Baseball gears up for series against conference-leading Missouri State

Even though the SIU baseball team has the opportunity to take first place against Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference, the team looks at this weekend’s series like any other.

“We try not to pay too much attention to the standings,” senior catcher Brian Bajer said. “We only focus on the task at hand for each weekend series. You can only handle what’s right in front of you.”

The conference-leading Bears (29-13, 8-3 MVC) lie ahead of the Salukis (23-18, 8-4 MVC) in a three-game series from Friday to Sunday in Springfield, Mo. SIU sits a half-game behind Missouri State in a tie with Indiana State for second place in the conference.

“It’s always the goal to win the league, and this weekend has the potential to put us a lot closer to that goal,” said coach Ken Henderson.

Missouri State was the favorite to win the Valley, according to the MVC coaches poll taken before the season started. The Bears are currently the highest nationally ranked team in the Valley at 36, according to the NCAA Baseball Ratings Per Index.

“Everybody wants to beat them right now because they’re the big dogs in the league right now,” junior third baseman Austin Montgomery said. “I just remember the pitching was pretty solid last year. Their hitting was questionable, but apparently they got a lot better.”

Missouri State leads the Valley with a 2.51 team ERA and six complete games, but the team is fifth out of eight teams offensively with a .276 team batting average. The Bears lost only four seniors from last year’s squad that took two of three from the Salukis in their series last year.

“They just really grind out at-bats. They really don’t give away anything,” pitching coach P.J. Finigan said. “They always have a good approach and a good gameplan, so you better be ready when you get in there and know that even when you get ahead, you better make quality pitches or they’re going to make you pay for it.”

Henderson said Missouri State’s starting pitchers, who have been strong all season, are plagued with injuries. Junior right-hander Pierce Johnson (2-4, 2.28 ERA), who is expected to make the Saturday start, came back April 22 against Wichita State after missing his last two starts due to forearm tightness.

Johnson will face off against senior right-hander Cameron Maldonado (5-1, 6.18 ERA), who has struggled in his last two starts. Maldonado has allowed 12 runs during his last two starts, and SIU is 9-1 in games that Maldonado starts.

“Last weekend, (Maldonado) battled a lot. He had his splitter, but he seemed to lose command toward the fourth or fifth inning (against Dallas Baptist April 13),” Bajer said. “He’s been really good for us all year, and everyone’s going to go through tough times all season.”

Bears junior right-hander Clay Murphy (5-1, 1.37 ERA) had a strong season start, but he had a season-ending elbow injury in early April. Junior right-hander Cody Schumacher (5-0, 4.68 ERA) replaced Murphy in the rotation and is expected to start Sunday against Saluki freshman right-hander Sam Coonrod (2-2, 3.98 ERA).

Friday’s game will feature Saluki junior left-hander Cody Forsythe (3-1, 3.36) fresh off a complete-game shutout in his last start against Creighton April 21 that earned him MVC Pitcher of the Week honors. He will square off against Missouri State sophomore right-hander Nick Petree (8-2, 0.77 ERA).

The Salukis have won five consecutive games leading up to their showdown with the Bears, including a Creighton sweep April 21-22. The win streak follows a five-game losing streak, and three of those were against what Henderson said was a strong Dallas Baptist team April 12-14.

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