By T. Scott Boatright
In the midst of a Southwestern Athletic Conference Western Division locked up tighter than barbed-wire handcuffs, calling this weekend’s three-game series pitting Texas Southern at Grambling State important is an understatement.
Prairie View stands atop the SWAC West at 18-6 while Grambling is 16-8 with Texas Southern and Southern bunched right up behind at 15-9 each. That makes the final six games of the season — all conference contests — almost a must-win situation for the G-Men.
“This weekend is essential,” said GSU coach Davin Pierre. “The way everybody is bunched up together in the standings, with us having the head-to-head against Prairie View and Texas Southern right behind us at 15-9 and Southern right behind them at 15-9, I think it’s essential.
“I think ultimately all four of those teams are in the tournament, but you’re talking about seeding and positioning. And we’re still competing for the Western Division title. This will be one of the biggest weekends we’ve had all year.”
Pierre has his hopes pinned down to the numbers.
“I’ve been telling my staff that I think 21 wins will be able to do it,” Pierre said. “A sweep this weekend would put us in really good contention for that. Last weekend we had to handle a lot of adversity. Prairie View is a really good team, especially when we were playing them there. But I think this team is capable of beating anybody any day. Defending a pitching well will be the key for us. If we can get good pitching coming out of our bullpen and can eliminate fielding mistakes on the defensive side, then I really think we can win all three games this weekend.”
GSU pitcher/DH Shemar Page will take the mound at 6 p.m. tonight in the home opener against Texas Southern, and will be looking to shake off an 8-2 loss at TSU on April 14 in which the graduate transfer from Louisiana Tech gave up six earned runs in five innings of work on the mound.
That was a rare poor performance for a pitcher that has gone 6-4 on the season with a 2.85 ERA and 117 strikeouts, which ranks him in the Top Five of NCAA Division I.
“Shemar was having so much success before that outing at Texas Southern, but you know as a coach eventually he’s going to have one of those kinds of outings where we’re going to have to support him and defend behind him and play some good offense,” Pierre said. “He’s always going to get strikeouts even when having one of those kinds of outings. But (tonight) I expect him to be extremely motivated, focused and committed to having a good outing against TSU. I expect him to play well and give us an opportunity to win. I expect our bullpen guys to come out and throw quality pitches and give us the opportunity to hit behind them and get a chance to win.”
At the plate, the G-Men have been dominant much of the season, batting .312 as a team with four players hitting at least seven home runs and six totaling more than 30 runs batted in.
That kind of hitting performance has the Tigers averaging more than nine runs per game.
“When you go out and recruit guys, you’re watching them and looking for the kind of guy who plays the style you want to play,” Pierre said. “Those guys we have are talented hitters and more importantly, are really locked into the approach we’re looking for. We’ve looked for guys with those skill sets who like making contact with the ball. But more importantly, they’ve bought into the system and what we’re looking for. We want to look long through the zone and hit doubles and home runs. It’s a luxury to have six or seven guys hitting over .300. It makes it easier to fill out a line-up card, I’ll tell you that.”
Cameron Bufford leads GSU with 12 home runs while John Garcia and Trevor Hatten have eight each. Garcia leads the Tigers with 53 runs batted in while Hatton has added 50 along with making good on 20-of-22 attempted stolen bases.
“He’s a big part of our offense,” Pierre said of Hatton. “He’s a guy that can do a lot of things. He can hit behind runners, he can hit for power. He has a high average and can steal bases. He’s a unique-type player, what we call a hybrid. He has speed but we don’t use him as a lead-off batter because he swings at a lot of pitches.
“Burrell and Parker at the top of the order gives us two guys who are really good with the bat, and who are patient at the plate. If we get those two guys on, it makes our lineup very dangerous because it’s hard to avoid giving them a chance to blast one.”
But it’s still Page, who is batting .324 with two round-trippers and 24 RBIs, that Pierre said he’s counting on for a big weekend.
“It’s extremely rare,” Pierre said. “Whether he wins it or not, I think Shemar should be up for the Golden Spikes Award. He’s one of the best players in the country, and rarely do you find a guy who’s in the Top Five in the country in strikeouts, with a really good batting average that can impact the game from both sides. He’s a special player to have and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
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