Valdosta Daily Times

March 22, 2013

Blazers looking to turn corner

Ed Hooper
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Things haven’t gone as planned for the Valdosta State baseball team so far this season. Through the first 23 games, the Blazers are four games below .500 in league play.

This weekend, the Blazers (12-11 overall, 2-6 in GSC) are looking to improve on that record when they host Gulf South Conference newcomer Shorter, starting with a single game today at 4 p.m.

The series against Shorter was pushed forward an entire day due to threatening weather forecast this weekend for the Valdosta area. The single game today might be the only game the teams play, as Saturday and Sunday look like a given wash out.

As for right now, the teams are scheduled for a Saturday doubleheader starting at noon.

“Whether we would have started 5-0 or 0-5 (in league play), we are going to do everything that we can to get the games in (this weekend),” Valdosta State head coach Greg Guilliams said. “That is just the right thing to do.”

Regardless of the weather this weekend, the Blazers need wins over the Hawks this weekend.

Even after winning two-of-three games against West Alabama last weekend at Billy Grant Field, the Blazers are eighth in the league standings and have still yet to play No. 1-ranked Delta State.

VSU started league play 0-5, losing a doubleheader against No. 14 Alabama-Huntsville, before being swept in a three-game series by sixth-ranked West Florida.

Guilliams was quick to point out that the Blazers had a chance to win in all five games, but made too many mistakes in the closing innings.

The Blazers led Huntsville 4-3 heading into the eighth inning of game two, before allowing two runs in the eighth and another in the ninth to lose 5-4.

In their series against West Florida, the Blazers lost game one 8-7 in 10 innings and blew a 3-0 lead in game three of the series to lose 4-3.

“We are still trying to figure out how to win,” Guilliams said. “Even in the games we lost, they were good games. But there is a difference in playing people close and winning. Maybe, hopefully, we’re turning the tide a little bit.”

Since returning home March 12, for their longest home-stand of the season, the Blazers have bounced back from the disastrous start to league play, winning five of six games, including a pair against UWA.

“With us playing better at home last weekend, hopefully that can continue,” Guilliams said.

Despite a middle-of-the-road record, the Blazers do have some bright spots this season.

As a team, they lead the GSC in pitching with a 2.81 earned run average, aided by a stellar start to the season by senior Nick Fogarty, who tossed a perfect game against Paine College Feb. 9.

“Our pitching has been good,” Guilliams said. “Knock on wood, I think we lead the Gulf South Conference in pitching, we are second in the league in defense. The defense is big because that was an area of emphasis for us. It’s been a little bit short on the offensive end. We are looking for more creative ways to score runs, and hopefully if we can do that, and we can continue to play good defense and pitch well, that will give us a chance.”

One thing Guilliams and the Blazers are still adjusting to are the mandated changes in the bats, which took into effect prior to the 2011 season.

Under the changes made by the NCAA, teams were required to switch to different bats, which don’t allow the ball to fly off point of contact nearly as hard and fast, reducing the travel distance in the process.

The changes have affected the Blazers.

After pounding out 241 home runs between the 2009 and 2010 seasons and winning the 2010 GSC championship, the Blazers have hit a combined 86 home runs the past three seasons.

So far this season, the Blazers have hit just five homers, and only two have come at Billy Grant Field, which produced 54 combined total home runs in 2010.

With the bat changes, the Blazers’ record has also gone down. Between 2009 and 2010, the Blazers won 86 games and made the South Regional both seasons. Since, the Blazers are just 61-57, with no     regional appearances.

“The other teams aren’t hitting (home runs) either,” Guilliams said. “What its done, it has made us change our recruiting. We’re still in that transition process a little bit. You have to coach a little different, but at the same time it is still baseball. We are still trying to find some more creative ways to score runs, than just relying on the home runs.”

At the plate, Bryant Hayman is the Blazers’ only real home run threat; he has four of VSU’s five homers this season. After struggling with injuries in the early part of the season, Hayman has started to turn the corner and is hitting .311 with a team-high 15 RBIs.

“I think Bryant Hayman may be the premier hitter in the conference,” Guilliams said. “He is obviously a big part of our offense. Our offense usually goes as he goes. He stepped up big for us this past weekend.”