CARBONDALE — SIU catcher Nick Hutchins can't do much to make up for a slow delivery to the plate.
The junior from Franklin, Tennessee, tries to help the Saluki staff between the ears before taking a seat between the lines.
"It just depends on what's going on when I go out to the mound," said Hutchins, a three-year starter who helped SIU's pitching staff to the fifth-best ERA in the league this season. "I usually try to say the most encouraging things that I can to 'em, because whenever I'm up there, especially the last thing I say before I leave, because that's what they're going to remember the most, that's what sticks in their heads."
SIU (27-28) will need more than positive thoughts to turn around a disappointing season at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this week in Springfield, Missouri. The Salukis take the fourth seed into their first game against fifth-seeded Wichita State (27-28) at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Win, and SIU will get a rematch with No. 21 Missouri State (37-15) or eighth seed Illinois State (13-38) Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Lose, and the Salukis will face the loser of the Bears-Redbirds game at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in an elimination game.
SIU has been heavily fueled by its weekend starting pitching, which accounted for nearly half its victories this season (13). Friday night starter Chad Whitmer (6-3, 3.67 ERA), who is scheduled to throw against the Shockers Wednesday, led the Salukis in wins and led the Valley in strikeouts (89).
Hutchins has caught him all season.
"He does a really great job of handling the pitchers, whether it's being a leader on the field, he calls a great game," said SIU assistant coach Seth LaRue, who works with the catchers. "He also does a good job of framing and blocking, and throwing. He works really hard, and to his credit, all his hard work has paid off and he's become one of the best catchers in the Missouri Valley."
Despite hitting just .231 in 54 games, Hutchins could be one of a slew of Salukis who could hear their names during the MLB draft next month. Henderson said several scouts have told him the overall class for catchers is not great, and with his defense, Hutchins could help several clubs.
"In a perfect world, he comes back for another year for us, but if he signs, we're going to give him our blessing," Henderson said. "He's going to play pro ball. There's no doubt in my mind, whether it be this year or after his senior year. He's too good of a catcher, and he's a better hitter than he's shown this year, too. That's one thing, if he does come back, it could be good for him because he'll be able to show that he can hit."
Picked to finish second in the league in the preseason poll, the Salukis closed the regular season a game under .500 after splitting a pair at Bradley. The third game of the series was washed out.
SIU still got five players on the all-conference teams, which were announced Tuesday, but No. 2 starter Michael Baird and first baseman Logan Blackfan were not among them. Baird, the preseason pitcher of the year in the Valley by Baseball America, struggled the second half and finished the regular season 4-3 with a 4.46 ERA. He hasn't thrown in almost two weeks because of a sore muscle under his right armpit, SIU coach Ken Henderson said.
Baird threw live in practice earlier this week and is expected to be able to start Thursday's game, whoever it is against.
Blackfan was a preseason all-conference pick, along with Baird, but is hitting just .223 on the year with 17 extra-base hits. His 62 strikeouts in 53 games are one off the single-season record set by Greg Andrews in 2004, but the 6-1 junior makes up for it a bit with a solid glove at first base.
The Salukis hope the neutral venue for the Valley tournament could mean a new start. SIU reached the tournament championship game the last time the MVC played its tournament at Hammons Field, in 2012, before falling to Creighton 8-6.