By: John Lockwood
The final week of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season is upon us, but things are far from set in stone as four teams sit within two games of each other at the top of the standings. The conference schedulers really did save the best for last, as first-place Creighton will host second-place Missouri State in a series that could decide the MVC regular season champions. “Could” is the operative word in that sentence, as Wichita State—with a sweep over last-place Bradley this weekend—could (see scenarios below) find themselves atop the standings to end the season for the second year in a row. Illinois State, currently in fourth, will hope to improve their seed for the conference tournament as they host Evansville, who will be looking to crack into the top half of the standings after dropping their last two MVC series. Southern Illinois, who commands a 9-9 record despite holding the worst overall record in the conference, will head on the road to finish the season against Indiana State. To allow an extra day before the State Farm MVC Baseball Championship starts next Tuesday, this week’s games will start Thursday.
Just to recap, the possible scenarios which could play out this weekend and their implications on the MVC regular season championship are as follows:
- Creighton sweeps Missouri State; CU wins championship.
- Missouri State sweeps Creighton; MSU wins championship.
- Wichita State sweeps Bradley, and MSU-CU series ends 2-1; WSU wins championship.
- Bradley wins at least one game against Wichita State, whoever wins MSU-CU series is regular season champion.
Missouri State (31-18, 11-6) will be looking to regain the regular season championship title it won in 2009 when it travels to TD Ameritrade Park tomorrow to take on Creighton (36-13, 12-6). The Jays are looking for their first regular season title since 2005, when they won 17-7 in the then nine-team conference. CU is coming off a 5-3 come from behind win over Iowa on Tuesday. Creighton was down 3-2 after the third inning, but tied the game in the seventh and scored two more in the top of the ninth thanks to RBI singles from Nick Judkins and Jimmy Swift. It was the 290th win for Coach Ed Servais who moves into first place all-time for career wins in program history.
In conference play this season, both teams match-up very evenly with Missouri State the better hitting team by just a hundredth of a point at .274 compared to Creighton’s .273. Unquestionably, starting pitching has been key to both teams’ success this season. For Missouri State, the emergence of Nick Petree as the team’s number one starter has been paramount, as the freshman righty has piloted his team to a 5-1 record in-conference, and 8-1 overall. Senior Blake Barber has also been crucial going 4-1 with a 2.77 ERA in this his final Missouri Valley campaign. However, no two starting pitchers have been more important for their club this season than the duo of Jonas Dufek and Ty Blach for the Jays. Dufek and Blach have combined for a 17-2 record and 175 K’s, while sporting sub-3 ERA’s—2.32 and 2.53, respectively. As for the bullpens, while Creighton has four relievers with ERA’s under 3.19, the Bears have Dan Kickham who leads the league in saves (13). However, since Kickham had his streak of 22.2 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run snapped against Illinois State, the junior has allowed four earned runs in five innings of work, including giving up a 3-0 lead this past Tuesday in the Bears 4-3 victory over #28 Oklahoma State. Add to this Kickham’s taxing appearances in the Bears’ past four straight games, and hopefully the foundation of the Bears’ bullpen will be ready when called upon for three biggest games of Missouri States’ season. Game one starts at 12 pm CT, in Omaha.
The outcome of the Missouri State-Creighton series will have the most direct implications for Wichita State (33-24, 11-7), who have a very realistic shot (as unfortunate for the Braves as that might sound) of winning the regular season championship as they head on the road to face Bradley (22-27, 4-14). The Shockers have been rolling of late, winners of their last 5 of 8 and coming off the first home win over inter-state rival Kansas State since 2006—as they beat the Wildcats 7-6 in 11 innings on Tuesday. No one has been hotter that junior Chris O’Brien who carries a career-best 21-game hitting streak into this weekend (O’Brien went 0-0 with a walk in a pinch hit appearance in the game against KSU). O’Brien has batted .439 during that hitting streak with two homeruns, eight doubles, 15 runs batted in and 17 runs scored; and is batting an MVC-best .486 in conference games this season. Despite losing their last four and going 2-11 in their last thirteen, there has been one bright spot for the Braves as of late: In the past six games the starting trio of Joe Bircher, Tony Doerr and John Nasshan have been electric e, allowing just 16 hits during that span and boasting a 1.50 ERA through the first six innings. However, still disconcerting is BU’s 6.09 overall ERA in conference play and the fact that they have been outscored 83-39 in their past 13 games. BU’s best chance of playing spoiler will come in game one when they send Bircher (2-3, 2.49 ERA in-conference) to the mound—albeit against junior Charlie Lowell who has the best numbers in MVC games this year (5-0, 0.79 ERA ).
Elsewhere in the MVC, Illinois State (32-16, 10-8) will try to improve its place in the standings come tournament time, but will have to contend with an Evansville (28-20, 7-10) team hoping to rebound from two straight series losses (at Indiana State, vs. Creighton). The Redbirds, who with their 9-4 win over Western Illinois Tuesday evening, are just three wins away from tying their single-season record held by the 1999 team. Pitching has been key for the Redbirds this season, as Coach Billy Mohl has transformed a staff that finished last season with a 5.36 team ERA, into a team with far and away league bests in ERA (3.28) and strike-out to walk ratio (2.31 K/BB). While starters Corey Maines (8-3, 2.80 ERA, 93K) and JD Learnard (7-2, 3.68 ERA) have anchored the Redbirds’ rotation this season, the bullpen has been the best in the conference bolstered by three relievers (Jay Wielebnicki, Kenny Long and Justin Hauer) all boasting sub-1.35 ERAs in at least 23.2 innings of work each, and combining for 103 strikeouts. They will have their work cut-out for them this weekend as they take on the second-best hitting team in the conference: the Purple Aces are hitting a combined .288, led by senior Cody Fick who is hitting .403 on the season with 9 homeruns and an MVC-best 68 runs batted in.
Last, but certainly not least, Southern Illinois (20-31, 9-9) wraps up this season on the road at Indiana State (25-24, 7-11). The Salukis are coming of a 14-4 pounding of 2010 Atlantic-10 champions St. Louis, in St. Louis Tuesday night. Second baseman Brock Harding and centerfielder Chris Murphy had career-games, with the two combining for 10 hits, 3 doubles, a triple, 6 RBI and 5 runs scored. The man to watch this weekend will be SIU left-handed starter Cody Forsythe (8-3, 1.85 ERA). Through six MVC starts this season, the sophomore is 6-0 with a sterling 1.02 ERA. Forsythe will attempt to become just the fourth pitcher in conference history to go undefeated in-conference, with all three going on to win MVC Pitcher of the Year honors.
Missouri State at Creighton
Thursday: Fr. RHP Nick Petree (8-1, 2.89 ERA) vs. Sr. Jonas Dufek (8-1, 2.38 ERA)
Friday: Sr. RHP Blake Barber (7-3, 3.04 ERA) vs. So. LHP Ty Blach (9-1, 2.53 ERA)
Saturday: TBA vs. TBA
Wichita State at Bradley
Thursday: Jr. LHP Charlie Lowell (9-4, 2.66 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Joe Bircher (6-5, 2.70 ERA)
Friday: So. LHP Brian Flynn (2-3, 3.79 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Tony Doerr (2-3, 3.79 ERA)
Saturday: Jr. LHP Josh Smith (6-3, 2.57 ERA) vs. So. RHP John Nasshan (3-6, 5.18 ERA)
Evansville at Illinois State
Thursday: Sr. RHP Corey Maines (8-3, 2.79 ERA) vs. So. RHP Kyle Lloyd (4-5, 4.31 ERA)
Friday: Fr. RHP Dan Savas (3-4, 4.29 ERA) vs. Fr. LHP Cole Isom (5-5, 4.84 ERA)
Saturday: So. RHP JD Learnard (7-2, 3.68 ERA) vs. TBA
Prediction: ISU 2-1
Southern Illinois at Indiana State
Thursday: So. LHP Cody Forsythe (8-3, 1.85 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Colin Rea (6-4, 4.00 ERA)
Friday: Jr. RHP Cameron Maldonado (3-7, 7.31 ERA) vs. Fr. LHP Sean Manaea (5-3, 3.94 ERA)
Saturday: Sr. RHP Andrew Bever (4-3, 3.54 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Jason Van Skike (4-4, 3.84 ERA)
Prediction: SIU 2-1
(Note: In case you didn’t feel like putting two and two together, I’m predicting Wichita State as 2011 MVC Regular Season Champs)