BEAUMONT - Seven of the eight teams at this week's Southland Baseball Tournament will begin play on Wednesday, but for Lamar, it started last week.
Entering the final two games of the regular season, the Cardinals had to win both to secure a berth into the tournament, and the team did just that, gutting out a pair of nail-biters over Oral Roberts to grab the eighth and final spot in the tournament field. It will be similar circumstances again this week, as the ultimate winner in Conway will advance to an NCAA Regional.
The Cards will have a tall task ahead of them as they will kick off tournament play with a meeting with three-time regular season champion Sam Houston State, but it's a task head coach Jim Gilligan thinks his squad can accomplish.
"We had to win three of our last four games to get into the tournament, so we know it's not easy," Gilligan said. "But we are a scrappy, scrappy ball club, and we've been able to pull out those wins. We won the regular season series with Sam Houston. We know that we have the ability to win, but we just have to put it all together. If we do, then we get the spoils of having the schedule originally intended for the top seed."
LU has experienced a solid run of success over the Bearkats in recent years, including taking each of the last two season series. Last season, the two sides met once more in a Southland Tournament elimination game, where former Card and current Kansas City Royals farmhand Jonathan Dziedzic tossed 8.2 hitless innings en route to earning a trip to the semifinals.
This year, the Bearkats enter the weekend with a 40-15 record with a 22-8 Southland mark and a 12-game conference winning streak. SHSU has not lost a conference game since falling in the rubber game of its series with LU in April. Following Wednesday's game, each team will match up with the respective winner or loser from the Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana game. Fourth-seeded NSU ended the year 19-11 in league play with a 31-24 record overall. Southeastern, the No. 5 seed, was 18-12 and 33-23, respectively.
The winners from Wednesday's games will play on Thursday at 4 p.m., and the losers will square off in an elimination game at 9 a.m.
Sam Bumpers, who was named Southland Hitter of the Year on Monday, will helm an offensive assault that helped the Cards take home four consecutive conference series earlier this season. The Bourbonnais, Ill., native is the first LU shortstop to earn first team honors since 1984, and he comes into the weekend hitting a scorching .421 vs. league opponents. He leads the Cards in nearly every hitting category, including average (.345), doubles (14), triples (4), home runs (6) and slugging (.527).
Joining Bumpers near the top of the line-up will be the all-conference duo of Jude Vidrine and Reed Seeley. Both are among the national leaders in walks with a combined 87. Vidrine, a fifth-year senior that redshirted during LU's 2010 tournament championship run, is second in the league in runs with 51, and he boasts of a .321 batting average and .448 on-base mark.
The quartet of Brandon Provost (.311), Kevin Santana (.302), Kyle Markum (.282) and Jacoby Middleton (.281) rounds out the group of LU hitters with .280-or better averages. Both Provost and Middleton earned All-Southland honorable mentions, and Markum carved out a spot on the third team. As a team, LU boasts of a .288 clip, which ranks fourth in the conference.
On the mound, the Cards will turn to junior southpaw Chase Angelle, who has been a revelation on the mound this season. After being utilized almost exclusively as a reliever last season, the Orange native has registered a quality start in all-but two of his 14 appearances. He's been unlucky on the results side of things, however, going 4-6 with a 3.42 earned run average. In his start vs. SHSU earlier this season, he held the Bearkats hitless into the sixth inning before finishing with two earned runs on four hits over 6.2 innings of work. LU went on to win 13-3.
LU will be aiming for its fourth-ever Southland Tournament title this weekend and its first since 2010. Much like that season, the Cards experienced a tough start to the league season, dropping seven of the first nine games, before rebounding to win four straight conference series to get back in the hunt. If the Red and White are able to mimic that season's late run, it will mark a 14th-ever NCAA Regional for the program.
Another bit of history will be on the line as well as Gilligan, LU's 37th-year head coach, stands just two victories away from 1,300 for his career. He has won all but 10 games with the Cards.
First pitch on Wednesday at Bear Stadium is scheduled for 12 p.m.