Bulldogs need May magic in SoCon Tournament

Citadel left-hander James Reeves, from Ashley Ridge High School, was named SoCon pitcher of the year Monday. See story on Cx.

April was the cruelest month for The Citadel’s baseball team, which stumbled through those 16 games with a 4-12 record, a .238 team batting average and six one-run losses.

“April blunders,” Bulldogs coach Fred Jordan called them.

The good news for The Citadel is that the Southern Conference Tournament is held in May, which has been much kinder to the Bulldogs. Jordan hopes that May magic continues as his eighth-seeded Bulldogs open the tournament against No. 9 East Tennessee State in a play-in game at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Riley Park.

The winner advances into the double-elimination portion of the tournament, which starts Wednesday. The loser goes home.

The Citadel (25-28, 10-14 SoCon) has righted itself in May, winning seven of 10 games, taking all three SoCon series in the month and batting .301 with 20 home runs and a team ERA of 3.79.

If that team shows up this week, the Bulldogs might have a chance to make a tournament run at their own ballpark; Furman (the eighth seed in 2005) and Wofford (No. 9 in 2007) have won championships from the bottom of the bracket in recent years.

“We’re playing pretty good right now,” said Jordan, whose team last won a SoCon tourney title in 2010. “Now whether the game treats us well during the tournament, I don’t know. But right now, this ballclub is playing pretty good.

“We had a tough April, and lost a bunch one one-run games. If we win half of those, we’re playing for the championship on the final weekend. But the great thing is this group has kept that in perspective.”

Jordan will be able to turn to the SoCon pitcher of the year, junior left-hander James Reeves, to make the win-or-go-home start against ETSU (21-34, 8-16). Reeves, from Ashley Ridge High School, is 7-3 with a 3.44 ERA and a no-hitter against regular season champion Mercer to his credit.

“No doubt, we are playing our best baseball and are pretty confident right now,” said Reeves. “We’re playing clean baseball defensively and we’re hitting a little bit and pitching really well right now.”

The Bulldogs’ team ERA of 4.59 is tops in the SoCon, but The Citadel is last in team batting average (.268) and fielding percentage (.952). Those last two numbers have improved in May, with the club hitting .301 and averaging 7.5 runs per game, and fielding at a .963 clip.

All-SoCon pick Connor Walsh has combined with Austin Mapes and Drew Ellis for 12 homers and 41 RBIs in 10 games in May, and Stephen Windham’s move to first base has helped shore up the defense.

Since its last SoCon title in 2010, The Citadel has had four losing records in five seasons, finishing seventh or worse in those four seasons. The SoCon will likely send just one team to the NCAA Tournament this season, but the league is more tightly bunched than its been in years; the gap of eight games from first place to last was the smallest since 1990.

“By far the most balanced that I can remember,” said Jordan, who is 795-630 in 24 seasons, with seven tournament titles in that span. “I think anyone in the tournament can win it, and anyone could lose a game and still come through the loser’s bracket. You look at the overall stats, and everything is balanced.”

ETSU, coached by former Bulldog Tony Skole, has struggled through its debut season in the SoCon, enduring a skid of 19 losses in 22 games at one stretch. The Bucs can hit, ranking fourth in the SoCon with a .291 average, led by second baseman Trey York (.356, 10 HR, 51 RBIs).