The calendar says it’s spring. The weather forecast says otherwise. But the umpire will still say “play ball.”
When East Tennessee State’s baseball team plays host to Florida Gulf Coast in the biggest series in Thomas Stadium’s young history this weekend, weather could become part of the story. Chilly temperatures are expected, especially for tonight’s opener. It could be a shock to the system for the visiting Eagles, who will be playing their first game outside of Florida.
The Bucs, meanwhile, have gotten off to a 12-6 start playing in all kinds of weather, including some that would cause a mailman to take a day off.
“We’ve actually played pretty well in the cold,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “We’ve really played on some miserable days. Our guys have been good about that. You can’t control the uncontrollable, and weather’s one of those issues.”
The Eagles, ranked 30th nationally in the NCAA poll, come in 13-4. Their signature wins came in a three-game sweep over No. 13 Florida. They recently had a six-game winning streak snapped with an 8-6 home loss to NAIA school Ave Maria University. That dropped them out of the Top 25.
“They’re one of the preseason favorites to win our league,” Skole said. “They’re extremely talented, nationally ranked. They have some big wins. It’s definitely gonna be a challenge.”
The Bucs also lost their last game, a 3-2 decision to Winthrop on Wednesday, but come into the series tied for first in the A-Sun at 2-1. This will be Florida Gulf Coast’s league opener.
The Eagles have perhaps the top pitching staff in the A-Sun. They’ve put together a team ERA of 2.14, 11th-best in the country. They have four pitchers giving up fewer than one earned run per nine innings, led by A-Sun pitcher of the year Ricky Knapp, who comes in 4-0 with a 0.87 ERA.
“They’re just so good on the mound,” Skole said. “It’ll be tough for us to scratch and claw for runs.”
The Bucs counter with senior Kerry Doane, who ranks fifth in the league in ERA at 2.03. He’s 3-1 and had a 20-inning scoreless streak earlier this season. He'll start Saturday's game.
Clinton Freeman has been doing it all for the Bucs, despite an 0-for-5 performance against Winthrop. Freeman’s average dipped to .423 on Wednesday. He’s now second in the A-Sun, behind Florida Gulf Coast’s Brooks Beisner, who comes into the series hitting .439.
Freeman still leads the league with seven home runs and is tied for second in doubles (eight) and triples (three). On the mound, he is tied for the A-Sun lead in wins with a 4-0 record. He’s sixth in ERA at 2.08 and has two saves.
Freeman had been coming out of the bullpen, but because of an arm injury to weekend starter Jimmy Nesselt, he made his first start of the season in a big conference game at USC-Upstate last Sunday, throwing seven strong innings as the Bucs won to get to 2-1 in the league.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Skole said. “Clinton is just a baseball player. It’s just something he’s done all of his life. It was really just a warrior-type effort he gave us on Sunday in a huge game for us.
“He’s fun to watch. He’s an exciting player. On the mound, he doesn’t throw real hard but he throws all his pitches for strikes. He’s such a great competitor. And offensively, he’s just a natural hitter. He’s a fun young man to coach.”
Freeman is also tied for second in the A-Sun with 14 walks as teams have begun to be careful with him. He had a streak of 20 consecutive games in which he reached base end on Wednesday.
“Teams are starting to pitch around him a little bit, so he just has to stay patient,” Skole said. “It’s gotten to him a little bit. He’s tried a little too much in the games he’s struggled.”
The Bucs have feasted on northern teams to get off to a good start. Now they start to see where they stack up against the A-Sun’s best. Florida Gulf Coast was the co-favorite, along with Mercer, in the preseason poll of the league’s coaches.
“It’ll be exciting,” Skole said. “I know our guys are looking forward to it.”
Youth baseball players 13 and under who wear their uniforms will be admitted to any of the three games this weekend for free. The promotion is in conjunction with the youth clinic ETSU held at Thomas Stadium earlier this month.
Game times are 7:05 p.m. today, 2:05 p.m. on Saturday and 1:05 p.m. on Sunday.
Florida Gulf Coasts’s basketball team will be playing in the NCAA tournament around the same time as tonight’s opener. The Eagles, seeded 15th in the South Regional, take on second-seeded Georgetown at 6:50 p.m. in Philadelphia.