By: John Lockwood
This weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference action promises plenty of exciting baseball—and even a little history in the making—as four of the top five teams get set to play each other Friday night. Illinois State (24-10, 4-2) travels to Wichita State (23-17, 3-3) in a highly-anticipated rematch of last year’s MVC State Farm Tournament Championship, while #29 Creighton (26-8, 5-1)—who crack the Top 30 for the first time this season—will host Southern Illinois (13-23, 4-2) in the first ever series at the brand new TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. Elsewhere in conference play, Evansville (20-14, 1-5) will look to right its season against a struggling Bradley (19-15, 1-5) in Peoria, while Missouri State (21-14, 4-2) hopes to build off of last week’s series victory over SIU in a three-game set at home against Indiana State (19-16, 2-4).
Illinois State at Wichita State
This week’s must-watch matchup is between last year’s regular season co-champions, and tournament finalists, Illinois State and Wichita State. Although they posted big numbers over the weekend against a pitching-deficient Evansville team, the Shockers are just 3-5 in their last eight games, including a close 5-3 loss to #20 Oklahoma State, Tuesday night in Stillwater. Down 3-2 in the eighth, Preston Springer launched his 6th homer of the year—and fourth in the past four games—off of Cowboys’ reliever Blake Barnes to tie the game. However, Shockers’ reliever Grant Muncrief (1-2) wasn’t able to keep his team in the game, surrendering an RBI double to OSU left-fielder Nico Rosthenhausler and allowing the Cowboys to go home the victors. While Gene Stephenson didn’t have another post-game outburst, in which he ranted for several minutes about the incompetence of his team and just generally derided his players’ lack of character like he did last week after the Shockers’ loss to K-State, he did not exactly go lightly on his defense which committed two errors on the night: “We scored enough to win,” Stephenson said. “The mistakes we make on routine plays are absurd.”
And this was Stephenson in a good mood. Earlier on Tuesday, the team received news that senior number one starter Tim Kelley’s MRI revealed only a strained flexor muscle that should not require surgery. Kelley will miss this weekend’s series and a timetable has not been set on his return. However, the news was not so good for sophomore Tobin Mateychick, whose elbow injury—which has sidelined him since March 6th—turned out to be an ulnar collateral ligament tear and will require Tommy John surgery which he is set to undergo Friday.
Across the diamond, the Redbirds are coming into the game after a three-game sweep of I-75 rival Bradley on the road. The Redbirds come into Eck Stadium armed with the best pitching staff in the Valley, carrying league bests in ERA (3.31) and Ks per 9 innings (8.6). A big test for the Redbirds will be how Friday night starter Corey Maines (a conference-best 7-0, 1.95 ERA), fairs against the resurgent trio of Chris O’Brien (who has to be the front-runner for the Joe Carter award at this point), Preston Springer (last week’s MVC player of the week) and Johnny Coy (who was 8-15 against Evansville last weekend). Coach Stephenson has elected to send three lefties to the mount this weekend against the Redbirds, while freshman righty Dan Savas—who has struck out 21 batters in his last 11.2 innings pitched—will get the start Saturday night for ISU.
Friday: Jr. LHP Charlie Lowell (6-4, 3.53 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Corey Maines (7-0, 1.95 ERA)
Saturday: So. LHP Brian Flynn (3-1, 4.67 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Dan Savas (3-1, 3.41 ERA)
Sunday: Jr. LHP Josh Smith (4-2, 3.45 ERA) vs. So. RHP JD Learnard (3-2, 4.30 ERA)
Southern Illinois at #29 Creighton
Meanwhile, Valley #1 Creighton hosts Southern Illinois for the first ever series at TD Ameritrade Park—home of the 2011 College World Series—in Omaha. The Jays are looking to rebound from a tough loss to Nebraska Tuesday night, 2-1 in which 22,197 fans were on-hand, the ninth largest crowd in regular season history. Creighton scored the first run in TD Ameritrade Park history when Trever Adams scored on a Mike Gerber RBI single up the middle. However, three CU errors led to unearned runs in the third and sixth, and the Jays were never able to get things going against Cornhusker reliever Logan Ehlers (1-1)—who picked up the win with 5.1 innings of relief. The Saluki’s are likewise hoping to rebound from a poor performance against UT-Martin, in which they surrendered three unearned runs on three errors and lost 5-3 at home. While both teams will look to improve upon their defense from their mid-week games, Creighton may rest a little easier knowing that they have the nation’s top fielding percentage over the last eight seasons while the Salukis .955 mark is tied for worst in the MVC. SIU junior Jordan Sivertsen will hope to continue to drive in runs (he has 10 RBIs over his last four games) against the starting duo of CU’s Ty Blach (6-0, 2.18 ERA) and Jonas Dufek (6-0, 2.31). Interim coach Ken Henderson will hand the ball to his hottest starter Cody Forsythe (4-3, 2.31 ERA) Saturday night in hopes that he can contain one of the best hitters in the league in Trever Adams (.400, 10 HR, 44 RBI). Unfortunately for Coach Henderson’s squad, they will still have to contend with Adams on Friday and Sunday as well.
Friday: Jr. RHP Cameron Maldonado (3-5, 6.24 ERA) vs. So. LHP Ty Blach (6-0, 2.18 ERA)
Saturday: So. LHP Cody Forsythe (4-3, 2.31 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Jonas Dufek (6-0, 2.31 ERA)
Sunday: So. LHP Brad Drust (1-2, 3.56 ERA) vs. Sr. LHP Greg Hellhake (3-1, 3.86 ERA)
Prediction: Creighton 3-0
Evansville at Bradley
Evansville was able to bear the early-season losses of #1 and #2 starters senior Zach Taylor and sophomore Sam Johns, going into conference play with a very respectable 17-9 record. But since going 1-5 in their last two series—giving up an average of just over 8 runs per game—the void left by these two big losses is becoming more apparent each and every game. While Bradley is hitting a conference-median .284 as a team, senior left field Mike Tauchman is tied for fourth in the league (with ISU’s Tyler McNeely) for a .381 batting average and junior Brad Kimball was 5-10 against ISU with HR and 4 RBI over the weekend. For the time being, it appears, the Purple Aces will need to continue their current strategy of simply scoring more runs than the other team—as evidenced in their 12-11 win over Wichita last Friday. Fortunately for Evansville, hitting has not been an issue as they remain second in the league in batting average (.305). Bradley will look to bounce-back from a tough 10-9 loss to in-state rivals SIU Edwardsville (who were 2-0 against the MVC this week, see below), and end a season-high five game losing streak.
Friday: So. RHP Kyle Lloyd (3-3, 5.54 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Joe Bircher (4-3, 2.90 ERA)
Saturday: Fr. LHP Cole Isom (3-4, 5.21 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Tory Doerr (2-0, 3.18 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Cody Fick (5-2, 3.13 ERA) vs. So. RHP John Nasshan (2-4, 6.04 ERA)
Prediction: Evansville 2-1
Indiana State at Missouri State
Heading into April 10th, Indiana State was the hottest team in the Valley winning eight straight games, including two against Bradley to start off conference play. However since game three of that series, the Sycamores have lost six straight decisions, as their pitchers have compiled a 5.16 ERA during that stretch. To add to their woes, they dropped a 4-2 decision to SIU Edwardsville Tuesday night, as reliever Chris Machado allowed a game-winning two-run homerun in the bottom of the eighth to put SIUE ahead for good. On the other side, Missouri State has not had an easy schedule by any means, playing Kansas twice (winning both times), Wichita State (taking two of three), #16 Arkansas (losing 2-1), and Kansas State this past Tuesday—a decision they dropped 10-4. The Bears host the Sycamores this weekend hoping that their pair of JUCO transfers Brock Chaffin (.358, 3 HR, 21 RBI) and Brent Seifert (.303, 7 HR, 28 RBI) will be able to lead the Valley’s best hitting team past an Indiana State team armed with a dynamic duo of their own: sophomores Koby Kraemer (.364, 51 H, 31 RBI) and Robby Ort (.360, 8 HR, 32 RBI).
Friday: Jr. RHP Colin Rea (6-2, 3.39 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Nick Petree (5-0, 2.77 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Jason Van Skike (3-2, 4.10 ERA) vs. So. RHP Grant Gordon (3-4, 4.25 ERA)
Sunday: Fr. LHP Sea Manaea (3-2, 4.38 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Blake Barber (5-2, 3.76 ERA)
Prediction: MSU 2-1