ASU baseball could be turning the corner

When Mervyl Melendez arrived at Alabama State in 2012, he promised to make the Hornets an NCAA Tournament team.

Anyone who followed his teams at Bethune-Cookman knew it wasn’t idle talk. He took his team to the NCAA Tournament every year as the MEAC champion and NCAA Tournament hosts were always wary of facing his team when it arrived for postseason play.

In his first season, there were small steps toward respectability and last year the Hornets appeared to be on the verge of turning the corner and earning that NCAA bid.

Now, after winning at South Alabama and Auburn on back-to-back nights, Alabama State players appear to have sent a signal they’re for real.

Beating one of those teams is an accomplishment in terms of recognition but it may be more of a fluke than anything else. After all, it’s hard for those teams to be inspired to play Alabama State and everybody has an off-day, right?

Beating both of them on back-to-back nights? That’s not a coincidence.

ASU went to Mobile on Tuesday and beat South Alabama in all phases of the game. Mike Estevez threw five shutout innings. Richard Amion and Dexter Price homered. Left fielder Dillon Cooper threw out a runner at the plate. This may not be the same South Alabama team that Mark Calvi coached to a 43-20 record last season, but it’s still supposed to win these types of games, or at least be competitive in them.

Instead, ASU won 5-0, snapping an 0-10 series drought.

A day later, ASU did it again. Six pitchers held Auburn to five hits, a day after South Alabama managed just four against five pitchers. Amion, Emmanuel Marrero and Brandon Castro each had two hits and Einar Muniz scored three runs.

Sunny Golloway’s team is 2-2 and the former Oklahoma coach has some rebuilding to do. While he has proclaimed on more than one occasion (including postgame comments after losing to ASU) that his team would play in the College World Series this season, the rest of the Southeastern Conference coaches picked Auburn last in the seven-team Southeastern Conference West Division.

After Auburn scored a pair of runs in the seventh to pull within 4-3, it looked like another late-inning loss for the Hornets might be on the horizon. Like last year’s one-run loss to the Tigers, ASU could claim a moral victory by playing it close.

Instead, the Hornets responded with five runs in the eighth, battering set-up man Trey Cochran-Gill and closer Terrance Dedrick. After the game, Golloway said his team needed reevaluation and indicated that Cochran-Gill and Dedrick would be replaced in those roles.

Maybe there’s another explanation. While both South Alabama and Auburn still have questions to resolve, maybe it’s time to admit that Melendez has the Hornets ready to turn the corner and earn that NCAA bid. He saw something good in his team Tuesday when ASU shut the door on South Alabama in the late innings. He saw something else on Wednesday, when his team was challenged and responded like a champion in a five-run eighth inning.

Two games certainly don’t make a season, but they do seem to offer a glimpse of what could be a very special season for Alabama State.

“These wins are good for our confidence,” Melendez said. “Any win is good and when you play a tough opponent, and we did yesterday in South Alabama and we played Auburn tonight, and when you’re able to play at their home and you’re able to come out with a victory, you have to feel good about yourself.”

Alabama State looked very ordinary in losing the season opener, but has now reeled off four straight wins. And when the Hornets needed to play at their best to beat Auburn, they played error-free ball. That doesn’t sound like the type of team that is intimidated by big-name opponents.

“I thought we played pretty well, and pretty good defense,” Melendez said. “The performance offensively was good. We utilized a number of pitchers to keep everyone fresh for this weekend. We got out of jams, which is important in baseball. The opponent is usually going to make a run, and we did a pretty good job holding them to three runs tonight.”

And like South Alabama the night before, the Hornets snapped a series’ drought (0-7) on their opponents’ home field.

Armed with confidence, the Hornets fly out to the West Coast to play a four-game series at the University of the Pacific beginning Friday at 8 p.m. CT. Every game will be broadcast live on bamastatesports.com/showcase.

Hornet fans might want to listen in. This could be the start of something special.

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About tgayle

Tim Gayle is a sports reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper and montgomeryadvertiser.com.
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