It was just two months ago that The Citadel's baseball season began in promising fashion. The Bulldogs, picked to finish second in the Southern Conference, opened the season at Riley Park with wins over national power Louisville, coming off a College World Series appearance, and the ACC's Virginia Tech, which won 40 games and made the NCAA regionals in 2013.
That seems like a long time ago now.
As 11th-ranked South Carolina comes to Riley Park on Wednesday to face The Citadel, the 14-23 Bulldogs are reeling. They've lost nine of their last 11 games and are 2-13 in the SoCon, The Citadel's worst 15-game record in league play in program history (dating to 1965). More than halfway through the league season, the Bulldogs have yet to win a SoCon series.
It might end up as the worst regular season of Fred Jordan's 23 years as The Citadel's coach, and he says he did not see it coming.
"No, I didn't," said Jordan, whose teams have won five SoCon regular-season and seven tournament championships. "We are trying to fight ourselves out of a tough situation. We are improving, and hopefully in the next month we will become a ballclub that can challenge in the Southern Conference tournament."
In retrospect, preseason expectations were a tad high. The Bulldogs were 18-12 in league play and finished a modest fourth in the SoCon in 2013. But hopes for this year were ramped up based on the fact that The Citadel lost only two major contributors from the team that made the SoCon tournament championship game a year ago.
Those two major contributors were SoCon pitcher of the year Austin Pritcher and all-SoCon catcher Joe Jackson, both taken in the 2013 Major League draft. Pritcher was 8-3 in 16 starts last year, and the Bulldogs were 12-3 in games he started until the SoCon title game. And The Citadel's SoCon tournament run was fueled by Jackson's ridiculous .769 batting average in four games, with eight runs scored and five driven in. Not even Shoeless Joe's great-great-great nephew was going to bat .769 this season.
Without Jackson in the lineup, The Citadel has struggled to match last year's offensive output. The Bulldogs hit .309 and averaged 7.2 runs and 1.1 home runs per game last year; this season, they are hitting .271 with 4.8 runs and 0.4 homers per game. Players like Bo Thompson (.310, 7 homers, 27 RBI), Drew DeKerlegand (.311) and Mason Davis (.301) are coming close to or exceeding last year's numbers, but others are way off their pace from a year ago.
"Just because you are a year older, you are not necessarily a year better," Jordan said. "Some of our hitters have struggled a little bit."
Pitching has suffered the same sort of drop-off from a year ago, when the Bulldogs had a staff ERA of 4.60, allowed opponents to hit .277 and gave 3.3 walks per game. This year, the team ERA is 5.75 (on pace for the highest since 2005), foes are batting .289 and the Bulldogs are allowing four walks per game. New Friday night starter Logan Cribb (2-4, 5.51 ERA) has not pitched as well as he did a year ago, but he's not alone. Seven of the 10 pitchers who worked at least 10 innings last year and returned have higher ERAs this season. And now, weekend starter James Reeves (3-2, 3.40 ERA) is out for a couple of weeks with a sore elbow.
"We've had trials and tribulations with the entire staff, from a consistency basis," Jordan said. "At times, they are trying too hard, and we've got to improve our breaking-ball percentages and close out innings. We've given up a good many runs in two-out situations."
After Wednesday's game with South Carolina - a makeup game from March 18 - the Bulldogs have SoCon series left with Western Carolina (9-3 in the league), Furman (4-8), Wofford (3-9) and UNC Greensboro (4-7). So they have a chance to get well before the SoCon tournament set for May 20-25 at Riley Park.
"We had several goals coming into the season, and we still have two that are attainable," Jordan said. "The No. 1 goal in this program is to play on championship day of the tournament, and right now we are focusing all are efforts on improving and making a deep run in the tournament."
Sophomore right-hander Austin Livingston (1-4, 8.39 ERA) is slated to start against the Gamecocks, who hosted Charleston Southern on Tuesday night. Last year, Livingston held USC to one earned run in 4 1/3 innings of a 6-5 loss in Columbia.