TERRE HAUTE — If you had to pick one word that would describe the 2013 Indiana State baseball season, it would have to be frustration.
The things that clicked during ISU’s 2012 Missouri Valley Conference championship campaign haven’t come together in 2013, particularly at the plate. ISU ranks last in the MVC in batting average (.247), slugging (.317) and home runs (6), and eight other offensive categories tracked by the MVC.
It was never going to be easy for a lineup that lost Jeremy Lucas, Jon Hedges, Lucas Hileman, Kyle Burnam and Ryan Walterhouse from its championship team, but some of the players that were expected to pick up the slack haven’t lived up to their preseason billing and others have seen production drop off.
It’s put ISU coach Rick Heller in a bind. Do you give up precious outs to move baserunners up via sacrifices and small ball? Or, because of the inconsistent situational hitting, do you keep those outs only to see them erased anyway via a double play groundout or fielder’s choice? It’s a circle the Sycamores have rarely squared.
Add in occasional ill-timed flame-outs by the bullpen, injuries to key arms — such as Daniel Peterson — and a rainy spring that has seen nine games get wiped off ISU’s intended slate, and the ability for the Sycamores to build any positive rhythm has seemingly been stymied at every turn.
Frustration. Its been the name of the game.
Despite all of this, I feel somewhat bullish about the Sycamores headed into next week’s MVC Tournament at Illinois State.
Pending results in ISU’s final regular season series against last-place Bradley — which starts tonight at Bob Warn Field — and Southern Illinois’ series against MVC leader Illinois State, the Sycamores will be seeded sixth or seventh in the MVC Tournament.
So why be bullish? The one thing that has been relatively consistent for the Sycamores has been its front line starting pitching. And if you have that, you’re in the mix as far as tournament contention is concerned.
Know this … the prospective teams that could face ISU as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed (could be any combination of Illinois State, Wichita State, Creighton or Missouri State) want absolutely no part of starting the tournament against ISU ace Sean Manaea.
He’s the kind of pitcher who can single-handedly put a team in a hitting funk that can ruin its whole tournament.
Manaea embodies ISU’s frustrating season. He injured his hip early in the campaign and has struggled through its effects all season.
Then again one man’s “struggle” is another man’s feast, and in Manaea’s case, there’s very little statistical evidence of the pain he’s fought through this season. Manaea has an ERA of 1.58 and has struck out 88 batters in 68 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .184 against the soon-to-be first round MLB draft pick. Some struggle, huh?
Manaea has been getting more comfortable since he received an injection for his hip pain earlier this month. He looked sharp against an admittedly subpar Alcorn State team last Friday, but will have a chance to build more positive momentum in his start against Bradley tonight.
Flying under the radar has been ISU’s second starting pitcher — Devin Moore. He has quietly had a very good season. Moore’s ERA is 2.74, he’s struck out 54 batters and opponents have hit just .214 against him.
Moore provides the back-end of a potent 1-2 punch on the mound for ISU. Manaea and Moore are the primary contributors as ISU has third-best ERA in the MVC at 3.50.
You might be telling yourself, “That’s great, Mr. Optimistic, but if you can’t hit …”
Certainly, ISU will have to get its bats going. But one need only turn back the clock one year to find a MVC tournament champion that fits ISU’s profile.
Going into its final 2012 MVC series, Creighton was far worse at the plate than ISU is now. The Bluejays were batting .236, and up until the MVC Tournament opened at Missouri State, they were considered an underachieving, No. 8-seeded afterthought who would quickly bow to presumed contenders ISU and Missouri State.
But armed with good pitching — Creighton’s ERA of 3.50 entering its final series is identical to ISU’s current rating — the Bluejays buckled down and won the whole darn thing.
ISU was the Bluejays’ first victim, and like the current Sycamores have with Manaea now, the Bluejays had a starting pitcher — Ty Bloch — who got them pointed in the right direction in that first 2012 contest. A NCAA Tournament appearance at UCLA was the Bluejays’ reward.
So it can be done, and ISU still has some players in the lineup (Robby Ort, Koby Kraemer) who have done damage at the plate in the past. The Sycamores usually don’t hurt themselves in the field either — ISU is currently third in the MVC with a .973 fielding percentage.
If Manaea and Moore can get ISU pointed in the right direction, and if the offense can provide run support, the Sycamores can start 2-0 start in the tournament.
That’s the key. If a team avoids the loser’s bracket in the first two days, and the arm-devouring route of trying to advance the long way by playing twice in one day, they will be in wonderful shape no matter their seed. The Sycamores’ pitching is depleted past that 1-2 duo, but nearly every other team will have dipped into their reserves by then too.
It can happen. Frustration has been the name for ISU baseball. But the Sycamores still possess the talent to turn frustration into jubilation at Illinois State next week.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.