Bulldogs on the outside looking in: Sweep of WCU doesn’t guarantee Citadel spot in SoCon tournament

Citadel pitcher Matt Talley has a respectable 3.81 ERA this season, but his record is 3-7, due in part to the Bulldogs' poor defense.

The last time The Citadel failed to make the Southern Conference baseball tournament was in 1987.

Back then, legendary coach Chal Port still ran the Bulldogs, current Citadel coach Fred Jordan was at Stratford High School, and current Bulldog players had not yet been born.

Twenty-four years later, The Citadel is on the brink of again missing the eight-team SoCon tournament, set for next week at Riley Park.

The Bulldogs (20-33, 8-19) are mired in 10th place in the SoCon heading into the final league series of the regular season, starting today at Western Carolina (19-29, 9-18).

The Citadel must win the series at WCU and finish a game ahead of eighth-place Wofford (22-30, 9-18) in order to make the tournament.

If Wofford is swept at home by second-place UNC Greensboro this weekend, two wins at WCU will be enough for the Bulldogs. If the Terriers win one game against UNCG, the Bulldogs must sweep three from Western Carolina. And if Wofford wins two or more, the Bulldogs are done no matter what they do at WCU.

"Hopefully, we can put a weekend together," Jordan said after his team lost its ninth straight game Tuesday against Duke. "It's been a lot of trials and tribulations for this team, but I commend them on their effort. They've shown up every day and given all they can give."

The trials started before the season, when The Citadel lost starting third baseman David Greene and pitcher Michael Clevinger, slated to be the Saturday starter. Closer Drew Mahaffey went down with a knee injury in midseason, further taxing a young pitching staff.

The Bulldogs also have struggled defensively with a league-worst 90 errors, as Jordan tried early in the season to balance offense with defense in his lineup, even playing senior outfielder Matt Simonelli at shortstop.

"I think we've tried every combination we could think of," Jordan said.

The defensive woes are one reason Matt Talley, the preseason SoCon pitcher of the year, is 3-7 despite a 3.81 ERA. And they've contributed to the Bulldogs' 3-11 mark in games decided by one run and 7-18 record in two-run games. Six times in SoCon play, the Bulldogs have been ahead or tied in the ninth inning and lost.

"It's been very, very difficult and very, very different for us," said Jordan, whose club won the SoCon regular season and tournament titles last year and has claimed seven tournament titles in his 20 seasons.

But the Bulldogs haven't given up yet.

"I think we can do it," Simonelli said. "It's been a tough year, but we're still in it. I don't even want to think about not making the tournament."