TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — After shutting down Missouri State for seven innings in a 3-2 win on May 14, SIU pitcher Jake Combs was asked about the importance of building momentum for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
“The tournament,” he said, “is going to be brutal.”
It might be less brutal for the third-seeded Salukis if they can do something they couldn’t last year as the No. 1 seed – win the first game. Their chance to do that arrives bright and early Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. against No. 4 Evansville at Bob Warn Field.
If SIU (30-25) answers the early wakeup call, it can turn off the alarm clocks for a while. It wouldn’t play again until 6:30 p.m. Thursday against the second-seeded Bears. More importantly, it would be able to save pitching, the goal of every team in a conference tournament.
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Last year, the Salukis found out the hard way how tough the loser’s bracket can be after a 5-1 setback to Missouri State in the first round. SIU won four games in just over 48 hours to get within a game of the NCAA Tournament but simply ran out of pitching in an 11-3 defeat to the Bears.
Its pitching options that game were Matthew Steidl starting with zero days of rest, Tanner Lewis out of the bullpen after a five-inning start three days earlier and Trey McDaniel out of the bullpen with zero rest. Other tested arms like Noah Farmer, Ben Chapman and Jordan Bloemer weren’t available after shouldering heavy loads in previous games.
“You’re certainly better off if you win the first game,” said SIU coach Lance Rhodes. “If you wind up in the loser’s bracket right away, you have to play six games to win the tournament. If you keep winning, you only have to play four.
“So it’s important to get off to a good start in this tournament.”
Rhodes has tabbed lefthander Jordan Bloemer (4-1, 5.36) to take the ball against the Purple Aces (33-22). Bloemer posted a 6-3 win against them on April 15 in Carbondale, working five innings and allowing two runs off five hits and two walks with five strikeouts.
Although Bloemer hasn’t been as effective in his last three starts, allowing a total of 15 runs, Rhodes likes his matchup with Evansville. It has a lot of powerful lefthanded hitters who, if Bloemer can locate his off-speed stuff well, could be neutered.
“You look at the stats and they certainly hit worse against lefthanders than righthanders,” Rhodes said. “Doing this frees us up to use Jake against an opponent that he might match up better against, too. That’s going to dictate some of our decisions this week – who we think a pitcher matches up with.”
Pitching will ultimately determine how far the Salukis go this week. That means a bullpen that has been up and down this year needs to move the needle upward. Paul Bonzagni has been Rhodes’ top choice in high-leverage situations since mid-March but has coughed up runs in seven of his last eight appearances.
Steidl, who was an All-MVC preseason pick, went 2-8 with a 6.34 earned run average and has allowed runs in nine of his last 10 games. There have been games where he’s thrown the ball on par with last year but hasn’t gotten the results.
If SIU can pitch and catch the ball reasonably well, it should be able to produce runs, even against opponents’ top pitchers. The Salukis averaged 6.6 runs per game, led by All-MVC second team picks Pier-Olivier Boucher (.338-15-42), Cole Christman (.308-8-34) and Steven Loden (.257-18-54).
SIU’s season has played out in three distinct parts. There was an 8-12 start in which pitching was the major problem, followed by a 15-2 surge that saw the Salukis get better pitching and go 100 innings without an error. And they closed the year with 11 losses in 18 games, dropping four of their final five MVC series.
But a poor finish doesn’t always lead to a poor showing in the conference tournament. For proof, consult last year. Missouri State finished sixth in a seven-team league and had to play in a play-in game but earned the league’s automatic NCAA bid anyway.
“We just need to play good baseball,” Rhodes said. “That means pitching, playing good defense and scoring runs. It sounds simple but I like our chances if we do those things.”