NORMAL, Ill. — Southern Illinois lost games last weekend in a manner that suggested the Salukis wanted to play Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Hold the conspiracy theory. It only looks that way. However, the result, after losing three games to Illinois State by a total of four runs, seems to help SIU.
The Salukis ended up with a first-round matchup that looks great for them and starting pitcher Cody Forsythe. Those losses locked seventh-seeded SIU into Tuesday’s meeting with second-seeded Wichita State. Those losses also kept SIU (24-31) from playing top-seeded Illinois State on its home field.
Forsythe is WSU’s top MVC pitching nemesis, a lefty who ruined its tournament a year ago and can do it again. The only way for WSU to return to an NCAA regional is to win the conference tournament and losing the opening game makes the rest of the week look much more imposing. To get off to a good start, the Shockers need to solve Forsythe or get into an SIU bullpen that can surrender leads quickly.
“The guy can command multiple pitches for a strike,” WSU infielder Erik Harbutz said. “We’re going to face a pitcher that can pitch, and we need to beat guys like that.”
So far, beating Forsythe looks difficult for the Shockers (34-25). In four starts against WSU, Forsythe is 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in 30 innings. Earlier this season, he held the Shockers to three hits and one earned run over seven innings in a 5-4 win. Last season, he started WSU’s 0-and-2 exit from the tournament by striking out eight in seven innings in a 6-3 victory at Hammons Field.
“We struggle a little bit with left-handers,” WSU first baseman Casey Gillaspie. “His changeup is pretty good. We’re not going to change our game much unless we have to. We’re still going to go out there and try to be aggressive. Try and get him a little uncomfortable out there.”
Forsythe, a senior from Calvert City, Ky., has made a career of cruising against the Shockers. Even in a no-decision in 2012, a game WSU won, he struck out seven and held the Shockers to three hits in seven innings. Like several pitchers this season, he’s taken advantage of WSU’s thirst for fastballs by disrupting hitters’ timing with changeups and luring them into chasing his curveball. When they get a fastball, it’s rarely in the location they want.
“I think the way they go about hitting sets up well for me,” Forsythe said. “They like to swing early and they like to swing at fastballs, for sure. I try to spot up and let them get themselves out.”
Forsythe is SIU’s career leader in starts with 48. He isn’t overpowering and doesn’t need to be when he can keep hitters swinging weakly. In late April, he took advantage of friendly wind in Carbondale, Ill., to hold WSU hitless until the sixth inning. The Shockers hit a lot of harmless flyballs, although even Forsythe admitted the wind helped keep a few balls from turning into trouble. Pitching to contact doesn’t bother him.
“I’m not going to blow it by anybody, so I try to rely on spotting up every pitch,” he said. “Let them take their hacks.”
The Shockers prepared for Forsythe by hitting .373 with four extra-base hits in a three-game sweep of Northwestern. They roughed up Wildcats ace Luke Farrell, a right-hander for nine hits and four runs in six innings and battered the bullpen in the other two games. Coach Gene Stephenson liked the way the Shockers played against Northwestern in all areas.
“I think the team feels good,” he said. “We had a lot of encouraging signs last weekend and I think we’re in a good frame of mind.”
Harbutz and Gillaspie should lead that group. Harbutz broke out a lengthy slump by hitting .667 (6 for 9) with two walks against the Wildcats. Gillaspie hit .231 ( 3 for 13), but felt good about a week that included a grand slam against Northwestern. A week ago, he homered against Oklahoma State, is first since March 22 at Hawaii.
“I’ve been going through a tough couple weeks,” Gillaspie said. “I felt better over the weekend. I need a little confidence. It’s all mental.”