By: John Lockwood
After what seems like six very long, very cold and just all-around unpleasant weeks, the weather is finally starting to come to its senses just in time for 2011 Missouri Valley Conference play to begin this weekend. With—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—sun and warm temperatures forecast for the Midwest this weekend (keep your fingers crossed that the rain holds off until Monday), one can’t help but realize two things:
1) The novelty of playing a baseball game at home without having to wear five layers of spandex on underneath your uniform.
2) Some sort of nostalgia for playing a baseball game with five layers of spandex on underneath your uniform.
Sentimentality aside, the teams of the MVC will most certainly be welcoming the improved weather as they play their first of seven series this weekend. Week 1 promises several interesting match-ups, but none bigger than what could be a potential match-up of the MVC championship in May as first place Creighton (20-6) travels to Duffy Bass Field in Normal, IL to take on second place Illinois State (20-7).
Elsewhere in the first week of MVC conference play, third place Bradley (18-9) plays at Indiana State (17-10), SIU (8-19) visits Evansville (17-9) and Wichita State (20-11) travels to Springfield to take on heavy hitting Missouri State (17-10).
Creighton vs. Illinois State
Even though he hit his conference-leading seventh homerun of the season on Tuesday night, Creighton right-fielder Trever Adams couldn’t lift his team past visiting Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers beat the Jays 8-5 in Lincoln. To start conference play, Creighton travels to Bloomington, IL, to take on defending MVC-champs Illinois State. The Jays enter atop the standings with the second best team ERA in the conference (3.39). The Redbirds enter with the second-best record in the conference, but the best team ERA overall (3.22). While on its face, this series appears to come down to pitching, there are several other factors which will almost certainly help decide the series.
Offensively, the Jays are led by senior right-fielder Trever Adams who ranks first on the team in average (.388), hits (40), triples (3), homers (7), RBI (32), total bases (76), and slugging percentage (.738). However, even though they are managing a .280 average as a team, the Jays have the third worst strikeout to walk ratio (1.77 Ks/BB), average the fewest walks per game (3.15 BBs/game), and have the fewest walks in the conference.
On the other side, the Redbirds can hit, and hit well. Illinois State seniors Tyler McNeely and Zach Amrein each have six homeruns and with team-leading RBI totals of 28 and 29, respectively. The Redbirds are first in runs scored (214), OBP (.405), doubles (65) and homeruns (25), as well as second in slugging percentage (.462), and runs batted in (186). McNeely also has the second-best batting average in the Valley at .410.
Beyond pitching and homeruns, however, every team has a weakness. And for the Redbirds it’s their defense: Illinois State’s .957 fielding percentage is tied for worst in the league with Southern Illinois. Yet for Creighton it’s been a key to their (and their pitchers’) success: their .980 percentage is tops in the conference.
So, can Creighton’s pitching (and defense) top ISU’s pitching (and hitting)?
Prediction: Illinois State wins 2-1
Friday: So. LHP Ty Blach (5-0, 2.25 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Corey Maines (5-0, 1.91 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Jonas Dufek (4-0, 1.62 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Brad Sorkin (4-1, 3.67 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. LHP Greg Hellhake (2-1, 3.62 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Ryan Camp (3-0, 1.59 ERA)
Wichita State at Missouri State
Not to be out-done by their co-champions of last year’s regular season, the Shockers open up conference play against a re-energized Missouri State team—whose new additions are looking to make a splash against one of the toughest teams in the conference. After dropping the last two games of their series against Hawaii, the Shocker offense rebounded quickly against visiting Alcorn State—beating them 14-11 on Tuesday and 20-4 on Wednesday. MVC Player of the Week Chris O’Brien continued his hot streak, going 6-10, with a double, 7 RBI, and three runs scored. The Shockers will need their offense to remain hot after news that #1 starter Tim Kelley will be missing his next start. Kelley (3-1, 1.69 ERA) reported tightness in his throwing elbow after his start against Hawaii last weekend, and after still experiencing tightness during Thursday’s practice, pitching coach Brent Kemnitz decided to sit Kelley for the conference-opener. Most likely lefty Brian Flynn or lefty Albert Minnis will start in his place.
Missouri State, who comes in with a conference-best .317 batting average, is still riding high from their 5-1 midweek win over Big-12 rival Kansas. Sophomore righty Pierce Johnson pitched a complete game, allowing only one earned run and striking out ten. But it’s been transfers such as Spiker Helms (.315, 15 RBI), Brock Chaffin (.379, 10 2B, 21 RBI), and Brent Seifert (.339, 5 HR, 23 RBI) who have been leading the best hitting team in the Valley. For these newcomers, this will be their first meeting against perennial powerhouse Wichita State. However, they can rest comfortably knowing the hitter in front of them, third baseman Kevin Medrano, has absolutely eaten up Wichita State pitching: in eight career games against the Shockers, he’s batting .520 (13/25) with 3 homeruns, 6 RBI, and nine runs scored. With a conference-worst 4.66 team ERA, however, the Bears will need all the run support the can get.
Friday: Jr. LHP Josh Smith (4-1, 2.55 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Nick Petree (3-0, 2.92 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Charlie Lowell (4-4, 4.64 ERA) vs. So. RHP Grant Gordon (3-2, 4.31 ERA)
Sunday: TBA vs. Sr. RHP Blake Barber (3-2, 3.29 ERA)
Prediction: Shockers up 2-1
Bradley at Indiana State
Bradley travels to Terre Haute this weekend to take on Indiana State to kick off conference play. The Sycamores have won 11 of their last 12 including a midweek win over Ball State, 3-5. Junior Colin Rea (6-1, 3.33 ERA) leads a Sycamores staff with a collective 3.70 ERA, good for fourth in the conference. On the other side, the Bradley Braves are off to their best start since 1989. Friday night start Joe Bircher is coming off a seven inning win against Western Carolina in which he allowed five hits, one run (unearned), one walk and two strike-outs. As a team, Bradley is coming off a mid-week split, beating Illinois 7-4 on Tuesday, but losing to Northern Illinois 8-5 on Wednesday. The Braves are hitting .288 as a team, led by left fielder Mike Tauchman (.367, 19 RBI, 11 SB) and DH Brad Kimball (.313, 2 HR, 16 RBI).
Friday: Jr. LHP Joe Bircher (4-2, 2.89 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Colin Rea (6-1, 3.33 ERA)
Saturday: So. RHP John Nasshan (2-2, 4.46 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Jason Van Skike (2-1, 3.13 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. RHP Jacob Booden (3-0, 3.78 ERA) vs. Fr. LHP Sean Manaea (3-2, 3.69 ERA)
Prediction: 2-1 Indiana State
Southern Illinois at Evansville
Hard hitting Evansville rolls into Abe Martin Field this weekend after steamrolling Austin Peay at home 24-3. Nine different Purple Aces had RBI, with six having multi-hit games. Centerfielder Greg Wallace and first baseman Ryan Osterle both had homeruns, while stand-out Cody Fick hit his fourth and fifth homers on the season.
The Salukis hope the momentum from their second shutout of the season, a 9-0 win over visiting Murray State, will offset news that sophomore pitcher Aaron Snyder will miss the remainder of the season with season-ending elbow surgery. Snyder led Southern Illinois with 3 saves, carrying a 3.12 ERA in 8.2 innings pitched, with three walks and 8 Ks. Most immediately, this means the SIU bullpen will be limited to just eight pitchers for relief, compounding issues for a staff who has the highest batting average against (.286) in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Friday: So. RHP Kyle Lloyd (2-2, 5.15 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Camerson Maldonado (2-4, 6.61 ERA)
Saturday: Fr. LHP Cole Isom (3-2, 4.26 ERA) vs. So. LHP Cody Forsythe (2-3, 2.61 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Cody Fick (5-0, 1.91 ERA) vs. So. LHP Brad Drust (0-2, 4.60 ERA)
Prediction: Evansville 2-1