When Belmont charged to its second straight NCAA Regional last year, the pitching staff offered a smorgasbord of options.
Seven different players started, including four with at least 10 starts or more. Another four made 24 or more appearances out of the bullpen. From top to bottom, the pitching staff largely contributed to a school-record 39 wins.
This season, the Bruins are hard pressed to match that depth but still are heavily armed.
Bolstered by four weekend starters and a strong bullpen, Belmont is 23-7 and in first place in its first year in the Ohio Valley Conference with a 10-2 league record.
“I think we’re not as deep as maybe we have been in the past,” senior left-hander Chase Brookshire said. “[But] I think the guys we run out there are just as good if not better that we’ve had while I’ve been here.”
Brookshire, the team’s ace and Friday night starter, anchors a pitching staff that leads the OVC in ERA (3.00) and 13 other statistical categories.
He, sophomores Austin Coley and Daniel Ludwig and junior James Buckelew, who has made eight starts between Sunday and midweek contests, comprise a starting rotation that is 17-4. Senior closer Josh Davis has shut the door with nine saves and just two earned runs in 23.1 innings pitched.
The entire staff has thrown 260 strikeouts and allowed just 81 walks for a ratio of 3.21 — the seventh best mark in the country.
“We’re trying to develop that depth but this year’s staff has been more consistent than last year’s staff,” pitching coach Matt Barnett said. “They’re throwing a ton of strikes. They are giving us quality performances every day out. That has been the biggest key to our success early on this spring. We know what we’re going to get out of those guys and it is giving our offense a chance to do their job. We’re comfortable in a two-run game, a 3-1 game, a 1-0 game.
“We’ve played enough of those where it is no big deal.”
No moment should be too big — because a handful of those arms have pitched on the big stage.
In 2011, the Bruins made an improbable run to the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship to reach their first NCAA Tournament, where they won two games before Vanderbilt eliminated them. Contributing to the success that year — and in no small roles — were Brookshire with a team-high 15 starts, Buckelew with 12 starts, Davis with 18 appearances and then-freshman Blake Harvey with 14 appearances.
“I think it is comparable to the way our staff was performing at the end of ’11 when we got hot,” coach Dave Jarvis said. “A lot of that was some of the guys who are still on this staff. They were really starting to come into their own and really start developing and turning into outstanding Division I pitchers. There is a connecting thread that runs through all three of those pitching staffs.”
This year, Brookshire, a Chattanooga native, again paces the Bruins with a league-leading 1.15 ERA and a 3-1 record. Ludwig, who splits Sundays with Buckelew, is 6-1.
Coley, the least experienced of the group, is 5-0. The Siegel grad has a OVC-best 55 strikeouts and just 11 walks.
“I had the opportunity to step up and be the right-handed guy to fill the gap between the two left-handers on Friday and Sunday,” Coley said. “It has been a challenge to pitch to college hitters two, three times through the lineup. … But it has been fun. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m learning a lot.”
Coley’s emergence has allowed Jarvis to stick to an unusual mesh of starting pitchers.
The Bruins have two left-handed pitchers in the weekend rotation. They boast a combo of lefty-righty-lefty with Brookshire, Coley and Ludwig/Buckelew.
“Any time you have changes, right, left, right or left, right, left is better than either three right-handers or three left-handers because I think it forces opponents to make adjustments,” Jarvis said. “It prevents them from getting in a rhythm over a two- or three-game period.”
So far the mix has stifled opposing bats.
In addition to its conference dominance, the Bruins took two of three from Georgia and Illinois State, two apiece from Valparaiso and Western Kentucky and won the first of two against Middle Tennessee State.
On Tuesday, Belmont will make the short trip to play the first of two against crosstown rival Lipscomb. The Bisons (11-22) will return the trip to Rose Park on April 23.
Even with the Bruins no longer in the Atlantic Sun, the schools plan to continue the series, which began in 1954 and has been played every year since. Lipscomb, which is ninth in the A-Sun, leads the series 76-50.
Belmont will return to conference play this weekend with Southern Illinois-Edwardsville coming to town. The Bruins have yet to play the three teams directly below them in the conference standings — Tennessee Tech, Jacksonville State and Austin Peay. Thus, they caution their biggest tests lie ahead.
When those challenges arrive all hands — no matter how few — will be on deck.
“Things are starting to click on all cylinders,” Brookshire said. “We’re definitely not where we want to be in terms of peaking as a team. I think that’s great. We’ve done that every year. We hope to always improve on the little things so when it is May and June we are playing our best ball.”