Last season, eighth-seeded Southern Illinois knocked out Kyle Freeland, the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year, in five innings on its way to a 9-1 win over top-seeded Evansville.
For MVC coaches, the scene looked too familiar, unfair to the top teams and avoidable.
They tired of seeing their top pitchers pitch on short rest in the Tuesday opener after throwing, usually, the previous Thursday in a series opener. Many of those same pitchers also threw that series opener on one day less rest than most of the season, setting up a scenario in which they threw twice on short rest, sometimes coming back again in the tournament championship game.
Valley coaches proposed a change for this season, pushing the start of the eight-team tournament back one day to Wednesday. Since the championship game is no longer locked into a time slot by Fox Sports Midwest, the tournament enjoys the flexibility to finish on Sunday if rain alters the schedule. All games are on ESPN3.
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“Here we are trying to get multiple teams in (the NCAA regional), it was key for us to be as fresh as we can be,” Evansville coach Wes Carroll said. “It makes everybody fresh. I’m excited to see how it works.”
“The one thing you don’t want to do at this point in the season is tax the arms too much,” WSU coach Todd Butler said.
Almost every team has an example of where their ace wasn’t at his best in the tournament.
In 2013, Wichita State’s Cale Elam lasted four innings against Southern Illinois. In 2011, Missouri State benched All-MVC pitcher Cody Forsythe of SIU in four innings. Indiana State’s Jacob Petricka, an All-MVC pick, gave up five runs and six hits in the first two innings before settling in for eight innings in an 8-7 win over Creighton in 2010.
“Last year was a good example of that,” Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs said. “You had the top arms in the league get beat that first day. It’s rest and it’s protecting guys and we need to do that.”
The change is intended to help MVC teams in position to earn an at-large bid.
“A lot of times you don’t have the ability to … rest guys because every game is so crucial to getting in the tournament as an at-large,” Hannahs said. “Teams that are out of that mix, you can rest guys and get ready for the conference tournament, because it’s really the only chance you have.”
Shaving a day off the schedule does come with risks.
Under the previous format, Friday’s light schedule allowed room for rain delays. That cushion is gone. Many teams recycled their Tuesday starter for the championship game on Saturday, a practice that will likely cease with the new schedule.
On the shelf — As usual, practice day featured a roll call of dead arms, broken bones and injury questions.
Two potentially significant injuries afflict WSU’s side of the bracket.
The Shockers open against Illinois State, which would suffer from a significant hole in its lineup if infielder/catcher Paul DeJong can’t return from a hand injury. He sat out Saturday’s regular-season finale against Indiana State and didn’t take batting practice on Tuesday.
DeJong, a two-time All-MVC pick, is hitting .333 with an MVC-leading 14 home runs.
MVC Pitcher of the Year Jon Harris, from Missouri State, sat out last weekend’s series against Bradley with a blister on his pitching hand. MSU coach Keith Guttin said Harris threw a bullpen on Monday and will start Thursday’s game against either WSU or Illinois State.
“He seemed fine,” Guttin said.
Matt Hall, an All-MVC pick, will throw Wednesday’s opener against SIU, which can’t be considered a break for the Salukis. Hall compiled a 9-2 record with a 2.38 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 98 1/3 innings. Harris is 6-1 with a 2.08 ERA.
Bradley pitcher Steve Adkins, an honorable mention All-MVC pick, hasn’t thrown since April 25 due to a shoulder injury. Indiana State second baseman Derek Hannahs is out with a broken left hand.
Rematch — Fourth-seeded WSU and fifth-seeded Illinois State open the tournament against each other for a second straight season.
A year ago, the Shockers swept the regular-season series and lost twice to the Redbirds in the tournament. In early April, Illinois State swept WSU at Eck Stadium outscoring the Shockers 24-14.
WSU pitching issued 22 walks and compiled a 7.00 ERA in the three games. Five wild pitches, five errors, a balk and a hit batter added to the sloppiness.
The Shockers did enjoy some success against Redbirds starter Jacob Hendren in the regular season. WSU freshman Gunnar Troutwine homered twice and WSU scored four runs off seven hits in six innings against Hendren, the MVC’s Newcomer of the Year.
Moving up — WSU outfielder Mikel Mucha started the season hitting ninth in his first four starts. He hit cleanup in WSU’s final two regular-season games.
“We needed to get a guy that’s going to put the ball in play more,” Butler said. “He’s going to hit, he’s going to hit some doubles. He handles the bat well.”
Mucha may drop in the order against Hendren, a lefty. Regardless of where he hits, he is giving WSU an offensive boost by hitting .391 over his past 15 games, raising his average from a low point of .260 to .298. During his eight-game hitting streak, he is hitting .419 with two walks and five RBIs.
“There was a point during the middle of the season where I was getting frustrated with myself and I had to get over that and play the game like I know how to play,” Mucha said. “You can put yourself deeper in a hole if you get to thinking too much about it.”
Assistant coach Brian Walker helped with hitting mechanics with the trigger words “Three o’clock.” A left-handed hitter wants to aim for the middle and side of the baseball (like on a clock face) to produce line drives. The reminder helps Mucha focus on a level swing.
“It wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, but it’s my thing for how I have to hit the ball,” Mucha said. “Get inside the ball and that’s usually when I hit my best.”
Mucha played in five games last season before a fractured left leg sidelined him. The injury limited his running early in the season.
“I’m back to 100 percent now,” he said. “It went away and once I got back to the enjoyment of baseball I kind of forgot about it.”
Bark in the park — If you didn’t pick up with Shockers baseball until April, you missed reliever Taylor Goshen’s best moments.
Until last weekend, that is, when he somewhat unexpectedly returned to his form of February and March. Goshen, a freshman, struck out four Dallas Baptist hitters in 1 2/3 innings on Thursday and four more in 3 1/3 on Friday. He didn’t give up a hit or a run, although he did walk three.
“A new competitive spirit came over me, very much a bulldog attitude, very much attack attitude,” Goshen said. “We’re going to go into the tournament with the same attitude and get some wins.”
WSU coaches saw this side of Goshen in fall baseball and considered him a candidate to close. After a rough opening weekend against Sam Houston State, he bounced back and pitched well until elbow tendinitis sidelined him in late March. He returned against Indiana State, after two weeks off, and gave up four runs in the ninth inning to help the Sycamores rally from an 8-4 deficit to win 12-8.
Goshen’s standing in the bullpen wavered over the past two months as his ERA rose to 6.98. He restored some confidence with his performance against No. 11 Dallas Baptist, the MVC’s top offensive team.
“I think it is a real thing, because he did it two days in a row,” Butler said. “Taylor is a guy that has all the repertoire to be good. We expected more from him, because he was fantastic all fall and early spring.”
WSU needs reliable arms to pair with John Hayes in the bullpen. Goshen will get his shot this week after using the Dallas Baptist series as a tryout.
“Coaches wanted to know if they could use me in the tournament and I think I proved that I can be used,” he said.