Bulls face tough test

USF (33-19, 5-3) at DePaul (28-7, 10-0); at Notre Dame (24-14, 9-1)

Junior pitcher Chris Delaney is 8-0 this season with a 3.64 ERA

If ever there was a weekend for the baseball team to prove this season is not a fluke, this is it.

The Bulls (27-12, 9-6) are hosting Rutgers, the top team in the Big East standings. The Scarlet Knights (21-14, 9-3) may be in first place, but USF is just three spots behind them and coach Lelo Prado knows this series is a way to prove the team is one of the top three teams in the league.

“These are huge games for us. I don’t think there’s any question of that,” Prado said. “If we’re going to make a run at the conference title, we have to do our business and play defensively and get these wins.

“It’s important that if every year we want to be one of the top teams in the league, we have to prove it with these series.”

USF proved a point when it won two-of-three games against West Virginia on April 5-7 and also took two-of-three from Notre Dame March 23-25.

The Fightin’ Irish were picked to take the conference title, but are underachieving with an 18-17 overall record and a 4-7 Big East record.

USF also has a higher RPI ranking than Rutgers, according to the college baseball Web site, boydsworld.com. The Bulls are 41st in the nation, while the Scarlet Knights are 80th.

“We feel we should be where we are,” Prado said. “We expect to win the conference title and we have to take care of our business to do so.”

One player who has been taking care of his business is pitcher Chris Delaney. The junior, who is 8-0 this season and makes the start Saturday, has a 3.64 ERA and has given up just 30 runs.

Prado said he would keep senior Danny Otero as the Friday starter and Delaney as Saturday’s despite the latter’s record. He also said Delaney has been quite the gem of the rotation since junior Daniel Thomas went out with a leg injury.

“He just pitches through games,” Prado said. “Every time, he really seems to come out with the win, and he might not always be able to explain it, but he’s getting the wins. I mean, can you imagine where we’d be without him? Especially with DT (Thomas) hurt. He’s just really stepped up for us in this situation, and you couldn’t ask more of him.”

Shortstop Walter Diaz leads the Bulls in hits (64), runs (46) and a 21-game hitting streak. Diaz is only fourth on the team with 26 RBI. But Delaney and the Bulls will have their hands full with Rutgers. Just like USF has a strong shortstop in Diaz, the Scarlet Knights have shortstop Todd Frazier, who leads the team in hits (53), runs (50) and RBI (39).

Keep an eye on: Closer Shawn Sanford. The true freshman has a team-high 10 saves as one of the Bulls’ most reliable pitchers out of the bullpen. With Yuri Higgins having to make mid-week starts, Sanford has accumulated a 3.05 ERA, 29 strikeouts and given up just 13 runs in 23 appearances.