Emphatic Texas Southern Takes SWAC Title
NEW ORLEANS — Texas Southern didn’t seem to have a lot to play for today, having already earned the NCAA bid from the SWAC since Southern was already on probation from postseason play due to low APR scores by the entire athletic department.
But you couldn’t tell they had nothing to play for. The Tigers played laser-focused, making few mistakes, making the right pitches at the right time and lacing the ball to the gaps at just the right time. They knocked out 10 hits, got three walks and three plunkings on their way to scoring 10 runs, while holding the Jaguars to no runs and four hits.
What I Saw At Wesley Barrow Stadium
Texas Southern continued its hot streak in winning its final four games by a combined 31-5 to earn just the third SWAC title ever for the program, and the first since 2008.
Texas So – 000 000 000 – 0 4 7
Southern – 000 405 01x – 10 10 1
WP: Frank Cruz, 6-3
LP: J’Markus George, 3-5
– Zack Howell, 3-for-4, double, 3RBI, HBP
– Horace Leblanc, 2-for-4, double, RBI
– Nobody really
Texas Southern, 31-17
How It Went Down
Southern was just in a giving mood today.
While we are sure to give Texas Southern a large amount of credit for playing good, solid baseball and taking advantage of every mistake the Jaguars made, let’s not let it be forgotten that Southern laid out a welcome mat to home plate much of the game by handing out a number of errors and mental mistakes.
They played like a team that had celebrated so hard making the championship game, jaguar coach Roger Cador warned his team they may have gone too far after beating Jackson State in walk-off fashion on Friday night.
“I warned them,” Cador said. “‘Why are you celebrating so much? You haven’t won anything yet.’ And I knew that might be a big problem coming into today, especially with the way those guys were playing.”
Coach Cador was right. In the two difference-making innings which decided the game, Southern committed two errors and a walk in the four-run fourth inning and two errors and two hit batsmen in the five-run sixth inning. Those two frames were certainly enough to get TSU its first SWAC title in seven years as it’ll now head to the NCAA tournament on a certain roll.
But don’t let the Southern foibles confuse you, Texas Southern also capitalized like a championship team should. In the Tigers’ four-run fourth, Javier Valdez, Zach Howell and Horace Leblanc went single, double, double in back-to-back-to-back at-bats to get the merry go round spinning wildly. Howell’s three-run double opened the scoring and in the end is all the Tigers would need. Leblanc’s double drove in Howell and accounted for a big 4-0 lead.
Starting pitcher Frank Cruz was solid, if not masterful, working efficiently on the outside of the plate and flashing an occasional 90 mph fastball. The Jags would end up hitting six pop-ups and 17 groundouts. He was so steady, he didn’t issue his first walk of the game until there was one out in the eighth inning and the Jaguars only hit the ball out of the infield seven times all game.
“I had everything working for me today,” Cruz said. “I was staying mostly on the outside of the plate, but the changeup was a big factor and the slider was a big factor.”
When asked about his low strikeout total, Cruz was matter-of-fact about his four punchouts. “I don’t go for strikeouts,” Cruz said. “I go for putting balls in play and letting my defense take care of me.”
Unlike Southern, the Tigers’ defense was mostly perfect, committing just one error despite the numerous chances. In six games this week at the SWAC tournament, the Tigers have relented just 13 runs across.
“Pitching and defense,” coach Michael Robertson said. “That’s locking the door. Being really tough to score against is our goal, and then we add in some timely hitting. That’s what we did today.”
But the hitting was more than just timely today, the offense was a big part of the success. It was also something that coach Robertson said was just a matter of time.
“I was waiting on a game like today,” he said. “We’d been winning games without scoring a lot or getting a lot of hits. When we finally got to 10 hits I said ‘This is more like us.’”
He also couldn’t help but praise his starter Frank Cruz.
“Cruz. Cruz. Cruz,” he said. “He was the difference today. He got out of a couple of jams early on today and that was huge for us. He also got them to hit the ball into the wind, which was something we talked about before the game. It played to our advantage.”
In a fortunate twist, Cruz was rested and ready to go today because he only lasted one inning in their first meeting with Grambling back on Thursday, giving up four runs and four hits while making it through the GSU batting order just once.
It was obviously a good omen as he was back to his dominant self today.
More From the Big Easy
– Southern’s return.
It was good to see the Jaguars back into relevance this year. It was good to have them back after last year’s highly unlikely 10-26 season, which included a record of 6-16 in the SWAC, which was last in the West Division. The Jags went unscathed through the SWAC tournament here this weekend, going 3-0, including a 6-5 walk-off win over Jackson State to make the title game and a 13-12, 10-inning nail-biter to eliminate East Division champion Alabama State a day earlier.
“It was good to get back to playing Southern baseball,” coach Cador said. “We haven’t had a winning team the last three years, so that was unlike us. It felt good to play for a championship again.”
– The Tigers’ Road.
Texas Southern didn’t have it as easy this week. After the opening round win over Alcorn State, 5-2, the Tigers lost a 6-0 game vs. Grambling on Thursday and had to come back through the loser’s bracket to make it to championship Sunday. They beat Alcorn again on Friday, 10-0, and then had to wait ‘till Saturday due to rain, before they beat Grambling 4-1 and 7-4 in back-to-back games.
– Back off probation… in the fall.
Southern’s entire athletic program was put on probation for having a low APR and not performing up to academic standards. Despite that, the Jaguars were allowed to play in the SWAC tournament for some reason and even eliminated Eastern Divison 30-plus game winners Alabama State and Jackson State, be it fair or not. Since the Jaguars made the championship game, Texas Southern was officially given the automatic bid to the Big Dance before the title game was even played. The Southern probation lasted 18 months but was eventually overturned and all Southern athletic programs will be allowed for postseason play beginning in the fall.
With today’s win over Southern, the Tigers improve their win total to 31 games. That ties Alabama State for second-most in the SWAC. Jackson State finished the season 32-25 before bowing out here in New Orleans after going 2-2 this week, losing both times they faced Southern. The last time Texas Southern won the SWAC tourney title, they went to the Baton Rouge Regional with a 16-34 record.
– Assist to Mother Nature.
Texas Southern’s two games with Grambling on Saturday were supposed to be played on Friday, but rain washed out all the action that day. Coach Robertson said that was a blessing in disguise.
“We caught a break by not having to play on Friday,” he said. “We got to come back to the hotel and rest up that day and it allowed us to rest up Larry Romero. We had beaten Grambling five out of six during the regular season so I felt really good going into Saturday despite having to win twice.”
– Not stealing around.
Texas Southern came into the game leading the nation with 135 stolen bases in 169 attempts. But today the Tigers only managed to steal one base and that was accomplished by Zach Howell. Howell had stolen just six bases all season coming into today.
– The Turning Point for TSU
Coach Robertson knew he was onto something with this team after a mid-March three-game sweep of the Jaguars in Baton Rouge.
“When we swept them at their place that was the first time we’d done that in 13 years,” he said. “I knew we were onto something because I said at that time, ‘You know what, we’re starting to get some breaks. When we started averaging over seven runs a game to go along with our pitching and defense I thought we really had something special going.”