Recent showings by ULM's frontline arms have the Warhawks feeling more confident as they begin Sun Belt Conference competition this weekend at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Over the past nine games, ULM pitchers have crafted a 2.85 ERA with a pair of shutouts. Opposing batters are hitting just .259 in that stretch and have fanned 69 times in 79 innings.
"At the beginning of the season, we were limited as far as time to get out and pitch counts were at a minimum," ULM pitching coach Lantz Wheeler said. "Now we're starting to lengthen them out. We've got some quality guys and older guys who are just doing their part. We're basically keeping it simple."
Drew Granier (1-0, 1.64) is coming off a masterful performance over Southern Utah last Friday night. He fired a complete game victory against the Thunderbirds with 10 strikeouts and retired 15 consecutive hitters during one potent stretch.
"I felt pretty good," Granier said. "I felt better towards the end of the game and I was getting in a groove. When all my pitches work, I feel comfortable. I can throw anything up there and get it done."
Granier has strengthened his grip on a Friday night starter job he was projected to man this season as a senior. He leads the Sun Belt in ERA among pitchers with at least four starts. Over his past eight starts going back to last season, Granier has turned in a 2.16 ERA with 44 strikeouts and a .207 batting average against.
"You set the tempo for the weekend," Granier said, "and everybody feeds off of it."
Granier will take the hill against the Ragin' Cajuns tonight aiming to give ULM (10-5) a boost into the conference race.
"He really is a No. 1 and a Friday night pitcher," ULM coach Jeff Schexnaider said. "His whole mentality is different. He doesn't let things bother him and he's been consistent in all his starts."
Beyond their ace, ULM is getting plenty of mileage out of hard-throwing James Jones. He is emerging as a relief ace for the Warhawks and someone who can have a hand in more than one outcome in a conference series. Granier and Jones combined to shut out Nicholls State.
"Some of the games we lost, we lost late," Schexnaider said. "We've moved James into that role to see what he could do."
Jones is tied for the NCAA lead with four wins and leads the Sun Belt with 26 strikeouts and 10 batters fanned looking. Jones (4-0) owns a 0.90 ERA, 24 strikeouts and a .152 batting average against in his six relief outings.
"He's a guy who comes out of the bullpen with swing-and-miss type stuff," Wheeler said. "Velocity at the end of games beats a lot of bats. He fits that role pretty good. Plus, he's able to throw every day."
ULM will utilize Randy Zeigler (1-1, 5.23) as the Saturday starter and give emerging right-hander Brent Gay a start on Sunday. The Warhawks have also auditioned lefty Kendall Thamm and righty Luke Briley for weekend starting roles. Briley hurled ULM's other shutout against Jackson State.
"Drew in my opinion is one of the better pitchers in the conference," Wheeler said last weekend. "Zeigler is a guy who is going to get better as the season progresses. With Sunday, I don't think we've officially figured out that guy yet but we've got several who are capable. I think whoever we put out there will be able to do it for us."
Zeigler will make his fourth start of the season while the junior Gay (1-0, 2.57) will make his first start as a Warhawk after performing well in three relief appearances.
"We had a bunch of young guys who had never really played D-I," Granier said. "They just had to get comfortable. We have a system that everybody is following."
ULM is still waiting on Wil Browning to return to form as a back-end reliever. In four appearances and seven innings, Browning has a 14.14 ERA while allowing 13 hits, 11 runs and six walks. He's surrendered six extra base hits and hit one batter.
"Wil's going to be fine," Wheeler said. "He got off to a rough start but he's got the stuff. It's just a matter of getting him back out there and getting him some confidence."