CARBONDALE – It was all Southern Illinois all game long Saturday as the Salukis dominated Indiana State, ending the game in seven innings with a Grey Epps three-run walk-off homer to make it a 14-3 victory for the day and secure the series win.
Epps admitted that the 10-run walk-off might not be as exciting as the bottom of the ninth, close game variety, but for the Salukis’ pitchers and everyone sweating it out in the heat, it was a welcome sight. SIU coach Lance Rhodes said he’d been eying the 10-run mark since about the fourth inning when the Salukis had a six-run lead and it led to a different strategy than he’d maybe employee otherwise like a sacrifice bunt in the sixth inning.
“As soon as that ball came off the bat, I was really happy about it,” he said about Epps’ homer. “From about that fourth running on, I knew in the back of my mind I was trying to eye that 10-run rule. Most times I probably wouldn’t have bunted in that situation with a six-run lead but I wanted to push it to eight and try to get us closer to that 10 so we could conserve pitching as much as possible.”
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In Friday’s win, SIU’s pitching was helped by Matthew Steidl pitching the final 5.2 innings to close the game out. Saturday, the bullpen was spared any work as Noah Farmer pitched all seven innings – making Epps’ three-run homer even more important.
“We were going to make a change there in the eighth inning with Noah having such long innings – sitting in and going out with this heat and his pitch count was getting a little elevated,” Rhodes said. “Next week, we have to go a day shorter so we’re going to have shorter rest. So we were going to make a change there and it was nice not to have to use somebody. Now we have more pitchers who haven’t touched the mound and are ready, 100 percent, to go tomorrow.
“It allows us to not have to worry about how many moves we make tomorrow because we’ve got five or six arms that haven’t touched the mound,” he added. “So whatever move we feel is best for that moment, we can do that because we’ve got enough to spread through nine innings to be able to get through the ballgame.”
But Epps wasn’t the only SIU hitter with an important three-run home run in Saturday’s win. After Rhodes made the decision to have pinch hitter J.D. Ortiz lay down that sixth-inning sac bunt, Nathan Bandy made it an irrelevant move by sending a breaking ball over the left field wall for his first career homer to make it a nine-run lead and he knew it as soon as it left his bat.
“Oh it felt really good. It’s been a while since I’ve hit one and he gave me a hanging breaking ball that I knew was coming and put a good swing on it,” he said.
“We definitely know that it’s in there but he just hasn’t had it,” Rhodes added. “He’s a guy who’s been a high on-base and high average type of guy but to finally get that monkey off the back so to speak, maybe there’s more to come. It was definitely a big blow right there.”
Saturday’s win was a stark contrast from Friday’s win where SIU faced ISU ace Matt Jachec and had to claw out a victory. On Saturday, SIU scored a run in every inning after the first and only failed to put up a crooked number once in that stretch.
“We haven’t had one in a while but in this offense, one through nine can put up as many runs as we need to,” Bandy said. “We’re never really out of a game and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of it.”
Rhodes said it’s important to be able to win games in both of those styles because, especially in postseason play, you’ll find yourself in closer games.
Only two starter for SIU, Jack Rigoni and Nick Hagedorn, failed to record a hit but each had an RBI to their credit and Rigoni’s defense in center saved several runs. Bandy and Epps both went 3-4 on the game with four RBI to lead the way for the Salukis with Epps scoring four times. Kaeber Rog hit two RBI doubles, driving in J.T. Weber both times who hit two singles ahead of the powerful lefty. Weber also had an RBI to his credit as did DH Zack Jensen.
Farmer went the distance, striking out two of the 27 batters he saw, allowing only nine hits and three earned runs and issuing one free pass.
With Dallas Baptist beating Evansville Saturday, SIU moves into a tie with the Aces and hold the tiebreaker in the Missouri Valley Conference and will enter Sunday’s game against ISU as the top-ranked team in the conference.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to get to all season. That was the goal when we set out. To say we don’t want to be in first place is a lie – that’s what we’re here to do and what we want to do,” Rhodes said. “Number one, we have to take care of our own business and we’ve done that. It’s nice to catch a break and have DB win a game to get us back even with (Evansville) and then to go into tomorrow and take care of what we can control again and that’s our own selves.”
First pitch of Sunday’s game is scheduled for 1 p.m.