In a lot of ways it was a similar finish for the Arkansas State Red Wolves baseball season.
Tommy Raffo’s crew made a strong sprint to the finish then made an impressive, and at times thrilling, race to a conference tournament berth.
The Red Wolves finished 29-29 and reached the Sun Belt semifinals for the seventh straight season, something no other team in the conference has accomplished. The last two seasons, A-State has been ousted by the eventually champion and best team in the league, South Alabama last year and UL-Lafayette this season.
The Red Wolves struggled early in conference play. The biggest issue was health. Four of the first five conference series were played with a combination of three key players missing from the lineup. Raffo said the team did not “become whole” until the ULM series, when A-State swept the Warhawks and returned to the race for a spot to get in the conference tournament.
The slide started at Georgia State where Austin Baker, Garrett Rucker and Jeremy Brown all went down in the same game.
“All the sudden we are looking at Lafayette, South Alabama, Georgia Southern and Troy and we don’t have all our bullets,’’ he said.
By the time the Red Wolves reached the ULM series Brown, who because of a PCL strain was forced to play second or DH, and Rucker were regulars and Baker, a four-year starter, was able to DH and at least get 12- to 15 at bats a game.
“We were a different team with him in the lineup,’’ said Raffo. “And I think you saw the results at the end. And all the sudden when the 8 and 9 spots start hitting we proved we were tough to be when we had 1 through 9 hitting.”
Raffo expect the pitching staff to mostly return for next season. Adam Grantham and Cody Jackson were the lone seniors. There is a strong chance the Red Wolves add some more junior college bats.
“We have got to have a lineup that can hit in all 9 spots,’’ said Raffo. “That is what made UALR so tough and we showed when we have that we can be pretty good too.”
Next season, the conference schedule turns brutal with trips to Coastal Carolina, UL-Lafayette, Appalachian State, Texas State and Georgia Southern. That’s two NCAA teams, two others from the final 4 in the SBC tourney and the worst travel trip in the league.
It is also a budget buster. The Red Wolves will open with three weekend series at home against New York Tech, Cincinnati and Louisiana Tech.