▪ May 25, 2015 will be known as the day Missouri Valley Conference baseball earned treatment like a power conference.
Missouri State is a No. 8 national seed (a first for an MVC program) and hosting a regional. Dallas Baptist is hosting a regional, the first time two MVC schools will host. Bradley — the No. 3 seed in the MVC Tournament with a 10-11 record — is a No. 2 seed in a regional as an at-large pick.
Let me repeat that. Bradley. No. 3 seed in the MVC Tournament. No. 2 seed in a regional.
Monday morning, they seemed a fair bet to join Missouri State’s 2006 men’s basketball team (RPI No. 21) and Wichita State’s 2005 volleyball team as a Valley school left in ruin by a selection committee. Monday afternoon, the Braves prepared for a trip to the Louisville Regional.
Since serving as a one-bid conference from 2008-11, the MVC put three teams in the 2012 field, one in 2013, two in 2014 and three this season.
There are many things at play during this strong run. I would put the rise of the Big 10 among them. The Big 10 provides mid-week opponents for the Valley’s northern and eastern schools, so the relationship is mutually beneficial. The MVC went 10-11 against the Big 10, which put a record five teams in the field.
Valley schools went 5-4 against Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, teams in the regional field. Bradley went 2-0 vs. Iowa, who finished second in the Big 10.
May 25, 2015. The best day in MVC baseball since June 3, 1991 when WSU and Creighton played an epic 12-inning game in the College World Series.
▪ In 2010, you could have written books on the frustrations WSU and its fans felt with MVC baseball. The Shockers went 41-19 with a No. 60 RPI. It went 18-5 against NCAA Division I competition to finish the season before losing to Illinois State in the tournament championship game.
With some help from the MVC, it might have pushed its way into the at-large conversation. But the next-best MVC team was No. 84 Illinois State and No. 98 Evansville was the only other school in the top 100. The Valley ranked No. 16 in the RPI.
No help. The season served to sum up all of WSU’s frustrations with the MVC and schools that didn’t take baseball seriously and weighed down WSU’s national aspirations.
Five seasons later, things changed dramatically and now it’s WSU that needs to up its game. Don’t forget that Indiana State earned at-large bids in 2012 and 2014.
We spend a lot of time dreaming of a better conference home for the Shockers. This is one of those days when it appears the Shockers are in a pretty good place.
▪ The Shockers played to their seed in reaching the semifinals. If you’re into building optimism for next season, it would have been nice to beat Missouri State at least once. The Shockers competed with the Bears for five innings in the first meeting before losing 8-1. They competed more strongly in the 6-4 elimination loss, one marred by a base-running mistake and a defensive mistake that hurt the Shockers.
It was a much better showing than in a regular-season wipeout by the Bears, in which they never trailed at Hammons Field.
So while WSU didn’t end the season with an exclamation point, it did record a 19-game record of improvement that is encouraging. The Shockers went 12-7 in the weeks of the season with 10 of those wins against teams in the top 100 of the RPI. The seven losses came against Dallas Baptist and Missouri State, both top-10 RPI teams and five of those came on the road.
WSU, the adjustments of 26 new players and injuries behind them, made measurable improvements over those 19 games. The lineup solidified. The rotation gained consistency. Players improved, which is about all you could ask from a team that was 12 games under .500 on April 21.
The Shockers hit .297 over those four games, up from .263 in their first 40. They hit 17 home runs in 19 games after hitting 23 in the first 40. They walked more and struck out less and the offense carried WSU during its hot stretch.
WSU’s ERA dropped from 5.31 over the first 40 games to 4.66 in the final 19. The revamped starting rotation showed real promise with Isaac Anderson’s eight strong innings and Chase Williams’ complete game in the MVC Tournament.
The next issue, of course, is how many of those juniors who helped the Shockers heat up will return. The draft status and decisions by a few key players will shape next season’s optimism.
What’s realistic for next season? I would think the Shockers need to move into the top-50 of the RPI and build itself into a real Valley contender to feel good about 2016.
▪ WSU coach Todd Butler signed a seven-year contract in 2013. An administration does not fire Gene Stephenson and then give up on its choice as replacement without giving him a full chance to succeed. So if you’re wondering about Butler’s job security, you can stop.
▪ The overlooked MVP of the week is Eck Stadium’s turf field. Without it, there is no guarantee Saturday’s rain-delayed games are played on Sunday. I’m not sure natural grass outfield at other MVC sites would have been playable after Saturday’s steady downpour. Eck shaves at least an hour off rain delays because it requires only mound work during a delay.
Our weather gets a negative review. Eck Stadium saved the weekend.