensive unit that leads the Sun Belt in fielding percentage.
Freshmen pitchers Kyle Laberge, Brad Vassar and Reid Petty have each showed promise in the six games they’ve started. Laberge earned his first win Tuesday, and held No. 2 TCU to just three runs in their first meeting. Vassar shut down Michigan State, and Petty has a 1.93 ERA in 9 1/3 innings.
But the Jaguars have one of the Sun Belt’s top offenses, hitting .287 as a team. They feature dynamic leadoff hitter Bud Collura, a speedy third baseman hitting .358 with five steals and 15 runs scored. Keeping him off base will make life easier for UTA.
The Mavericks might have found their own leadoff hitter in Plano High product Matt McLean, who is one of five Mavericks hitting over .300. McLean gets on base at a .475 clip and is a patient presence atop the lineup.
“He takes pitches and really sets the tone for us,” Thomas said. “We’re not built to wait on a three-run homer or a big double, so we’ve got to really make the most of our at-bats.”
Levi Scott of Burleson is UTA’s No. 3 hitter and its biggest home run threat. He’s doing his job hitting .365 with two homers, but Thomas said he needs more production from the Nos. 2-5 spots in the order. The left-handed pop from Southlake Carroll graduate Darien McLemore has been missing the past two weeks as he recovers from an oblique injury. Thomas said McLemore might return this weekend, but it depends on how he’s feeling.
“I’d rather have him down the stretch than rush him back for one weekend,” Thomas said.
Opening conference play 2-1 gives UTA some cushion to make that happen. UTA hosts No. 16 Texas at Globe Life Park on Tuesday.
UTA vs. South Alabama
Clay Gould Ballpark, Arlington
Game 1: RHP Chad Nack (2-0, 2.92) vs. RHP Kevin Hill (0-0, 1.80), 6:30 p.m. Friday
Game 2: LHP Brad Vassar (1-2, 4.50) vs. RHP Ryne Long (1-1, 1.19), 2 p.m. Saturday
Game 3: RHP Joel Kuhnel (1-0, 2.84) vs. LHP Jared Gates (1-0, 3.95), 1 p.m. Sunday
Records: UTA 7-6, 2-1 SBC; USA 11-6, 2-1