UNO has been perched atop the Summit League standings since conference play began in mid-March and enters the final week of the regular season in control of its destiny in the championship race.
But the margin for error for the Mavericks (27-19-1) is slim. Their once commanding lead in the Summit has been trimmed to a game and a half entering this week’s home series with Oral Roberts.
UNO was 12-0 and had a five-game advantage in league play when it opened its series with the Golden Eagles (24-23) — the perennial favorite in the Summit — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month. The Mavs have gone 7-8 in conference games since and are 1-2 in four of their past five Summit series.
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Third-year UNO coach Evan Porter would’ve loved to have wrapped up the top seed for the conference tournament in Tulsa before now. But he also wouldn’t want to be in a different position.
“I think the guys have done such a good job of having the same attitude and effort that they’ve had all season,” Porter said. “All you have is what’s in front of you. Thankfully, we still have a lead right now. All the credit goes to the guys for that for how well they’ve played. They put themselves in that position.
“This is the fun part of the season. Championship time. It comes down to the last weekend pretty much every season for seeding or getting in the tournament. This is where it’s supposed to be the most fun.”
UNO’s magic number — any combination of Mav wins or losses by second-place South Dakota State — to clinch the Summit title and top seed in the conference tourney is two.
The Jackrabbits have closed the gap the past few weeks as UNO struggled. The Mavs have fallen on tough times offensively and have been without Friday starter Joey Machado (5-1) for two weeks because of injury. The sophomore will return to the rotation, and is scheduled to pitch Friday.
“We didn’t want to push anything or rush anything,” Porter said. “We want him come tournament time. Thankfully, it looks like he’s getting better. He’ll be back out this weekend and then for the tournament, too.
“We’re happy he’s with us at this time and not the last two weekends. It’s more important now.”
Senior Payton Kinney (8-1), the league leader in wins and ERA, moved into the Friday spot in Machado’s absence. He’ll open the series with ORU on Thursday at Seymour Smith Park.
Kinney went 8-0 in his first 10 outings. But he hasn’t recorded a victory since April 21, though he’s allowed three runs or fewer in every start. UNO hasn’t given its ace early run support in those games.
“They picked me up a lot in the previous series,” he said. “We’re just struggling a little bit as a team — not scoring a lot of runs, not playing great defense. It’ll pick up. We’ve got a lot of good guys. We’re just in a little lull. I’d rather have it be last month than the last couple of weeks. Hopefully, we can get out of it.”
The Mavs are 3-9 while batting below .200 their past 12 games. But junior Parker Smejkal, UNO’s top hitter at .339, thinks his team is on the verge of breaking out of its recent funk.
“The last couple of weeks haven’t gone our way, obviously,” he said. “But we still hold the lead in the Summit League. We still feel confident with ourselves moving forward with Oral Roberts, the defending Summit champions for the last however many years. We’ve just got to play our brand of baseball.”
Oral Roberts has either won or shared every Summit regular-season title dating to 1999, minus the two years in which it was in the Southland Conference. The Golden Eagles, even with a sweep, can’t catch UNO in the standings. Their run of consecutive championships will end at 17.
ORU is 22-5, however, against the Mavs all time. It tries to spoil UNO’s bid this weekend.
“It’s ORU. They’ve got a winning culture there,” Kinney said. “They expect to win every game. I’d be very surprised if we don’t get everything they’ve got and more. They’re going to be a little angry. But we’re a little bit frustrated ourselves. We’re ready to get after it. I’m excited. It should be a really fun series.”
The Mavs, 19-8 in the Summit, can finish no worse than second in the conference. Oral Roberts could land anywhere from second to fifth. Only the top four teams qualify for the double-elimination tourney.
“I expect (the energy) to be high from both sides,” Smejkal said. “They don’t have a chance to win the Summit regular season, but they’re still fighting for a spot in that tournament. They’re going to come out competing. And we want the regular season. We’ve just got to play our brand of baseball and compete.”
UNO vs. Oral Roberts
4 p.m. Thursday: ORU RHP Josh McGinn (6-4, 4.56) vs. UNO RHP Payton Kinney (8-1, 1.73)
2 p.m. Friday: ORU RHP Matt Gaskins (4-4, 5.54) vs. UNO RHP Joey Machado (5-1, 3.92)
12 p.m. Saturday: ORU TBD vs. UNO TBD