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Bulls need bullpen improvements

Baseball is a unique game. It’s a game in which a pitcher could get a no-hitter and still lose, a game that has statistics such as the WHIP (Wins, Hits + Innings Pitched) and, most importantly, a game where pitching is the most vital component to having a successful season.

Starting pitching, a solid bullpen and a dependable defense are the cornerstones of a winning team at any level, from Little League to the Majors, and those three cornerstones go hand-in-hand to form a contender. If one crumbles, it can cost a team a chance at the postseason.

The South Florida baseball team is clinging to a spot in the Big East tournament, but has had a major problem this season – late-game pitching and defense in conference games.

In the last game of this year’s series against the Georgetown Hoyas, the Bulls held a 7-1 lead in the seventh inning. The Hoyas came back and won the game by the score of 8-7.

During the second game of this season’s series against West Virginia, the Bulls held a 13-5 lead in the eighth inning and allowed the Mountaineers to score seven runs during that inning thanks to poor pitching and errors by the Bulls defense. Then, with a 14-11 lead in the ninth, sophomore closer Shawn Sanford failed to slam the door on the Mountaineers, who tied the game and eventually won 15-14 in 10 innings.

Fast forward to the series against Louisville with the Bulls up 7-6 in the ninth inning. Sanford comes in and fails to get an out, allowing a go-ahead grand slam that gave the Cardinals a 10-7 win.

Replace those three losses with wins and the Bulls are 11-7 and in fifth place in the Big East instead of 8-10 and just one game ahead of ninth place Connecticut.

Sanford has the talent and the pitches to be dominant; there is a reason he is on the Wallace Award Player of the Year Watch List. He can throw a top-quality curveball and he has nine saves this season, but he is in a slump that has lingered for almost a month now.

In 24 appearances, Sanford has a 4.20 ERA, which is too high for a closer.

For comparison, let’s look at the 2007 Louisville Cardinals, who joined the Big East in 2005 along with the Bulls. The Cardinals went 47-24 last season and attended the College World Series after finishing third in the Big East with a 19-8 record in the conference.

Cardinals closer Trystan Magnuson had nine saves in 36 appearances and, most importantly, a miniscule 1.83 ERA.

The Cardinals had three players that hit more than 15 home runs that year, but what made them jump from good to formidable was their pitching.

The Cardinals’ top two starters that year – junior Zach Pitts and freshman Justin Marks – had a combined 2.59 ERA and a 19-5 record. Pitts went 10-3 that season, while Marks compiled a 9-2 record.

Pitts averaged 6 2/3 innings as the Cardinals’ ace and had one complete game. Marks averaged almost six innings per game as well.

Aside from flashes of brilliance from freshman starters Randy Fontanez and Derrick Stultz – who have both been an inning away from a complete game – no starting pitcher has been able to go the distance for the Bulls this season.

Fontanez is 3-3 and has logged the most innings for the Bulls, with 52 in nine starts, and is averaging 5 2/3 innings per game.

Stultz has been the best pitcher for USF so far, averaging seven innings per start and logging a 2.74 ERA in the process. He has a 3-3 record.

The problem with this is that as talented as Stultz and Fontanez are, a contending team needs experienced starters to bring home a championship.

Senior Daniel Thomas has missed considerable time because of an arm injury, but even when healthy he has been averaging just 5 1/3 innings and posts a 3.82 ERA.

USF has the talent and the offense to play anyone in the Big East, but no team – no matter how good it is – can win consistently when it doesn’t know if it can hold a lead late in a critical game.

USF pitching coach Lazer Collazo said Sanford is the key to the Bulls’ postseason aspirations. He said he believes Sanford will return to form soon – and the Bulls will need him to if they want to get to their first-ever College World Series.