By: John Lockwood
With two weeks remaining in MVC conference play, the Creighton Jays sit atop the conference standings with a 10-5 conference record, one-game ahead of Wichita State at 9-6. Meanwhile, Illinois State and Southern Illinois remain tied for fourth at 8-7, a half-game behind Missouri State (8-6) who had a game of their Evansville series cancelled due to rain.
Illinois State (28-15, 8-7) heads to Carbondale this weekend to take on Southern Illinois (18-29, 8-7), as the Redbirds hope to rebound after dropping last weekend’s series to Missouri State at home. ISU took a step in the right direction by beating in-state rival Eastern Illinois 5-2 Wednesday afternoon in Charleston, Ill. The Redbirds had to come from behind, down 2-0 going into the eighth inning, but scored three in the eighth and two more in the ninth to notch the non-conference victory. The Redbird bullpen, which remains the best in the conference, tossed 3.2 innings of scoreless relief to pick up the W. Pitching has been the one saving grace for Illinois State as despite a .280 team batting average on the season, the Redbirds are hitting just .253 in conference play. The duo of Kenny Long and Justin Hauer has been the best 1-2 combination out of the bullpen in the MVC this season: the two have combined for 21 innings without allowing an earned run while totaling 33 strikeouts. Looking to win the battle for fourth-place, the Salukis come into this weekend scuffling: They have won only three of their last eight, and have gone 2-4 against the Valley since starting conference play 6-3. To make matters worse, SIU is just 4-11 at home and hasn’t won a home series all season. The one bright spot for the Salukis has been left-handed sophomore Cody Forsythe (7-3) who has a league-best 1.98 ERA and has won his last five starts. Forsythe—who is trying to be the first Saluki to win six games in conference since 2005—makes his first career Friday night start against the Redbirds’ Corey Maines (8-2), who leads his team in wins, ERA (among starters), innings pitched, and strikeouts—in addition to being ISU’s career wins leader.
First-place Creighton (33-12, 10-5) heads on the road for their final away series of the season, rolling into Evansville (26-17, 6-8) to take on the Purple Aces. The Jays are coming off an uneasy 9-8 win over long-time rival Nebraska at TD Ameritrade Park Tuesday evening. Creighton built up a 9-0 lead after the third inning, but the Cornhuskers scored in four consecutive innings to pull back within one by the end of six. However, Jay relievers Reese McGraw and Kurt Spomer pitched three scoreless innings to close out the game and pick up the win in front of a 17,588-strong crowd. With the win, CU is 6-2 in their last eight, with the two losses coming in last weekend’s series against Wichita State. The Jays are led by Trever Adams who is hitting .462 during his 10-game hitting streak and is in the top three in the MVC in average, homer runs and RBI. Across the diamond, Evansville is led offensively by senior Cody Fick who is first in the league in batting average (.409) and RBI (61). The Aces will hope to use their 8-3 win over Austin Peay Wednesday night to regain the momentum that they were building before last weekend’s series against Indiana State, which they lost 2-1.
The MVC Players of the Week go head-to-head this weekend as righty Joe Bircher (6-4, 2.41) and Bradley (22-23, 4-11) travel to Springfield to take on Missouri State (27-18, 8-6) and second baseman Kevin Medrano (.335, 27 RBI, 29 R). Fresh off winning their first MVC series of the season, Bradley hopes to get some more solid pitching from its starters, as shutouts from Bircher and sophomore righty John Nasshan (3-5) carried the Braves to their two victories against Southern Illinois. Those two pitching performances were definite bright spots in what has been a dour season for the last place Braves: BU is last in pitching (4.86 ERA) and fielding (.957) and second to last in hitting (.272, SIU is at .271). Going against them is also the fact that Bradley has not won an MVC away series since 2008. Missouri State comes into the game the Valley’s best hitting team (.301) and winners of three of their last four. Medrano hit .438 last week with six RBI and six stolen bases to earn Player of the Week honors.
Rounding out this weekend’s play, Wichita State (30-23, 9-6) hosts Indiana State (24-22, 6-9) for their last home stand of the season. The Shockers are coming off an 8-7 loss to Oral Roberts Tuesday night at Eck Stadium. WSU carried a 7-4 advantage into the ninth inning, but the normally automatic Cale Elam could not retire a batter in the inning en route to surrendering four runs to the Golden Eagles in the top of the ninth. Elam immediately walked the first batter to lead off the inning, then surrendered four straight hits before coach Stephenson made the move to TJ McGreevy who was able to keep ORU off the board. However, Oral Roberts closer Matt Rush shutdown the Shocks in the bottom of the inning to pick up his eighth save of the season and preserve the win. Catcher Chris O’Brien continues to be the most dominant hitter in conference play adding to his league-best batting average (.485 at week’s end), by going 7-14 against a bevy of talented Creighton pitchers, with two doubles and four runs scored. Shortstop Tyler Grimes also had a good series, hitting .384 with a homerun, two stolen bases and three runs scored. However, Grimes also committed three errors over the weekend at shortstop, bringing his total on the season to 28—the most by any player at any position in the MVC. This is made all the more ironic given Coach Gene Stephenson’s “emphasis” (as I’ll term it) on defense this season—as well as his proclivity for post-game meltdowns. While common sense would dictate that Grimes should just be moved from short, his offensive numbers—he leads the team in on-base percentage (.481), walks (46), runs (60) and stolen bases (24)—combined with the success of current DH Preston Springer (.320, 8 HR, 49 RBI), have made it very difficult for Coach Stephenson to negotiate his place in the line-up let alone in the field. Game one starts at 7:30 pm ET, Friday at Eck Stadium.
Illinois State at Southern Illinois
Friday: Sr. RHP Corey Maines (8-2, 2.75 ERA) vs. So. LHP Cody Forsythe (7-3, 1.98 ERA)
Saturday: Fr. RHP Dan Savas (3-4, 4.08 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Cameron Maldonado (3-7, 6.75 ERA)
Sunday: So. RHP JD Learnard (6-2, 3.88 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Andrew Bever (4-4, 3.18 ERA)
Prediction: ISU 2-1
Creighton at Evansville
Friday: Sr. RHP Jonas Dufek (8-1, 2.46 ERA) vs. So. RHP Kyle Lloyd (4-5, 4.60 ERA)
Saturday: So. LHP Ty Blach (8-1, 2.77 ERA) vs. Fr. LHP Cole Isom (5-4, 4.95 ERA)
Sunday: TBA vs. Sr. RHP Cody Fick (6-3, 2.57 ERA)
Prediction: CU 2-1
Bradley at Missouri State
Friday: Jr. LHP Joe Bircher (6-4, 2.41 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Nick Petree (7-1, 2.84 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Tony Doerr (2-2, 4.01 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Blake Barber (6-3, 3.25 ERA)
Sunday: So. RHP John Nasshan (2-5, 5.61 ERA) vs. TBA
Prediction: MSU 3-0
Indiana State at Wichita State
Friday: Jr. RHP Colin Rea (6-4, 4.38 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Charlie Lowell (9-4, 2.89ERA)
Saturday: Fr. LHP Sean Manaea (4-3, 4.35) vs. So. LHP Brian Flynn (4-3, 4.80 ERA)
Sunday: Sr. RHP Jason Van Skike (4-3, 3.55 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Josh Smith (5-3, 3.92 ERA)
Prediction: WSU 3-0