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Eyes on the prize
033117 GSU BASEBALL 01
Georgia Southern's Mason McWhorter slides safely into home on a sacrifice fly during a March 31 game against UL Monroe at J.I. Clements Stadium. The Eagles host Arkansas State this weekend. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    In Major League Baseball, the saying goes that a team is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.
    On a similar note, a college team is only as good as its next performance in a conference game.
    Georgia Southern currently boasts the Sun Belt’s best overall record with an impressive 33-16 mark, but currently sits just third in its division, trailing South Alabama by two games and Coastal Carolina by 1.5.
    The Eagles host Arkansas State this weekend for their final three home games of the regular season before heading to Georgia State next week. With the final two conference opponents struggling this season, the Eagles can boost their postseason hopes with a strong finish.
    “It’s a battle,” GS coach Rodney Hennon said. “This time of year, everyone is fighting to get position for (the conference tournament). We know we can help ourselves with some wins, but Arkansas State is a good team that is well-coached who is fighting just as hard for positioning.”
    The Eagles come into the weekend flying high. Georgia Southern won a series at UL Lafayette last weekend and extended its midweek winning streak to 12 games with a 6-0 victory over Kennesaw State Wednesday. The win over KSU featured a complete game tossed by Brian Eichhorn, notching the Eagles’ sixth complete game effort of the season by its fourth different pitcher.
    Combine that impressive state with a bullpen that has been solid throughout the season and a lineup that is enjoying a rash of two-out situational hitting success and the Eagles have the look of a team that is ready to peak at the right time.
    “A lot of it has to do with our health,” Hennon said. “Early in the year, we had some guys hurt. And just as they got back, another guy would go down. Right now, we’re about as healthy as we’ve been all year. That gives you a lot of options with how you approach games and what you can do in the middle of a game as far as making changes.”
    The Eagles will look to use that depth and consistency to stay in the race for a possible division championship and the best seed they can grab heading into the Sun Belt tournament - which will be held at J.I. Clements Stadium May 23-28.
    Facing the Red Wolves of Arkansas State (22-24, 10-14 Sun Belt), the Eagles’ bats could be the key.
    Just one ASU starting pitcher has an ERA under 6.00 and only two pitchers with multiple starts on the season have a winning record. That should be a welcome sight for a GS offense that is starting to become more potent and for Eagle first baseman Ryan Cleveland, who has homered in each of his last three games and who sits in second place in the Sun Belt with 14 long balls this season.
    When the Eagles are in the field, they should have similar opportunities to notch an advantage over the Red Wolves.
    Georgia Southern will trot out Evan Challenger on Friday, Chase Cohen on Saturday and Seth Shuman Sunday afternoon. Challenger has returned to his ‘ace’ form over the last month while Cohen continues to grow as a sophomore and Shuman is making a serious case to be named the Sun Belt’s top freshman this season.
    When in need of preserving a lead, Georgia Southern has a pair of rocks to lean on in Connor Simmons and Landon Hughes. Opponents bat just .162 against Hughes and .184 off of Simmons. Hughes has been all but unstoppable, taking the loss on opening night before notching a 6-0 record with seven saves over his last 22 appearances.