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Missouri Valley Conference Weekend Preview (April 15th-17th)

By: John Lockwood
After a very exciting first week of Missouri Valley Conference play, the red hot Salukis of Southern Illinois sit atop the conference (at least for the time being) with a spotless 3-0 record after sweeping Evansville last weekend. Creighton, Indiana State and Missouri State are all tied for second with 2-1 conference records. The mid-week was not particularly kind to the teams of the Valley however, as the MVC posted a combined record of 3-7 on Tuesday and Wednesday. As well, in the four games against SEC/Big 12 teams, the conference was just 1-3—with the lone win coming in Creighton’s 7-6 walk-off finish against Kansas State.

Coming off a tremendous three-game sweep of the Purple Aces, Southern Illinois (11-20, 3-0) is on a tear going 5-1 in their last six games, after starting the year with a dismal 6-19 record. Although dropping Tuesday’s game to Southeastern Missouri 14-8, the Saluki’s rebounded Wednesday thanks to senior Andrew Bever’s 3-0 shut-out of Big Ten foe Illinois. The right-hander went eight innings, scattering just five hits, walking none and posting six Ks—a career-high. Freshman Tyler Dray picked up his team-leading fifth save of the season. Starting pitching has been key for interim coach Ken Henderson’s squad—made all the more important by the fact that they have one of the thinnest bullpens in the country. And this importance has shown: in the Salukis’ last five wins, their starters have surrendered just three earned runs—combined. Said Henderson after the game, “When you get a performance like that midweek, it gives us a lot of momentum and confidence going into the weekend, which is very comforting.” Comforting yes, until he realizes that they are facing the toughest-hitting team in the conference in Missouri State (19-12, 2-1)—who are coming off a heart-breaking loss, 2-1, against #13 Arkansas on Tuesday. The Salukis will need to get strong starts again from the trio of Maldonado, Forsythe and Drust if they hope to continue their winning ways: The Bears are hitting a combined .309 as a team, led by senior lead-off hitter Aaron Conway who is hitting .397 with 32 runs scored. Conway sat out Tuesday’s loss with concussion-like symptoms after colliding with the outfield wall in Sunday’s game against Wichita. He is expected to play this weekend.

Creighton (23-7, 2-1), who posted a big win against visiting Kansas State in what was the Jays’ last game at the CU Sports Complex, travels to Indiana State (19-11, 2-1) this weekend to take on the Sycamores, who lost 6-3 to instate rival Indiana on Wednesday night. Creighton played a back-and-forth game against K-State, leading 6-4 going into the top of the ninth when Wildcats first baseman Wade Hinkle hit a two-run homer to knot things up at six. Luckily for the Jays, the KSU bullpen likewise imploded, allowing left fielder Joey Bowens to score the winning run on a bases-loaded walk. The Jays’ duo of lefty Ty Blach (5-0, 2.58 ERA) and senior Jonas Dufek (5-0, 1.78 ERA) will look to tame a Sycamores team batting .295 collectively—led by right fielder Robby Ort who is hitting .358 on the season with six homeruns and 38 RBI, both team highs. CU opens up play at its new ballpark, TD Ameritrade Park (new home of the College World Series as well), next Tuesday against Nebraska.

Last year’s MVC tournament champs Illinois State (21-10, 1-2), will look to rebound after dropping their series against Creighton last weekend, as they head to Peoria to take on I-74 rival Bradley (19-11,1-2). The Braves, who escaped a sweep from Indiana State last weekend, dropped their midweek game against Western Illinois 6-4 on Wednesday. (On a funnier note, when I went to read the recap of the game off the Braves’ website, I was a little taken back by the article’s somber, somewhat depressing title, which simply read: “Missed Opportunities.” Let’s hope that’s the last time they let coach Dominguez pick the title of the article.) On a much brighter note, the Redbirds bullpen was bolstered by the return of closer Kenny Long, who pitched an inning in relief during the Redbirds 4-1 loss to Northern Illinois Tuesday afternoon. Freshman righty Dan Savas will get the start for the Redbirds on Saturday. Savas will try to carry momentum from his relief appearance over the weekend, when he struck out a career-high 12 batters in six and two thirds innings against the Jays.

Lastly, Evansville (18-12, 0-3) will look to get in the conference win column this weekend as they travel to Wichita State (21-14, 1-2). Coach Carroll’s squad hopes to build off a 6-4 win Tuesday against the Bilikens of St. Louis. The Purple Aces got an impeccable start from sophomore Josh Biggs, who tossed a complete game giving up no earned runs on five hits and a walk while striking out six. While the Purple Aces had multi-hit days from five different players, they still stranded ten runners on base, something which plagued them in last weekend’s series against Southern Illinois—in which they left twenty-eight runners on base. Across the diamond however, the Shockers are facing some struggles of their own. Since March 25, the Shockers are 6-9, including a 1-4 record in their last five games. While their pitching has put up a respectable 3.80 ERA over that five game span, their hitting has been somewhat enigmatic. Over those same five games, the Shockers have posted a misleading team batting average of .255. I say misleading because when you subtract catcher Chris O’Brien’s performance (.391), that average drops dramatically to .205. As well, the question mark surrounding #1 starter Tim Kelley looms large over the Shockers pitching corps. Kelley will be missing his second straight start and a prolonged loss of the big righty could be a serious blow to a pitching staff that has appeared exhausted ever since their series against Oregon.

Probables:

Missouri State at Southern Illinois

Friday: Fr. RHP Nick Petree (4-0, 2.80 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Camerson Maldonado (3-4, 5.22 ERA)
Saturday: So. RHP Grant Gordon (3-3, 4.18 ERA) vs. So. LHP Cody Forsythe (3-3, 2.44 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Blake Barber (4-2, 3.56 ERA) vs. So. LHP Brad Drust (1-2, 3.80 ERA)

Prediction: MSU 2-1

Illinois State at Bradley

Friday: Sr. RHP Corey Maines (6-0, 2.01 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Joe Bircher (4-2, 2.94 ERA)
Saturday: Fr. RHP Dan Savas (2-1, 3.94 ERA) vs. So. RHP John Nasshan (2-3, 5.82 ERA)
Sunday: So. RHP JD Learnard (3-2, 3.92 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Jacob Booden (3-0, 3.96 ERA)

Prediction: ISU 2-1

Creighton at Indiana State

Friday: So. LHP Ty Blach (5-0, 2.58 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Colin Rea (6-1, 3.57 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Jonas Dufek (5-0, 1.78 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Jason Van Skike (3-1, 3.83 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. LHP Greg Hellhake (3-1, 3.62 ERA) vs. Fr. LHP Sean Manaea (3-2, 4.14 ERA)

Prediction: CU 2-1

Evansville at Wichita State

Friday: Jr. LHP Josh Smith (4-2, 3.00 ERA) vs. So. RHP Kyle Lloyd (2-3, 4.76 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Charlie Lowell (5-4, 4.09 ERA) vs. Fr. LHP Cole Isom (3-3, 4.50 ERA)
Sunday: TBD vs. Sr. RHP Cody Fick (5-1, 2.77 ERA)

Prediction: WSU 2-1