Bulls in conference tourney after wins

The USF baseball team wouldn’t let it happen again. They were determined not to allow it. That’s why the Bulls swept Cincinnati through three games, which will send them to the Conference USA tournament starting Wednesday in Hattiesburg, Miss.

The team, at the No. 6 seed, will face host and No. 3-seed Southern Miss (39-17, 20-10 C-USA) on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., a team that recently swept the Bulls on May 13-15.

USF (32-29, 15-14 C-USA) was in a similar situation last season when the team only had to win one game over Louisville (25-20, 10-19 C-USA) to make the tournament but failed to do so, and 2004 became the only year the Bulls failed to make the C-USA tournament in its 10-year history in the league. This weekend they won three — 9-1 Thursday, 6-2 Friday and 18-8 Saturday — over the Bearcats, eliminating them from the postseason and securing the eighth and final spot for the tournament.

“Getting the tournament was a relief,” said coach Eddie Cardieri, who has only missed the conference tournament — in the Sun Belt, Metro and C-USA leagues — three times in his 20 seasons as head coach. “It was a real monkey off our back.”

Senior right fielder Bryan Hierlmeier considered that there might be a bigger primate hanging around his team.

“Like (pitching) coach Nelson (North) said, it was a gorilla — not a monkey — we had to get off there,” said Hierlmeier who set a new Bulls record for being hit by a pitch with 20 on Friday night. “It was good to get that win out of the way and get the pressure off.”

North laughed when asked about the metaphor he gave to the team, but as he said it was just good motivation.

“This was just a big weekend,” North said. “When it all shook down to the last series again … yeah, I called it a gorilla biting my head off, and I was glad to get it off. It was motivation for me and everyone.”

In Thursday’s 9-1 win, the motivation paid off as sophomore Casey Hudspeth (8-5, 3.90 ERA, 94 K) threw six no-hit innings — he gave up only three total through eight innings — while senior third baseman Jeff Baisley went 3-for-5 at the plate with two RBI.

“Casey was awesome,” Cardieri said. “You know he only struck out three, but his command was so good. He could throw three pitches for three strikes whenever he wanted.”

In Friday’s game, Cincinnati starter Sean Munninghoff threw 20 straight balls, walking home two runs and recording no outs, before being relieved by Matt Heber. A total of seven USF batters were walked in the first inning. The Bearcats could only muster two runs off freshman starter Daniel Thomas (8-4, 3.99 ERA, 49 K) who pitched seven innings while giving up six hits and no runs. Junior catcher Brian Baisley also went 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored. Thomas’ eighth win matches Hudspeth’s freshman record for wins set in the 2004 season.

“It starts with the start. Thomas pitched a masterpiece,” Cardieri said. “Those 20 consecutive balls … I have never seen that before, which makes us think we’re going to score 20 runs, but to their credit, they held us to six.”

Added North, “He was very aggressive. He really came after pitchers, and that’s what our staff tries to teach (the players).”

And for most people who attend baseball games regularly, those fans will see something new every game. And for those who showed up Friday night, they would have seen an unassisted triple play performed by shortstop Mark Haske. Jeff Baisley lined out Haske, who stepped on second to put out second baseman Joey Angelberger running to third and then tagged Hierlmeier, who was moving to second.

“You just don’t see that very often,” Cardieri said. “I couldn’t believe it, but you know I just said, ‘Well, there you go.'”

Cardieri was impressed by how his young guns stepped up in the team’s last regular-season series.

“What’s great is you’ll see one guy throw good one night, then the next guy the next night go out and do the same. It’s good that one guy goes out there and says, ‘This is how it needs to be done.’ Two freshman beat Cincinnati, and we’ll see if they can keep it up into the conference tournament, because it’s contagious sometimes.”

Apparently, designated hitter Jeremy Brand caught whatever Hudspeth and Thomas were spreading around, because in Saturday’s 18-8 win, the senior, on Senior Day no less, went 2-for-5 with two home runs — one being a seventh-inning grand slam — and racked up seven RBI. Freshman Ty Pryor picked up the win after pitching 2 1/3 innings after relieving fellow freshman Blake Tillett (4-2, 5.72 ERA, 30 K) who gave up five runs on five hits.

Now the Bulls will get ready for the C-USA tournament, something they really missed last year, especially North.

“I still may not be over last year against Louisville. I’m just glad that gorilla is gone.”

Added Hierlmeier, “We feel on a good roll, especially after (the) weekend (against Southern Miss). As long as our pitchers can keep throwing like they have, we have a good shot.”

Cardieri knows it’s not going to be easy, and having the Golden Eagles stepping up to the plate doesn’t help.

“It’s the kind of things you can’t control,” Cardieri said. “We could be playing the No. 1 team in the country, but it’s just how it draws out. It’ll be tough, though.”