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April 10, 2012

Fully staffed: ISU’s pitching has carried it during conference play

A look at ISU’s starting trio of Sean Manaea, Dakota Bacus & Ryan Torgerson

TERRE HAUTE — With six weeks left to go in the college baseball season, Indiana State has moved the needle a lot further than most thought perception-wise in both the Missouri Valley Conference and nationally.

ISU’s 26-7 mark is its best since 2002. That was the last time ISU went this deep into the season before it suffered its seventh loss.

Picked to finish fourth in the MVC, ISU won two out of three games at Creighton last weekend and finds itself in first place at 6-3. The Sycamores lead the conference by a half-game over both Missouri State and Wichita State, both of whom are 4-2.

In the process, ISU has won three straight MVC series to start the season for the first time since 1998.

The Sycamores are also in the hunt for a possible NCAA tournament at-large bid. ISU currently has an RPI of 51 and received votes in the ESPN coaches’ poll. ISU received four points in the poll, good for 42nd place, ahead of traditional college baseball powers USC and Clemson.

It’s all good, right? Mostly. But ISU has also had some chinks in its armor at times, especially in conference play, particularly at the plate.

“At this point, I like the fact we’re winning, even when we’re struggling at the plate or if we don’t get the pitching performance we didn’t expect to get,” ISU coach Rick Heller said. “I feel good about where we’re at.”

While ISU has a team batting average of .315, among the best averages in the nation (ISU was best in the nation a week ago at .332), it is hitting just .223 in its nine MVC games.

Landon Curry (.310) and Jon Hedges (.306) are the only Sycamores above .300 in MVC games. Hedges (.472) and Robby Ort (.472) are the only Sycamores with a slugging percentage above .400 in conference play.

ISU has stolen just two of its 30 bases in conference action. It has hit just three of its 30 home runs in MVC games. ISU is averaging 4.2 runs per game in MVC contests, down from a season average of 7.6 runs per game.

ISU was no-hit through nine innings by Creighton starter Eric Mattingly on Saturday (ISU won 2-0 anyway in 12 innings) and was shut out by the Bluejays on Sunday.

 ISU’s MVC ERA of 2.08 — an improvement over its 2.81 season ERA — has mitigated its hitting dropoff in MVC play.

“Our starting pitching has been outstanding all season. [Sunday’s 8-0 loss to Creighton] was the first time we had to go to bullpen before sixth inning in a conference game. That’s unheard of,” Heller said.

“We were on such a tear [at the plate]. It doesn’t happen like that very often. You’re going to go through times when guys don’t have it on a given weekend and we had that last weekend,” he added. “We’ll be fine. I don’t think there’s anything wrong. Once [Creighton’s pitchers] got into a groove, I think some guys started to press and swung at some balls they shouldn’t have.”

ISU is also in the midst of two-week road trip, which continues this week.

The Sycamores play at Indiana on Wednesday — the Sycamores beat the Hoosiers 13-8 in Terre Haute on March 7 — and then travel to Bradley for a three-game series starting Friday.

The trip to Bradley is the penultimate road series of the season for ISU. A mid-May trip to Southern Illinois is the only other regular season road series the Sycamores have after they come home from Peoria, Ill.

Once ISU returns, it plays 13 straight games at home, a homestand that ends on May 6. Included are series against Dallas Baptist (42nd in RPI), Nebraska-Omaha and Wichita State as well as single games against Valparaiso, Chicago State and Illinois.

“If we can survive another week, being in our own beds will make a big difference. This is a stressful time of year for the players, they have to worry about the academic side as well as athletics. Being home for that will alleviate some of the pressure,” Heller said.

Heller said he hoped to rest some dinged-up players when the Sycamores return home, but he can’t rest them for long. With ISU in contention for a potential at-large bid, there is very little margin for error for the Sycamores to give away any games.

“We’re going to go after them all, but I hope we can keep some pitch counts down, things like that. The truth is that we probably won’t do too much differently at all in the weekend series. The home games provide a mental break more than anything,” Heller said.

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