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April 5, 2014

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Missouri Valley is tough — ISU making it tougher

TERRE HAUTE — For those who measure the quality of a conference by their place in the Ratings Percentage Index, it was a tough year for the Missouri Valley Conference and its marquee sport: men’s basketball.

The MVC was 11th in conference RPI and took all manner of criticism when Wichita State ran the MVC table for a perfect 18-0 season. The fingers that pointed at the league for fielding a weak challenge to the Shockers’ dominance were many.

Those seeking solace from the criticism can find a safe haven in MVC baseball.

Roughly midway through the college baseball season, the MVC is stout. Depending on which website you consult, the conference was battling the Big West for the fifth or sixth spot. Entering Saturday, the MVC had three teams in the RPI top 50 with Wichita State lurking just outside of it.

Stong stuff. Similar to when the MVC finished fifth in the conference RPI in 2012 and had three teams in the NCAA Tournament, including league champion Indiana State.

The surprise this year is that it is ISU that is once again leading the RPI pack. The Sycamores were 24th in boydsworld.com’s RPI entering the day Saturday -- and that was before the Sycamores earned a doubleheader sweep against Wichita State.

Keep in mind, ISU was picked to finish seventh in the eight-team MVC. The other teams jockeying for position in their lofty RPI perches -- Illinois State, Dallas Baptist and  WSU -- were all expected to be good. The Sycamores weren’t and for good reason. Pitching was a major question mark and so was offense entering the season.

Saturday’s doubleheader sweep provided plenty of evidence as to why ISU is exceeding expectiations.

Toughness is a big part of it. It’s hard to discern toughness from a baseball team, but it’s embodied by starting pitchers David Stagg and Brad Lombard.

Unlike Friday night starters of recent ISU ilk -- Sean Manaea, Dakota Bacus and Jake Petricka jump to mind -- Stagg isn’t endowed with killer stuff. What he is blessed with is killer instinct.

He demonstrated it repeatedly against the Shockers in a sublime effort in the twinbill opener. He worked counts -- did he ever work counts -- he threw 117 pitches. But he was nails-on when he needed a pitch and worked the strike zone masterfully. He had nine strikeouts and six Shockers were caught looking, an unusally large haul.

Lombard has arguably better stuff and possesses the same bulldog mentality Stagg has. WSU led off with hits in three of his eight innings. One of them was Casey Gillaspie’s seventh-inning home run. None of the others scored.

ISU’s offense has answered the toughness bell too. Five of the six runs the Sycamores scored on Saturday in the doubleheader came with two outs. Very rarely do you see any give-in at the plate from the Sycamores.

It’s all added up to a pleasantly surprising season. ISU is 20-7 and got some MVC validation it needed with a series win against one of the league’s top teams. A sweep tomorrow would continue what’s been a fun ride.

It’s still early, but it’s a ride that could ultimately take ISU back to the NCAA Tournament. Unlike basketball, the MVC is strong enough to get the Sycamores there, but that being said, that’s not what ISU is counting on.

The Sycamores are continuing to prove they’re strong enough to get there without anyone’s help. The MVC is strong. The Sycamores are making it a lot stronger.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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