By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
It was already tough to qualify for the Conference USA tournament because of the quality of teams in what is considered one of the country’s best college baseball leagues. The challenge became greater this spring when C-USA added four teams but stuck to the eight-team postseason format.
As Marshall makes its return to Beckley for a weekend series against Florida Atlantic starting tonight, league positioning is huge. The Thundering Herd (8-16, 5-6 C-USA) is in 10th place and holds a 1 1/2-game lead over the 11th place Owls (15-12, 4-8), one of the league newcomers.
“No question. We are both right there in the middle, battling to move up to the top,” Marshall coach Jeff Waggoner said. “But one weekend isn’t more important than the other and is not the determinant part of the season.”
FAU’s league record may be somewhat misleading. The Owls have been swept by conference-leading Rice and lost two of three to one of the league’s best teams in Southern Miss.
Meanwhile, the Owls — an NCAA regional team last year that was ranked 30th in the preseason by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association — have road wins over Miami and, most recently, Florida. FAU’s Cain Spangler stole home in the top of the 11th inning and held on for a 5-4 win over the Gators on Tuesday.
Getting to the Owls early and making it stick goes a long way toward beating FAU. Since head coach John McCormack took over the program in 2009, the Owls are 143-4 in games they led after the seventh inning.
“Their starting pitching is really good,” Waggoner said. “The key is to score first or create one big inning. That’s what you strive to do every game.”
Both teams bring some of the league’s best starting pitching to Linda K. Epling Stadium, although Marshall’s starters have been victimized by the conference’s worst offense. The Herd is last in batting average (.211) and runs scored (83 in 24 games).
Right-hander Michael Taylor (1-5, 3.00 earned run average) will face FAU lefty Austin Gomber in tonight’s opener. Gomber, a preseason all-conference pick, is 2-4 with a 3.52 ERA, and is fifth in C-USA with 45 strikeouts in 46 innings.
The matchup in the second game will pit right-handers Matt Margaritonda (2-3, 3.51) for the Herd and Jeremy Strawn (2-4, 3.55) for the Owls. In Sunday’s finalé, Marshall’s Josh King (2-2, 2.60) will take the mound opposite Drew Jackson (3-0, 2.25) for FAU.
“Pitching is their strength, and we feel it is ours, too,” Waggoner said. “There should be some good matchups.”
Today’s game will start at 3 p.m. The start time was originally set for 7 p.m. but was changed because of the forecast of evening thunderstorms. Game 2 is still scheduled to start at 7 p.m., while the final game will start at noon Sunday.
This will be Marshall’s only visit to Epling Stadium this season. The Herd is 16-14 all-time in Beckley.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @GaryFauber.