|Mercer's Brandon Love|
What a difference a month can make.
On the afternoon of April 22, Mercer closed out a 7-2 loss to ETSU and fell to 7-11 in the A-Sun standings. Given the strength of the conference, the young Bears faced an uphill climb to qualify for the 2012 A-Sun Baseball Championship.
Fast forward to the afternoon of May 23. Behind seven strong innings of work by southpaw senior Brandon Love and an offense that took advantage of every opportunity, the fifth-seeded Bears cruised to a 11-2 victory over No. 2 USC Upstate in game one of their seventh straight A-Sun Championship. With the win, Mercer (38-19) won for the 14th time in its last 15 games and has to be considered one of the favorites to capture the championship title.
Head Coach Craig Gibson liked what he saw from his team today, and despite the fact that a No. 5 seed has never won the A-Sun Championship, he likes his chances as his Bears plan to extend their hot streak as they face the winner of FGCU/Kennesaw State.
“Today we pitched well, we defended well with no errors and we got some timely hitting, so hopefully we will continue to play well,” Gibson said.
“I think at this point in time the seeds don’t really mean a whole lot, there is so much parity out here. We are just glad to be 1-0.”
This Bears team is reminiscent of the one that just two years ago incorporated the A-Sun Championship into its hot streak and claimed the 2010 title. That Mercer team entered the A-Sun championship with a 13-3 record in its last 16 games and was the No. 2 seed in the championship. The Bears went 4-0 to win that title, then moved on to the NCAA Regional at Georgia Tech, where Mercer went 1-2 with a win vs. Elon.
How do the two squads compare?
During this current 15-game stretch, the Bears set a new mark with 37 regular season wins and have posted some impressive numbers. At the plate, Mercer has scored 11 first-inning runs while not allowing the opposition to dent the scoreboard. Mercer has hit .329 as a team, with Austin Barrett (.467) and Chesny Young (.466) blistering the way for the Bears, followed by DJ Johnson (.373) and Evan Boyd (.306). The Bears have hit 16 home runs and tallied 85 RBI as well.
In 2010, the Bears hit .361 at the plate during their 13-3 streak, with 32 home runs and 136 RBI. All but one of the 11 Bears who played during that stretch had a batting average better than .300.
The Bears’ pitching, superior in its numbers to the 2010 team, has also been dominant in this current streak. The hurlers have posted a team ERA of 2.42 with Brandon Barker (1.12, 24 IP), David Randall (1.19, 22.2 IP) and David Teasley (1.29, 14 IP) leading the way. Love, who dominated the Spartans in the championship opener, posted a 2.95 ERA in 21.1 innings pitched. This year opponents have driven in only 39 runs, compared to 85 against the 2010 squad.
In 2010, the Bears posted a 5.29 mark over their 13-3 streak, led by Justice French (4.41, 32.2 IP) and Matt McCall (4.88, 31.1 IP). No pitcher had an ERA below 3.52 and six different pitchers tallied double-digit innings pitched, compared to five from this year’s team. In 2010, as a sophomore Love posted a 2-1 record with a 6.75 during their successful stretch.
Not to be lost in the Bears’s current streak is the consistency with which Gibson and his Mercer team has played over the last few years. Over the past two seasons, Mercer has won 76 games, ranking them 21st among the nation’s best programs for wins. The Bears trail only Stetson among A-Sun teams, as the Hatters tallied 77 wins in the same period.
Another byproduct of the Bears’ hot play is the fact that, after receiving votes in the poll for the majority of the season, Mercer finally broke into the College Baseball Daily Mid-Major Top-25 Poll released on May 21. The Bears entered the rankings as the 22nd ranked team after a perfect 4-0 last week, joining Stetson in the poll from the A-Sun Conference.
Next for the Bears is the winner of the FGCU/Kennesaw State game. Mercer tallied marks of 1-2 vs. the Owls and 2-1 vs. the Eagles this season. Gibson says he really is looking for nothing in particular from the game that coud help his team, he just wants the Bears to continue to play well.
“I think the best team is going to win this thing. You really have to play four or five great days of baseball," says Gibson. "We just survived to play tomorrow night against whoever wins this next game.”