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Rhode Island at Charlotte
Atlantic 10 Conference play opens this weekend with a series between two of the top contenders for the league title: Rhode Island and Charlotte. The 49ers are the league’s perennial favorite, of course, but the Rams have quietly finished in the league’s top three each of the past two years, and coaches up and down the East Coast respect URI coach Jim Foster’s ability to develop players and make the most of his modest resources.
The Rams always play hard, and they made a statement last weekend at the Cougar Invitational, beating Connecticut and College of Charleston and taking Southern Mississippi to 15 innings before falling 4-3. The Rams enter the weekend with a 9-8 record, and they figure to have one of the top offenses in the A-10. Fourth-year junior outfielder Jeff Cammans (.412/.488/.500 with 11 steals in 14 tries) makes the offense, and senior first baseman/outfielder Tom Coulombe (.364/.366/.571 with 11 doubles and 20 RBIs) gives the lineup a quality RBI man.
“If Tommy hits for a little more power, he’ll get a chance at the next level, because he’s a plus athlete who can run,” Foster said. “Cammans has been outstanding at this point being a sparkplug. He’s been great offensively—he’s doing a good job getting on base, scoring runs, stealing bases. I do think the offense is the strength of our club. I base everything on defense and pitching. I think our bullpen is a strength and our lineup is a strength. If our starters can hold up, we’ll be a decent ballclub, with a chance to play in the postseason.”
The Rams lean on three upperclassmen in the weekend rotation: lefthander Chris Pickering (3-1, 4.55) and righties Ken Graveline (2-2, 4.13) and Stephen Peterson (0-3, 5.60). URI has a group of six seniors who figure to do the heavy lifting on the mound, but Foster said he has a pair of freshmen to keep an eye on in righthander Kevin Lee and lefty Nick Narodowy. And junior lefty Anthony Pisani has made a jump this year, flashing 91-92 mph velocity at times, though he sits at 86-87 most of the time. If that trio improves as the year progresses, Rhode Island has a chance to make a run in the A-10.
But it won’t be easy to unseat the 49ers at the top of the A-10 standings. Charlotte enters this weekend with a 17-5 record, thanks in large part to a pitching staff that has posted a 2.11 ERA. Weekend starters Andrew Smith (3-1, 2.30), Corey Roberts (4-0, 1.06) and Tyler Barnette (3-0, 1.00) have been superb, and Bryan Hamilton (1-0, 3.72 with four saves) is a force at the back of the bullpen. Smith has recovered from Tommy John surgery to emerge as a quality anchor at the front of the staff.
“We don’t have any big-time power arms, any guys that will light up the gun with stuff, but we’ve got a good mix of guys that allow us to change looks,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said. “Smith’s a little different than Roberts; he’s developed a pretty good slider, he’s a little better in terms of getting down in the zone than he was before he got hurt. He doesn’t really freak out; he’s a fourth-year junior that’s used to being around it. Roberts is a guy that can really locate. He can pitch, and he’s really tough on righthanded hitters; it’s a little bit of a different look than what Andrew is.”
Barnette, though, has the highest upside of any Charlotte pitcher. An unsigned ninth-round pick by the Red Sox out of Hickory (N.C.) High last year, the freshman righthander has projection but has also shown advanced feel for pitching.
“Barnette’s the guy everybody looks at,” Hibbs said. “You see his athleticism and arm action—he has a chance to get better as time goes on. His breaking ball can get a little loopy at times, but he can run his fastball up there into the low 90s when he’s right. All three of those guys do a good job fielding their positions and controlling the running game.”
Defense and athleticism are the hallmarks of the lineup. All three starting outfielders can run the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds or better, according to Hibbs, and the infield boasts three former high school shortstops. Charlotte doesn’t have the offensive firepower to bludgeon opponents, so it better be able to defend and create offense with its speed.
“We’re kind of offensively challenged with this group,” Hibbs said. “We do a decent job putting balls in play, but we have no power whatsoever. We just want guys that can move around. We’re not going to get the big, physical guy that can run—that’s just reality for us. Those people are going to go to SEC or ACC schools in this part of the country. So we tend to go with a little undersized guys that we think we can develop through conditioning and the weight room. We can put a pretty athletic team out there.”