TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State’s baseball team has been waiting all season for its stars to align.
But this is the 2013 Sycamores, after all, and after a season in which seemingly little has gone right, it appears its stars will remain crossed at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
ISU and Creighton kickoff the double-elimination tournament at 10 a.m. today at Illinois State’s Duffy Bass Field.
For the second week in a row, the status of ISU pitching ace Sean Manaea is in doubt. Manaea has been suffering from a sore hip for the majority of the season. After a cortisone shot in early May gave him some relief, the pain has returned, and though Manaea is still scheduled to start this morning, it is not a certainty, and it will be a game-time decision.
ISU coach Rick Heller lamented Manaea’s health — and the effect it has had on the Sycamores’ fortunes.
“It will depend on how sore he is,” said Heller on Manaea’s status. “We feel like when Sean is healthy, we’re the best team in the country. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy and we haven’t been able to go into games with the confidence we have when he’s at his best. He’s battled, though, and no one is going to want to face him regardless.”
Working in Manaea’s favor, should he pitch, is the fear factor he generates in opponents. No one wants to see Manaea in the tournament.
Manaea earned a victory over Creighton on a Saturday earlier this season when he was in the midst of worst pre-injection hip pain. He struck out eight and walked four. However, the Bluejays did defeat Manaea in the 2012 MVC Tournament opener.
Manaea himself doesn’t put much into the intimidation he can allegedly force upon his foes.
“I’m just going to go out there and do the best I can do,” Manaea said. “I don’t really about whether the other team wants to see me or not, I just try to go out there and have fun with it.”
Manaea also has a chance to set ISU’s all-time strikeout record. He has 290 career punch-outs and is currently third behind Mark Gardiner and Casey Whitten. With seven strikeouts, he’ll pass Gardiner. With 10, he’d pass Whitten.
The MVC Tournament presents a hurdle for No. 1 starters of all teams and of any quality. The short turnaround from a Thursday regular-season finale to a pressure-filled MVC Tournament Tuesday opener can often disrupt an ace’s rhythm.
“I’ve seen it for years at this tournament. The short rest messes with Friday starters. I’ve seen some starters that were really good bomb at the tournament,” said Heller, who noted that ISU’s No. 1 2012 starter, Dakota Bacus, struggled in the 2012 Tournament despite being delayed a day.
Manaea’s injury problems shouldn’t completely over-shadow some of the things that are going ISU’s way entering the tournament. ISU’s bats woke up in the last two weeks of the season — the Sycamores averaged 13.3 hits per game in the just-concluded series with Bradley.
“We feel confident we’re getting it together. Everybody’s 0-0 and the hottest team wins. We feel like we’re playing well,” said ISU second baseman Derek Hannahs, who had a 17-game hit streak snapped against Bradley in ISU’s 16-7 victory last Saturday.
ISU (24-23) was 7-2 against the teams — Wichita State, Creighton and Southern Illinois — in its side of the bracket this season. Several of the big MVC arms are contained in the other half of the bracket.
“We’re in the perfect bracket. How much does it mean? I don’t know,” Heller said.
Creighton (30-16) is the only MVC team that has a realistic chance to get a NCAA Tournament at-large bid should it not win the MVC’s automatic bid. The Bluejays’ RPI is 46 as of Monday, a rating that is similar to ISU’s when it was selected as a 2012 at-large team.
Creighton changed its rotation for its final series against Wichita State. However, Tommy Strunc — a former Terre Haute Rex pitcher — is expected to start today. He is emblematic of many of Creighton’s pitchers.
“He’s competitive and he has a Friday night mentality. He’s throws breaking balls for strikes. The key with Creighton is to hit sliders early in the count. We had success with that earlier in the season,” said Heller, referring to ISU’s April home sweep of the Bluejays.
ISU has played in the tournament opener in three of the last four seasons and has won all of those contests. ISU was eliminated in a 10 a.m. game last season against Evansville on the second day of the tournament.
2013 MVC Tournament
At Illinois State’s Duffy Bass Field
(All games streamed on ESPN3, unless noted, all times EDT)
Game 1 — No. 3 Creighton (30-16) vs. No. 6 ISU (24-23), 10 a.m.
Game 2 — No. 2 Wichita State (34-25) vs. No. 7 Southern Illinois (24-31), 1:30 p.m.
Game 3 — No. 4 Missouri State (30-21) vs. No. 5 Evansville (22-32), 5 p.m.
Game 4 — No. 1 Illinois State (36-18) vs. No. 8 Bradley (17-30), 8:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 vs. Game 2 losers, 9 a.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 vs. Game 4 losers, 1:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 vs. Game 2 winners, 5 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 vs. Game 4 winners, 8:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 7 loser, 9 a.m.
Game 10 — Game 6 winners vs. Game 10 loser, 1:30 p.m.
Game 11 — Game 7 vs. Game 9 winners, 5 p.m.
Game 12 — Game 8 vs. Game 10 winners, 8:30 p.m.
Game 13 — Game 7 vs. Game 9 winner, 1:30 p.m.*
Game 14 — Game 8 vs. Game 10 winner, 5 p.m.*
* if necessary, if Game 7 and Game 8 winners lose on Thursday
MVC championship game, 8:07 p.m. (Fox Sports Indiana/Midwest)