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The AAC Baseball Tournament Preview: Lelo's Last Stand

We're off to Clearwater for the end of the Lelo Prado Era. Can the Bulls finally awaken the bats and make a run?

It's one of my favorite weeks of the year, as the Bulls head over the bridge to Clearwater for their conference baseball tournament. But this year it's AAC instead of Big East, and also the format has changed: instead of the double-elimination bracket of before, now it's two four-team pools with the winner of each playing a one-game final on ESPNU Sunday at noon for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

USF is the #5 seed, and here's the entire Pool A schedule.

#4 Rutgers vs. #5 USF Wednesday at 7pm
#1 Louisville vs. #8 Memphis Thursday at 3pm
#4 Rutgers vs. #8 Memphis Friday at 11am
#1 Louisville vs. #5 USF Friday at 3pm
#1 Louisville vs. #4 Rutgers Saturday at 3pm
#5 USF vs. #8 Memphis Saturday at 7pm

The other bracket is #2 C. Florida, #3 Houston, #6 Temple (which ends their program permanently after this event), and #7 UConn.

Something to keep in mind: The tiebreaker is head-to-head if it's two teams, and the highest seed if it's three teams. So if it ends up with three teams at 2-1 and one at 0-3, which could very well happen in this pool, Louisville would advance.

The Bulls will send Casey Mulholland (4-2, 3.13 ERA) to the hill against Rutgers. Mulholland had RU beat on May 10th after eight innings, but the bullpen blew it and the Bulls lost in 11 innings 5-4. That means USF will send 1st Team All-AAC pitcher Jimmy Herget against Louisville. Herget threw a gem against Louisville on May 3rd (8.1 IP, 5H, 2R, 1BB, 13K), but gave up a game-tying home run in the ninth. Then USF loaded the bases with nobody out in the 10th, but struck out three times. The Louisville scored in the 11th to win. Yeah, it really kind of sucked.

We don't know who will pitch against Memphis, but the format makes it so USF could be the only one that cares who wins. Depending on how the tournament plays out, the strategy for the final games on Saturday changes dramatically. The new format brings up a ton of options, such as:

Louisville gets Memphis first, but doesn't play until Thursday at 3pm. They could save their ace Kyle Funkhouser (11-2, 1.74 ERA) for later in the series, or do they throw him Thursday hoping he doesn't expend a ton of energy and that they send him back out again on Sunday in the final on two days rest (which might be his side day anyway)?

How do the Cardinals use stud closer and possible MLB 1st round pick Nick Burdi (3-1, 0.58 ERA, 14 saves)?

What does Rutgers do as a team with two quality starters in Gaby Rosa (6-2, 2.28 ERA) and Howie Brey (5-3, 2.60), and not a lot of options for a third? Do they go bullpen-by-committee against Memphis and save their best arms for USF and UL?

For the Bulls, it's same as it ever was: They need to awaken the bats to have any chance. Expect great starts out of Mulholland and Herget, but can they overcome the punchless offense that has plagued USF all year? Out of nine AAC teams, USF finished seventh in batting average (.262), seventh in on-base percentage (.355) ninth in slugging (.330), ninth in home runs (8!!), and ninth in steals (25).

You can't win if you can't hit, even in a pitching-dominant sport like modern college baseball and its watered-down bats. If the Bulls can find a way to scratch out some runs, they can make some noise. But they haven't given anyone much reason to believe that can happen this week. Also: Please, USF. Please prove me wrong. I can't tell you how much I would love to be wrong here. Coach Prado going out a winner and finally getting over the hump would be just wonderful.

No matter the result, the last stand of Lelo Prado should be a fun week. Make sure to grab a Delco's cheesesteak behind home plate (they're officially approved by at least one Philadelphian), and the tiki bar in left field often has great specials during this event. Come get some sunshine and watch some great baseball in a wonderful venue. It's probably the best Spring Training facility in the country.

If you can't make it to US 19 and Drew Street, I'll be the color commentator with voice of the Bulls/USF apologist Josh Appel on 88.5HD2 for the Rutgers game on Wednesday night. You can listen live here, and I'll be as unprofessional as I can and make as many jokes about Rutgers, Bon Jovi KidFat Darrel sandwichesbasketball coaches that abuse playersathletic directors that abuse players, etc. There's a lot of Scarlet Knights material out there I need to use before it expires on Saturday.