TERRE HAUTE —
Part of the intrigue of a college baseball tournament are the sub-plots each team has going into the week.
Sure, every team wants to win it to get the coveted automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but for some, a few wins in the bank might be good enough to call their tournament trip a success, or at least not a failure.
Given that the Missouri Valley Conference has had a solid season across the board, there are several teams that have at-large possibilities in their sights. One of them is Evansville.
Unlike the other seven teams in the field, Evansville has ace pitcher Kyle Freeland to point them in the right direction. And that’s a nice advantage to have.
Freeland, a left-handed Denver native, has perhaps risen higher in MLB Draft projections than any other pitcher in college baseball this season. Freeland has a sterling 10-1 record and stingy 1.62 earned-run average. He’s unbeaten in MVC play with a 6-0 mark and 1.34 ERA in league contests.
It’s Freeland’s command that wows you. He has 122 strikeouts against just nine walks.
“Kyle pounds the [strike] zone so he’s working with advantage counts,” said Evansville coach Wes Carroll with matter-of-fact understatement. “His walk-to-strikeout is phenomenal.”
What makes scouts drool is that Freeland is able to master control of three pitches — a devastating slider to go with a good changeup and fastball. Freeland also throws a curve.
“I’ve always had a good fastball and slider. This year, I feel completely comfortable with my curve and changeup. It’s helped me a lot this year,” said Freeland, who said he’s confident to throw any of his pitches despite the count.
Freeland’s draft stock has risen dramatically. Most mock MLB drafts have him in the top 10. Freeland won’t be the only potential first-round pick in the MVC Tournament field — Wichita State slugger Casey Gillaspie will also likely be chosen in the opening round — but Freeland’s influence on his championship-winning team sets him apart.
“Kyle’s been a leader for us on the field and has set the tone for us through the whole weekend,” Carroll said. “He’s handled the limelight very well and he’s given us a chance to win the conference.”
The tricky situation college teams find themselves in is how to handle a pitcher projected to be drafted as high as Freeland might. Indiana State dealt with the situation last season when Sean Manaea — later chosen in the compensatory sandwich round — was projected to be a high pick. Some players, with their agents-to-be in their ear, are advised to take it easy to avoid a draft-damaging injury.
Carroll said there’s been none of that from Freeland. He’s been committed to making the Aces the conference champion and hasn’t wavered in his commitment.
“It would’ve been easy for me to not care [about the team] and focus on the draft, but I know I wanted to help this team out,” Freeland said.
Carroll said Freeland’s selfless attitude has gone far in making Evansville’s season a success.
“We look at it as this is great for the program. He’s looks at it as bringing attention to the program. That’s the way Kyle is. Not once has he put himself in front of the team,” Carroll said.
Evansville will need Freeland to be on his game as the Aces are one of several MVC teams that will be need MVC Tournament success to polish their résumés.
Here’s the rundown on teams hoping to make their trip to Terre Haute a fruitful one (see related story on Indiana State):
n Evansville: Despite winning the league, the Aces’ RPI is just 58th overall, which might not be good enough for an at-large bid despite a solid year for the MVC overall. A two-and-out in the tournament could be fatal for the Aces. There is recent precedent for the league champion to make the field after an 0-2 MVC Tournament performance as ISU earned an at-large in 2012, but the Sycamores’ RPI was in the high 40s at the time. Evansville can’t leave anything to chance.
n Dallas Baptist: The Patriots have the next-healthiest RPI behind ISU at 35, but the fly in the ointment is a 2-9 record against the RPI top 50. Dallas Baptist, in its first year as a MVC full baseball-only member, is oft-mentioned as one of the last teams in or out in current NCAA projections. The Patriots need to have a successful tournament to build their case.
n Wichita State: The Shockers, the defending tournament champs, are usually in the at-large conversation, but have a RPI of 82 after inconsistency and injuries. The Shockers, however, were 7-3 in May, they’re confident and they’re always a threat.
n Illinois State: Once considered a solid at-large possibility, the Redbirds went 1-8 in May and dropped out of consideration. Illinois State’s route to the NCAA Tournament will now likely have to come via a tournament championship. The Redbirds are capable, however, with a solid pitching staff.
n Missouri State, Bradley and Southern Illinois: The three bottom seeds would all need a surprise MVC Tournament championship run to make the NCAA field. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Creighton won the tournament in 2012 as a No. 8 seed, beating No. 6-seeded Southern Illinois in the title game.