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May 21, 2014

MVC baseball teams’ fates largely tied to their No. 1 pitchers

TERRE HAUTE — With a few expections, during the first day of the Missouri Valley Conference baseball tournament, you expect teams to throw their No. 1 starting pitchers. So naturally, you'd expect to see some low-scoring games.

For the most part, it worked out that way on Tuesday as the tournament visited Indiana State for the first time since 1982, but maybe not in the manner you might think.

Dan Savas, the Illinois State ace, earned the win in the Redbirds' 6-0 victory over Wichita State in Tuesday's opening game, but he walked six Shockers.

Southern Illinois starter Sam Coonrod did Savas one better as he had seven walks, but limited the damage as No. 8-seeded Southern Illinois upset top-seeded Evansville 9-1.

The only game of the first three to hold to seed form was No. 3 Dallas Baptist's 3-2 win over No. 6 Missouri State. But the Patriots did it in extra innings and Cy Sneed, DBU's starter, worked out of some early trouble of his own.

Losing pitchers in the first two games struggled with walks as well. Evansville's Kyle Freeland, who had issued just nine base-on-balls all season, walked three. Wichita State starter Cale Elam walked three. Missouri State's Clay Murphy walked three, but did it in 91⁄3 innings of work in a fine effort.

The walks weren't fatal to any of the pitchers and they all have their own characteristics.

But the one thing they have in common as that they're Friday starters — the parlance in college baseball for No. 1 pitcher — pitching on short rest.

Most of the starters pitched last Thursday in their teams' first game of their final series. It meant two less days of rest and it showed for some of the pitchers.

“I lived up in the zone and that's not typically where you want to be,” Savas said. “I took me a little while to start. I think my adrenaline was going a bit.”

The short rest is an annual dilemma for coaches. Over the years, some have opted to throw a mid-week starter or their second starter in the opening game. Former ISU coach Rick Heller tried it unsuccessfully in 2012 when he pitched ace Dakota Bacus in ISU's second game.

Most, however, ride their Friday horse.

“You hope as a coach you have them ready to go. Kyle's been such a work horse for us the entire year. Coming off short rest, he's been able to be pretty sharp. He was sharp the first couple of innings, but then he got tired,” Evansville coach Wes Carroll said. “Obviously, you're going to see an affect, but that's when your offense and defense have to pick you up.”

It's no coincidence that Murphy, who threw just two innings last week for Missouri State, stayed freshest.

Murphy lost, but that's no reflection on him. The depth of the league's pitching is such that someone's going to lose. You just hope

“This league can pitch with anyone, especially on Fridays. You've got first-rounders and guys who will pitch in baseball for a long time. You need your guy to set the tone and be better than the other ace,” Illinois State coach Mark Kingston said.

A summary of Tuesday's first three games:

No. 5 Illinois State 6, No. 4 Wichita State 0 — Savas pitched 6 1/3 innings and had a wild ride. He allowed only four hits — he didn't concede a hit until the fourth — and struck out eight, but he also had a career-high six walks. Even so, WSU didn't make Savas pay.

Wichita State starter Cale Elam had a quality start as he allowed six hits over seven innings. The difference was that Illinois State (31-21) cashed in on its opportunities.

Illinois State took a 1-0 lead in the second when Mason Snyder doubled and then scored on a Brock Stewart single. Illinois State increased its lead to 2-0 when Snyder scored on a wild pitch.

Wichita State's best chance came in the seventh. With two runners on, Casey Gillaspie — the MVC Player of the Year with 15 home runs — came to the plate. Kingston lifted Savas for reliever Jeremy Rhoades and he got the dream scenario. Gillaspie hit his first pitch into a 4-6-3 double play.

Stewart broke the game open with a three-run home run to right in the top of eighth to make it 5-0. Illinois State added an insurance run in the 9th to provide the final margin of victory.

Illinois State had lost nine of 10 entering the tournament, but the clean slate did the Redbirds a world of good.

“You can't let down at any point in the tournament or its over. We knew coming in we had a clean slate and we want to make the most of it,” Stewart said.

The 29-27 Shockers, facing an elimination game against Evansville at 9 a.m. today, were searching for answers.

“Tomorrow it comes down to how much you want to play. Do you want the season to continue? I just don't see it from this team right now ... the toughness and the grit,” WSU coach Todd Butler said.

No. 8 Southern Illinois 9, No. 1 Evansville 1 — SIU starting pitcher Coonrod outdueled Freeland as he worked out of early trouble.

After walking five in the first three innings, Coonrod settled in and only allowed four hits by the Purple Aces in 72⁄3 innings. It was an unconventional pitching line as Coonrod had seven walks, but it worked for him.

Moreover, SIU gave Coonrod run suport after a season in which he's been unlucky to have it.

“It felt great to have the lead. I knew once we had four runs, we were going to win,” Coonrod said. “The run support was great. When you have it, you can challenge batters and say, 'Here it comes.'”

Freeland — a potential top 10 draft pick — did not rise to his usual standard. He struck out six and gave up five hits, but it was his three walks that stood out. It was a season-high from a pitcher that had just nine walks all season entering the contest.

Freeland struggled, but Evansville's inability to hit Coonrod stuck out more in Evansville coach Wes Carroll's mind.

“Kyle didn't look sharp, he looked a little tired out there, but for us, I think we need to focus on the offense. We had 1st and 2nd with nobody out in two of the first three innings and we banged into two double plays with our big guy. That was a key,” Carroll said.

Freeland's struggles came to a head in the fifth. After Jake Welch and Ryan Casillas singled, Cody Daily knocked them both in with a triple to right to make it 4-1.

SIU (26-29) put a five-spot on the board in the seventh, a rally that started innocently enough when Evansville shortstop Shain Showers whiffed on a ground ball. From that point, eight consecutive Salukis reached base. The big blow was a two-run home run to left by Casillas.

While SIU ponders a long tournament run, Evansville put itself in jeopardy of missing the postseason. Though the Aces (34-20) won the regular season title, their RPI is in the high 50s. The Aces needed a long tournament run to cement an at-large bid and face a win-or-else scenario against Wichita State at 9 a.m. today.

“Our team has shown a tremendous amount of character all year. There's no doubt in my mind we'll come to the diamond and play hard,” Carroll said. “Each and every time we've gone into a rubber match during weekends, we've responded. I think we'll respond tomorrow.”

No. 3 Dallas Baptist 3, No. 6 Missouri State 2, 10 innings — Entering Tuesday's contest, Dallas Baptist had beaten Missouri State four times by a single run this season. Drew Turbin's 10th inning walkoff home run to right gave the Patriots their fifth such win over the star-crossed Bears.

The story was the starting pitchers. DBU starter Cy Sneed retired 14 Bears in a row at one point, struck out eight, and allowed five innings in nine innings. Missouri State starter Clay Murphy went the distance as he threw 91⁄3 innings before giving up Turbin's home run.

Murphy and Sneed each pitched through some difficulty in the first three innings before both settled into a groove. Missouri State (23-30) scored two in the third on a Patrick Drake sacrifice fly and Dylan Becker RBI single. Dallas Baptist (37-18) countered with a run in its half of the third as Nash Knight doubled and scored on a groundout.

Missouri State's 2-1 lead held up until its defense let it down in the eighth. After Dallas Baptist's Mike Wesolowski singled, Daniel Salters hit a grounder into the hole at second. Missouri State second baseman Aaron Meyer ranged to his right to snag it, but his throw to first was off-line and MSU first baseman Spencer Johnson couldn't get the handle on it.

Wesolowski, who never stopped running as there was two outs, chugged home and beat an errant throw from Johnson to tie the game.

“We gave them a crack and they tied it. They're a good, older ballclub that takes advantage of mistakes,” Guttin said.

Turbin's home run came on a 2-2 count from Murphy, who threw 124 pitches in the contest. It was hit above the treeline to right field.

“Clay is a great pitcher and competitor. I wouldn't second-guess bringing him out in the 10th inning for one second. He threw tremendous the entire day. He made pitch after pitch, didn't seem tired, and didn't leave very many pitches up,” Dallas Baptist coach Dan Heefner said.

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