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American Athletic Conference Breakdown - Charlotte

By Ashleigh Cash

📸 Mark Estes // Charlotte Athletics

American Athletic Conference play kicks off this weekend for the first time since admitting new members Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, UTSA, Rice, and UAB. With so many new faces, and old ones under new regimes, I thought I’d give a bit of an in-depth look into each team - how they’ve looked, what you should know, key players - the whole shebang. 

So this article is part one of what should amount to be a comprehensive preview of the American - where each team stands, what to look out for, and who to know.

This week, we'll start with a new face in the AAC, Charlotte.

*Important note here. All statistics and information are accurate up through noon on 3/18/24.

Recap of the 49ers' 2023:

In 2023, Charlotte concluded their 2023 campaign with a 36-28 record, going 17-12 in Conference-USA play. They had two wins against then No. 4 / later No. 9 South Carolina, as well as one against No. 7 Coastal Carolina. They won the C-USA tournament and were one win away from winning the Clemson regional, eliminating host No. 3 Clemson before falling to No. 16 Tennessee to end their season.

Despite the loss, the 49ers' 2023 season was a historic one for the program. The 64 games played by the 49ers set a new program record for the most games played in one season. Charlotte eliminated host Clemson from their own regional, marking the fourth win over Top 10 opponents and setting another record for the program. They also crossed 600 strikeouts in one season for the first time, ending the 2023 campaign with 619.

But it's a new season in a new conference, and the team looks vastly different from the one that made a postseason run last year.

49ers In '24:

In the preseason poll conducted by AAC head coaches, Charlotte was projected to finish second in the conference behind ECU. Yet, they currently sit with a record that’s been pretty consistently hovering around .500. (10-10), and they’re eighth out of ten in the conference standings headed into AAC play. Why is this, you may ask?

Inconsistency, a tough non-conference slate, a largely new team - all probable reasons. However, the biggest answer from an objective standpoint is inconsistency, primarily from the weekend starting rotation.

Look, I’ll be straight up. The starting rotation this year hasn’t been all that great. At times, they’ve even been downright bad. We’ve certainly seen glimpses of greatness, and it seems that the rotation is getting better in some ways as it continues to be shaken up. But it’s not what it needs to be. 

The best move the 49ers have made in regard to their starting rotation thus far is shifting lefthander Cole Reynolds to be the Friday night starter. Reynolds is a senior transfer from Elon, where he was a solid two-way player for the Phoenix before choosing to transfer to Charlotte and focus on his pitching. 

He made his season debut as the Sunday starter on opening weekend, and his next start came against West Virginia in game one of a Saturday doubleheader. At this point, the 49ers were still trying to figure out where he best fit in the rotation, but the staff knew he had the right stuff to be there. 

His first Friday start was March 1st at Old Dominion, and he pitched well enough to start the next Friday. And then the next one. Now, it seems like Charlotte’s found a good spot for Reynolds as the Friday night starter, and it's a role he's played well ever since. 

Since March 1st, when Reynolds made his first Friday start, he’s turned in three consecutive 5 inning performances, striking out 27 batters. He gave up only two runs on four hits through his first two Friday starts, and he held his own against a powerful UNCW lineup in his most recent one. His biggest struggle so far seems to be walks, as he’s given up seven free passes in his last three starts. But he's been solid overall. His 5.91 ERA is deceptive because, while he did struggle in his first couple starts this season, he’s been significantly better since becoming the Friday starter.

Reynolds’ numbers aside, what may be even more noticeable is that the 49ers are 3-0 on Fridays since his first Friday start. Whereas, before he was moved to that slot, they were 0-2 on Fridays. So, it seems that Reynolds may truly be developing into this year’s ace. 

The downside of moving Reynolds to Friday night? The 49ers are 0-6 in Saturday and Sunday games ever since. In each of Charlotte’s last three series, the 49ers have won on Friday, when Reynolds starts, only to drop the two remaining games to lose the series. In the past three series, they’ve been outscored a total of 12-43 in games on Saturday and Sunday.

A pattern like that is hard to ignore, and it's one Charlotte will need to fix if it hopes to be a contender in the American.

Although the starting rotation's lack of consistency is a problem, it's not the only one.  In terms of cumulative team batting average and ERA, Charlotte ranks eighth out of ten teams. Offense has also been inconsistent for the 49ers, seeming red hot one day and ice cold the next.

It's not that this team doesn't have offensive players. Just this past weekend, junior outfielder Thad Ector became only the sixth player in program history to hit three home runs in one game. He leads the team in most offensive categories, batting .361 with an OPS of 1.054. Senior infielder Brandon Stahlman leads the team in hits and RBI, with 23 and 16 respectively. Senior infielder Shane Taylor leads the team in walks with 20. They've got guys who can get on base - it's just a matter of advancing them and bringing them home.

Now, this team does look very different to the 49ers team that made it to a regional in 2023. Charlotte did lose last year’s starter Wyatt Hudepohl to the draft. They also lost a few bullpen arms between the draft and free agent deals. It’s understandable that pitching would be rather up in the air for Charlotte this season. Especially when you consider that this team is, for the most part, largely new. 

It is also worth considering that Charlotte's non-conference schedule was a big hurdle from the very beginning. They opened their season with a home series against Virginia Tech, who's off to their best ACC start to date through six games. They've also played weekend series against Maryland, UNCW, and Old Dominion, all of which have tendencies to be thorny opponents. They've been tested early and often, which is just a further complication for this team still trying to find their footing.

So perhaps the real issue with this year's team is that they just haven't quite figured out how everyone needs to come together to play their most efficient, competitive baseball. And that's to be expected, with so many new faces, and it being Charlotte's first year in a new conference.

So, really, it seems to me, that Charlotte has the potential to be a dangerous contender in this year's revamped AAC. They’re just not fully clicking on all cylinders, and they’re still trying to iron some things out.

An aspect of this team that has real potential to stand out is the bullpen. Charlotte has some real stars in their 'pen, especially in Tony Rossi and AJ Wilson.

Redshirt senior Tony Rossi, whom Charlotte head coach Robert Woodard has described as the team’s best reliever, missed last season due to injury, but his stuff so far this season has been unquestionably good. Rossi already has four saves under his belt, with an ERA of 1.93 in 9 appearances. Hitters are managing only .161 against the righty, whose pitch repertoire includes a fastball that touches 96-97 and a changeup to boot. Fifth-year senior AJ Wilson is having his best season as a 49er since transferring from ECU three years ago. Through 22.2 IP, batters are averaging only .127 against the senior, who, along with Rossi, are among the best bullpen arms in the conference.

However, I expect that we see things start to come together for this 49ers squad as conference play commences, and we'll see a team that's performing very differently toward the back end of the season.

Charlotte kicks off its first ever weekend of AAC play on the road against a familiar foe in Florida Atlantic. First pitch is set for 6:30 PM on March 22.

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