A lot of times this year it has been a call to put the game to bed.
The Gamecocks have one of the top stable of stoppers in the reliever-rich Ohio Valley Conference. It has been so deep and — in conference games, at least — so effective, JSU coach Jim Case is not afraid to go to any one of them at any time.
“Our bullpen is very solid,” senior reliever Michael Mason said. “Every one of us can go in at any moment and compete. If one of our starters can’t go long, I feel our bullpen can compete with anyone. When we play big name schools ... I feel like we’re able to hang with them and shut them down to be able to give our offense a chance to come back.”
It has been proven in conference play. Going into this weekend’s series at Southeast Missouri, the Gamecocks’ bullpen is 8-0 in OVC games with seven saves and a league-best 2.06 earned run average. Only Belmont, the team with whom JSU shares the league lead this week, has more saves in conference games (eight).
Overall, the Gamecocks (22-19, 14-4 OVC) have the league’s second-best ERA among non-starting pitchers (3.86). Their relievers have been the pitcher of record in nine of the team’s last 12 wins. The starters, meanwhile, are 13-14 with a 5.53 ERA (6-4, 5.02 in OVC play).
Although sophomore closer Travis Stout grabs most of the headlines, the JSU bullpen is not a one-man band.
Depending on the situation, Case can go with Graham Officer or Mason in the middle innings to get to Cody Ponder in the eighth to get to Stout in the ninth. In just OVC games alone, Ponder hadn’t given up an earned run in 10 appearances, Stout, meanwhile, has a sparkling 0.77 ERA (with a league-high seven saves) and Mason has a 0.79 mark.
“You almost want it for people to be able to watch the game and know the moves you’re going to make before you make them,” Case said. “When everybody has their roles and are into them and doing their job, the game kind of plays itself and you’re adjusting with your guys.
“You’re hoping to get the ball in their hands because you’re not so sure things don’t improve sometimes. For any team you’d like to have a guy who when you put the ball in his hand everybody feels the game is over ... but you also need that guy in the sixth and seventh and the eighth innings because if you don’t do it then, it never gets to that (ninth-inning) guy.”
Only SEMO (20-22, 12-9) and last-place UT Martin — by a fraction — have given more total innings to their non-starters than the Gamecocks.
For the last two years, Case put the end game in the hands of Todd Hornsby, and the submariner produced 27 saves. It’s Stout’s role this year and the bulldog with a breaking ball has delivered with a 3-0 record, 1.90 ERA and 12 saves.
With that kind of production, it’s little wonder the Gamecocks are 9-4 in one-run games this year, 8-0 at home. They lost a one-run game at South Alabama on Wednesday night, but all those runs were scored in the first inning.
“It’s a good feeling,” Case said of a reliable bullpen. “Hopefully it will last, because you know how fragile it is: You’re one day away from a disaster — somebody sore, whatever. I’m really proud that after several years of having quality closers and going into this year worried what’s going to happen Travis has stepped up and taken that role.
“And one thing I would hate to be overlooked is the way Ponder has been so good at handing him the ball so he can get the save. What Ponder does is unheralded, and nobody really mentions it, but they should. I can guarantee coaches mention it.”
It has been a good year for relievers overall in the OVC.
The league has four players on the most recent list for the ninth annual college baseball writers Stopper of the Year award, a total topped only by the SEC’s eight.
Austin Peay’s Tyler Rogers leads all Division I players with 16 saves, breaking the OVC single-season record set by Hornsby last season with two Wednesday night. Stout, Belmont’s Josh Davis and Tennessee Tech’s Seth Lucio also are on the list.
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.