This is not Bradley baseball’s usual trip to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, often characterized as a long bus ride for a short stay.
The Braves are here to play games that matter.
“We’re having a meaningful May for the first time in my time here,” junior pitcher Steve Adkins said. “We can’t play the underdog thing.”
Third-seeded Bradley (32-18) enters the MVC Tournament with an RPI ranked No. 21 by warrennolan.com and a strength of schedule ranked No. 35. Normally, that is a solid NCAA at-large resume.
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The Braves, however, know work remains. They slump into Eck Stadium with a five-game losing streak, one that doomed them to a 10-11 MVC record and a third-place tie with Wichita State. On Tuesday, Baseball America listed Bradley as one of its first four teams out of the 64-team NCAA field.
“I think our body of work is pretty good and has been good all year,” coach Elvis Dominguez said. “If that’s not good enough, it’s not good enough. That’s not our decision.”
Bradley’s rise adds a fresh angle to a strong season for MVC baseball, which is prospering even as WSU muddles along with a losing record. Baseball America projects top-seeded Missouri State and second-seeded Dallas Baptist to host regionals. MSU won the Valley by three games over Dallas Baptist, which is ranked No. 1 in the RPI. The MVC is ranked No. 5 in the RPI and could get three teams in the NCAAs for the first time since 2012.
Missouri State coach Keith Guttin looked at last season’s starting pitchers around the league — 11 of whom were drafted — and figured on a slip this season. If Valley pitching is down, it’s not by much. Bradley highlighted that early in the season by throwing back-to-back-to-back shutouts at McNeese State, a 32-win team that finished third in the Southland Conference.
Five Valley schools are ranked in the top 100 of the RPI with No. 106 Illinois State and No. 111 WSU not far away.
“It’s about depth in the league and it’s about winning non-league games,” Guttin said. “I think people have improved their schedules and we got some quality wins early.”
Every win seems like a quality win for Bradley, which hasn’t won an MVC title or played in the NCAAs since 1968. The Braves own more MVC Tournament wins (seven) over Tulsa, which dropped baseball in 1980 and left the MVC in 1996, than it does over any current MVC member.
After losing to Missouri State in the 1996 championship, the Braves didn’t win another tournament game until 2006 and are 6-20 in 10 appearances.
“I’ve been here four years and it hasn’t felt like this,” Bradley second baseman Chris Godinez said. “It’s really fun to win.”
While Bradley is first and foremost a basketball school, a winning baseball team is attracting some attention from students and fans starved for success. Scores and the schedule are a topic in classes and enough students came to Dozer Park that the players noticed the noise and support.
“The baseball team is a point of pride around our campus now,” Adkins said. “The stories in the local news this season have all been about success, and that’s been really fun to read.”
Dominguez, in his seventh season at Bradley, gathered an experienced group in February. If his pitchers stayed healthy, he liked his team’s chances of delivering his first winning season. A 12-2 start, all away from home, confirmed his optimism.
“It’s been a bunch of over-achieving kids,” Dominguez said. “We’re not anything special. We stick tight and wait for a break and then open it up. We’re not going to beat somebody 10-0 or 11-3.”
The Braves totaled 21 wins away from home, seventh-most among teams in the top 100 of the RPI. It won series at Southern Conference champion Mercer and Ohio Valley Champion Southeast Missouri State. It won one game at Atlantic Sun champion North Florida and twice defeated Big Ten runner-up Iowa, ranked No. 19 nationally.
“Winning close games, shutting teams out, then we started to look at it and go ‘Dang, we could actually have a real strong team during Valley play,’” Adkins said.
Six seniors and 11 juniors were prepared for the road games. Before the season, Godinez liked how seriously his teammates worked.
“We knew we had a different type of team from the past three years I’ve been here,” he said. “Lifting, practicing the right way, being excited and happy to be at the field — all those little things factored in. My earlier years, there’s always been a couple guys that weren’t fully invested. This year, every single person is invested.”
Pitching carried the Braves through much of the season with junior Elliot Ashbeck going 10-4 with a 3.34 ERA and Adkins 6-2 with a 2.87 ERA. Closer Matt Dennis owns a Bradley-record 11 saves and 1.40 ERA in 22 appearances. Adkins, however, hasn’t pitched since April 24 due to shoulder soreness and his availability for this week is iffy. His absence has contributed to the slump that started with two losses to Illinois State and three at Missouri State.
The NCAA selection committee can’t be expected to look favorably on a team wobbling into Monday on a seven-game losing streak, especially when that team carries Bradley’s lack of name recognition. The Braves probably need at least two or three wins to push themselves back into the regional field. Beating Dallas Baptist carries particular importance, should they meet.
“The mood is to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Adkins said. “Execute and play our game. Stick to what we’re doing to win Valley games all season.”
Illinois State at Wichita State
When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday
Where: Eck Stadium
Pitchers: ISU, LH Jacob Hendren (10-2, 2.84 ERA); WSU, RH Isaac Anderson (4-7, 4.13)
Records: ISU 27-25, WSU 24-31
Radio: KNSS, 1330-AM
Internet broadcast: ESPN3.com
At Eck Stadium
All games on ESPN3.com
No. 6 Evansville (29-22) vs. No. 3 Bradley (32-18), 9 a.m.
No. 7 Indiana St. (27-24) vs. No. 2 Dallas Baptist (41-11), 12:30 p.m.
No. 8 Southern Illinois (11-44) vs. No. 1 Missouri St. (41-10), 4 p.m.
No. 5 Illinois St. (27-25) at No. 4 Wichita St. (24-31), 7:30 p.m.
UE-BU loser vs. Ind. St.-DBU loser, 9 a.m.
SIU-MSU loser vs. Ill. St.-WSU loser, 12:30 p.m.
UE-BU winner vs. Ind. St.-DBU winner, 4 p.m.
SIU-MSU winner vs. Ill. St.-WSU winner, 7:30 p.m.
9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
11:30 a.m. (if necessary), 3 p.m. (if necessary), 7 p.m.