Baseball Weekly Notebook (Apr. 25)
Monday, April 25, 2011

With three league weeks in the books, a three-way tie for first place has emerged, with Creighton, Missouri State and Southern Illinois all sitting at 6-3 in Valley action.

Illinois State and Wichita State are in a deadlock for fourth place in the standings with a 5-4 record, Evansville and Indiana State have identical 3-6 records, while Bradley holds a 2-7 league record.

After compiling an impressive 67-26 (.720) record in home non-conference contests, league teams are just 14-21 (.400) in home Valley games.  Just two teams (Missouri State and Wichita State) have an above .500 record at home in MVC contests, as the Bears and Shockers are both 4-2 so far this season. 

Last weekend's league series games produced several impressive pitching performances.  After throwing just 13 complete games through nine weeks of play, five complete games were hurled last weekend, including all three contests in the Bradley vs. Evansville series. 

Joe Bircher (BU) won the opener, 3-2, against the Purple Aces, while Cole Isom (6-0) and Cody Fick (2-0) both threw complete game shutouts to help Evansville get the series victory.

Missouri State's Nick Petree was a 14-2 winner in the Bears' 14-2 complete game win over Indiana State, while Brian Flynn of Wichita State took down Illinois State in a 6-1 complete game victory.

Three performances of 10+ strikeouts were also thrown last weekend, after compiling just 12 through the first nine weeks of action.  Ten strikeouts apiece were thrown by Cody Forsythe and Cameron Maldonado of Southern Illinois and Joe Bircher of Bradley.

Bradley enters its five-game week on a record pace to set the school single-season record for both sacrifice bunts and stolen bases.  Bradley's 49 sacrifices through just 38 games already is the second-best single-season total in school history and just eight shy of the record mark set in 2010.  Bradley's 74 stolen bases are tied for the fifth-best total in program history, just four shy of the second-best total.  The 1956 Braves set the single-season stolen base standard with 99 thefts.

Creighton opened TD Ameritrade Park Omaha last week with great fan support.  In the Tuesday opener with Creighton and Nebraska on the field, 22,197 fans braved the cold weather to see the game.  The crowd was the ninth-largest in college baseball regular-season history and the largest-ever to see a Creighton game.  It also eclipsed the previous high in the 2011 season of 10, 076 when LSU hosted Florida on March 18 in Baton Rouge, La.

Cole Isom and Cody Fick’s back-to-back complete game shutouts versus Bradley marked Evansville’s sixth and seventh shutouts of the season.  The last time UE recorded back-to-back shutties was in the 2006 season when the Aces topped Nothern Iowa, 7-0, on Apr. 15 and then beat Murray State, 10-0, on Apr. 19.  The last time Evansville pitchers threw back-to-back complete game shutouts was in the 1997 season when Jeremy Brown and Ryan Miller topped Bradley 1-0 (5/9/97) and 6-0 (5/10/97), respectively.

When sophomore Robby Ort has tallied a hit for the Sycamores this season, he hasn’t stopped at first too often.  Of Ort’s team-leading 52 hits this season, 22 have gone for extra-bases (eight doubles, six triples and eight home runs).

Missouri State has won its first three MVC series for the first time since 2002 and third time since joining the league in 1991.  The Bears also won their first three series in 1994, but have never claimed four consecutive MVC series wins to open the conference schedule, though the 2003 team did make it through the MVC slate with three wins and five splits for a regular season crown.

With his victory over Indiana State Friday, Nick Petree became the 10th MSU pitcher and first freshman in the school’s Division I ERA (since 1983) to begin a season 6-0 on the mound.  Six of the previous nine hurlers have reached 7-0, with five getting to 8-0, four to 9-0, and two to 10-0.  Tim Clubb holds the record with an 11-0 start in 2008.

Southern Illinois is off to its best start in MVC play since opening the 2003 conference slate with a 7-2 record.  The Salukis are 6-3 after three weeks of Valley play, having swept Evansville and winning their series last weekend at Creighton.  SIU’s last regular season conference title was back in 1990.

Junior lefty Charlie Lowell has been impressive in his first three Valley starts this season.  He is 3-0 with a 0.78 ERA.  Lowell has pitched 23 innings and allowed two earned runs on 17 hits with 30 strikeouts.

Senior designated hitter Preston Springer homered in four-straight games from April 15-April 19.  He is the first Shocker to homer in four-straight games since Jeff Ryan hit a home run in five-straight games from April 18-April 22, 1998.

CARDIAC CREIGHTON                                       
Creighton has played in 19 one-run games this season, tallying an impressive 13-6 record in those contests.  Of Creighton's 37 games in 2011, over half (.514) have been decided by just one run.  In fact, only one of the Bluejays' seven losses has been by more than three runs.

The MVC holds a winning record against 13 leagues in non-conference play (Atlantic-10, Big 12, Big East, Great West, Horizon, Metro Atlantic, Mountain West, Ohio Valley, Pac-10, Southland, SWAC, Summit and West Coast) and at least a .500 mark against another five (ACC, Atlantic Sun, Big Ten, Mid-American and Sun Belt). 

The Valley has won 20 games against 2010 NCAA Tournament teams, as five league teams have wins over last year's NCAA field – Creighton, Illinois State, Missouri State, Southern Illinois and Wichita State. 

The Shockers have six wins against the 2010 NCAA field, including two each over Oregon and Arizona and one each over Oral Roberts and Hawaii.  The Bluejays have five wins against the 2010 NCAA field – four versus New Mexico and one against Kansas State, while the Bears have  tallied four victories – two each over Oral Roberts and Saint Louis.  Illinois State has notched three wins versus 2010 Tournament teams – as the Redbirds have beaten UW-Milwaukee twice and Miami (FL) once, while Southern Illinois has two wins over 2010 NCAA Tournament participants – Grambling State and Oral Roberts.

The MVC holds a 5-9 record against top-25 teams so far this season, with all five wins belonging to Wichita State (two wins over No. 11 Arizona, two wins at No. 24 Oregon and one win at No. 24 Tulane).  The Valley was a combined 2-11 against top-25 teams last season. 

Against the six BCS conferences, the Valley holds a winning record over three (Big 12, Big East and Pac-10) and an even .500 record against another two (ACC and Big Ten). 

Creighton, Evansville, Illinois State and Missouri State each boast winning records both at home and on the road so far this season. 

The Valley is a whopping 26-1 in non-conference shutout games this season.  Six teams (Wichita State, Creighton, Evansville, Indiana State, Missouri State and Bradley) are all undefeated in non-conference shutout games, while Southern Illinois is 3-1.  Illinois State is the only league team that has not played in a shutout game this season.

If your team has plans on sitting atop the MVC standings heading into the league’s postseason tournament, you might want to get off to a good start as every team that has won the MVC regular season has won at least 16 games since 2005, the first year of a 24-game conference schedule. 

In fact, last season was the first time a team won the MVC regular-season title (Illinois State and Wichita State) with fewer than 16 league victories (15-6).

Since the start of the 24-game conference schedule in 2005 (three-game series), the top two places in the regular-season standings have been separated by just one game in every year except one – in 2009 when first-place Missouri State had a two-game lead over second-place Indiana State heading into the State Farm MVC Baseball Tournament.  

Illinois State and Wichita State are looking to become just the second Valley school to win back-to-back regular-season titles, as the Shockers are the only league school to have ever accomplished this feat.  Wichita State won back-to-back titles in 2007-2008, were winners of 10 consecutive regular-season championships from 1991-2000 and also won three straight titles from 1987-89.

Wichita State has been the league’s most dominant team since the inception of a conference schedule in 1984.  Since then, the Shockers have place in the top three of the regular season standings in 26 of the 27 seasons – the only season Wichita State did not finish in the top three was in 1984, the year the league first adopted a conference schedule.

Missouri State has placed in the league’s top three in 13 of 20 seasons, including 11 of the last 15 seasons. 

Creighton has also finished in the top three 13 times – in the Bluejays' 27 seasons of league play.

Three Missouri Valley Conference teams rank in the nation's top-10 in four different categories (through April 17 games).

Creighton is sixth in sacrifice bunts with 50 and also ranks seventh in fielding percentage (.980).  Illinois State ranks seventh in doubles per game with 2.44, while Wichita State is seventh in base on balls (196).

This week's Missouri Valley Conference Baseball Player/Pitcher of the Week are Preston Springer of Wichita State and Cody Forsythe of Southern Illinois.

Preston Springer, Sr., DH, Wichita State
Springer led the Shockers to a series win over Illinois State.  In four games last week, he went 9-for-16 (.563) with four runs, two doubles, a home run and four RBI.  He had multiple-hits in all four games.  At No. 15 Oklahoma State, he went 2-for-4 with an RBI and a home run.  In game one against ILS, he went 2-for-3 with an RBI and a double.  In game two, he went 3-for-4 with an RBI and a double and in game three, he went 2-for-5 with an RBI.

Cody Forsythe, So., LHP, Southern Illinois
Forsythe improved to 3-0 in Valley play by throwing seven scoreless innings in a 3-2 victory at No. 28 Creighton last Saturday. Forsythe struck out a career-high 10 batters in the game and allowed only four hits. He became just the third Saluki pitcher in the last 10 years to strike out 10 or more batters in a game. The left-handed ace did not give up a hit until the fifth inning in Saturday’s game and he threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 26 batters he faced. He walked two batters in the game, which was the first time in 10 starts this season that he has yielded more than one walk and he has lasted six or more innings in all 10 starts this year. Over his last four starts, Forsythe has now allowed just three total runs. He leads the conference in inning pitched this season (69.1) and has the lowest ERA in the league (2.08).
Noteworthy - In addition to the league's player and pitcher of the week selections, several conference players had notable performances, and they include:  

Alex Staehely (CU) -
The Bluejay second baseman led the team last week in offensively, hitting .375 (6-16) with a run scored and an RBI.  In the 2-1 loss on Sunday to SIU, Staehely picked up his team leading 17th double of the season, his first since the April 3 game against Portland.  Staehely was 2-for-2 in stolen bases on the week, and had a .412 on-base percentage.  He sits in second on daily starters in batting average (.331), hits (46), triples (3) and total bases (72).  He leads the team in doubles (17) and is 7-for-8 in stolen bases on the season.

Cody Fick (UE) - Fick led Evansville to a 3-1 week, including a series win over Bradley, batting .333 on the week and extending his hitting streak to eight games. Against Murray State, Fick belted his eighth home run of the season, while scoring two runs and knocking in two. He recorded a hit and RBI in each game of Saturday’s doubleheader versus the Braves. In the nightcap, he scored two of Evansville’s six runs in the 6-0 victory. In Sunday’s rubber match, Fick (6-2) hurled all nine innings on the mound, allowing seven scattered hits, just two walks, and struck out seven in his second complete game shutout of the season. He also helped his own cause, recording two hits at the plate, a double and RBI single, in the 2-0 win. Fick leads the squad with a .397 batting average on the season.

Tyler McNeely (ILS) - McNeely led Illinois State in the Redbirds’ 9-4 win against Wichita State Sunday afternoon in Wichita, Kan. McNeely went 3-for-5 with three RBI and three runs scored, including two solo home runs and one double. The Normal, Ill., native slugged a team-best .909, amassed ten total basses and did not commit an error in left field during Illinois State’s three-game series against Wichita State. McNeely now leads the Redbirds with a .371 batting average, a .664 slugging percentage and a .522 on-base percentage. He also ranks first on the team with eight home runs and 39 runs score, and second with 34 RBI and 10 doubles.

Robby Ort (INS) - Ort went 5-for-16 (.313) at the plate this past week, picking up a double, a home run and three runs batted in. Ort’s home run came on Tuesday at SIU Edwardsville, his team-leading eighth of the season, while he also picked up a pair of RBIs on Friday afternoon at Missouri State. The sophomore outfielder leads ISU in RBIs as well, with 44 through Indiana State’s 38 games.

Brock Chaffin (MSU) - Chaffin led Missouri State with seven RBIs last week, playing a key role in MSU’s series win over Indiana State. Chaffin opened the series with a huge game Friday, smashing a three-run double that served as MSU’s first hit and gave the Bears a 3-2 lead in the fourth inning. He later closed the game with an eighth-inning grand slam for the run-rule victory and seven-RBI day. Chaffin walked and scored a run Tuesday at Kansas State, and had two hits and a run in Saturday’s doubleheader. He was perfect in 17 chances in the field while making his second and third starts of the year at first base. 

Nick Johnson (SIU) - In what was not a monster offensive weekend for the Salukis, sophomore outfielder Nick Johnson provided much of Southern’s pop to lead it to a series victory at Creighton and gain a share of the MVC lead. In Saturday’s 3-2 victory, Johnson accounted for two of SIU’s three runs as he hit a two-run homer in the second inning. That two-run shot to right gave him four home runs on the season and three of the four have come in Valley play. Then in Sunday’s 2-1 win, Johnson gave SIU a 1-0 lead with his RBI triple – the first ever in TD Ameritrade Park – down the right-field line. He later scored on a sacrifice fly and that run ended up being the winning run in Southern’s win to seal the series victory.

Joe Bircher (BU) - Bircher (5-3) went the distance in Bradley's 3-2 win versus Evansville Saturday in the opening game of the weekend Valley series.  In his first complete-game effort of the season, Bircher equaled his career-high with 10 strikeouts and did not walk a batter.  He allowed two runs, one earned, on six hits.

Jack VanLeur (CU) - In three appearances last week, VanLeur gave up just two hits and didn’t allow a single run.  The south paw struck out two batters in his 3.1 innings of work, holding opponents to a .167 batting average.  His outing on Sunday was his 100th appearance of his career, joining Pat Venditte and Scott Reece as the only three Jays to make 100 appearances on the mound.  VanLeur now has a 2.64 era on the season and is 2-0.  In 30.2 innings, Vanier has given up just nine earned runs and struck out 17 batters, holding opponents to a .215 average.

Cole Isom (UE) - Isom hurled a two-hit complete game shutout with eight strikeouts, piloting Evansville to a 6-0 win over Bradley. Isom (4-4) gave up a hit to lead off the game and a single in the seventh inning, but that was all as the freshman went nine strong, facing just three over the minimum number of batters. The southpaw threw six perfect innings in the contest, and ended each of the first five innings with a strikeout. Isom completely shut down the Braves, as they managed just a .071 batting average against him. The victory marked his fourth of the season and second complete game shutout of the year.

JD Learnard (ILS) - Learnard (4-2) earned the win in Illinois State’s 9-4 victory against Wichita State Sunday afternoon in Wichita, Kan. Learnard pitched six innings, allowing four runs (two earned) on six hits, while striking out four and walking three. Learnard ranks second on the team with a 4.15 ERA through nine starts. The Fairmount, Ill., native has struck out 28 batters this season through 52 innings pitched.

Chris Machado (INS) - Machado pitched the Sycamores back into their win at Missouri State on Saturday, tossing 2.1 scoreless innings in relief with a pair of strikeouts. Machado threw a season-high 44 pitches out of the bullpen as the Sycamores rallied from a four-run deficit to pick up the conference win. The ISU junior leads the team with 21 appearances and a 3-2 record out of the bullpen this season.

Nick Petree (MSU) - Petree tossed a complete-game three-hitter to beat Indiana State Friday. The freshman retired 17 Sycamores in a row and allowed just one baserunner after the first three ISU batters of the game reached, closing the game by sitting down 24 of the last 25 batters he faced. Petree struck out five and held ISU to a .111 average in the game.

Brian Flynn (WSU) - Flynn earned the win in a complete game effort against Illinois State on Saturday.  He went a career-high nine innings and gave up one run on two hits with one walk and four strikeouts.  He needed just 101 pitches for the victory.  He gave up a single to the first batter of the game and then retired 18 of the next 19 batters with the one reaching on a hit by pitch.  He allowed a leadoff double in the seventh and the runner came around to score on a sacrifice fly.  With the win, he improved to 4-1 on the year and lowered his ERA to 4.05.