Saluki Baseball: Putting the pieces together
April 13, 2023
With a slow start to its season, Saluki baseball is starting to put the pieces together. Currently sitting at 8-1 in the MVC on the season after a three game series sweep over Belmont this past weekend, Southern Illinois is sitting close to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference rankings.
“Having the opportunity to play against one of the better teams in the league and hopefully our guys are excited to come out and compete against somebody at the top of the standings,” head coach Lance Rhodes said.
The Salukis were nothing short of excited when it came to the first game of this most recent series. They ended the game with a walk off home run by Matt Schark at the bottom of the 11th inning to secure their first win of the weekend.
This win set the pace for the remainder of the weekend. The Salukis ended their second game of the series by a long shot, 6-1, followed by a 4-3 win that tallied the second walk off home run of the series, both of which were hit by junior Matt Schark, making his third walk off of the season.
Despite their success in conference play, the Salukis are 19-13 overall.
“We didn’t have the start we wanted, I don’t think anyone pictured it that way. I think the biggest thing we have gained from having the start to the season that we had is toughness from all of the close games that didn’t go our way,” said senior Ryan Rodriguez.
He followed with, “We have been through adversity, so I see that as a positive being that we have been challenged much more before conference play. Now that conference play is starting, I think that adversity is bringing our offense together and that shows the grit we have.”
Teams like University of Kentucky and University of Illinois can be attributed to the adversity that helped prepare the Salukis for teams like Belmont.
When it comes to the team’s offense, it took them a while to figure everything out. When it comes to preparing for series like this past one, Rhodes just wants his athletes to be prepared with every tool in the toolbox. He wants his players to feel confident when stepping up to the plate.
“The only way they are going to accomplish this is during practice. When we prepare, we do it as though we are stepping onto the field, even in everyday practice,” Rhodes said.
Someone who has stepped up to the plate with the confidence that coach Rhodes is talking about is junior Schark. Having tallied two of his three walk off homeruns of the season within the span of three games, Schark had proven to his coaches and himself that he is a reliable piece of the puzzle for the Salukis.
“I’ve been putting too much pressure on myself lately, when I trust myself and I’m relaxed I know that even if I mess up the next man up will pick me up,” Schark said.
When talking about preparation for games, offensively, the Salukis have been focused on their mentality and confidence a lot. Rodriguez said one thing he had been working on physically when he steps up to the plate is staying back and trusting his hands to react and hit the ball hard.
Having the fourth highest batting average on the team with a .306, Rodriguez said he keeps his mentality simple.
“It’s easy to over-complicate things with mechanics in baseball, so I save that for practice. In games I try to minimize it as much as possible and just compete, ‘see ball, hit ball’ is what I tell myself,” he said.
Making sure the ball is in the strike zone and reacting the best they can to the pitch is the Salukis main goal at the plate.
Looking forward to the rest of the season and future improvements that need to be made, defensively, Schark said he needs to work on staying ready every play.
“I can’t pick and choose when I want to be locked in,” he said.
Offensively, he says he needs to work on staying in his strike zone.
“Where I go wrong is when I start chasing pitches and give myself less of a chance to succeed,” he said.
In order for this team to be of championship caliber again, the players need to continue having their winners’ mentality and secure all the wins they can.
“The run to run ball games is what we need to focus on,” Rhodes said.
Having had such a successful season last year, winning the MVC championship, the Salukis have a good outlook to give themselves that opportunity again this year. With the momentum they have right now from their past few games, the Salukis are ready to take off.
When it comes to seniors like Rodriquez, who will be leaving the program after this season, being a Saluki is one of the most important things to them. They aren’t thinking too far ahead into the future when it comes to their game; they are taking each practice and each game as a blessing.
“I try not to think so far ahead and just leave it all out on the field one game at a time, it has been a blessing to be able to play at SIU,” he said.
Being a little way more than halfway done with their season, the Salukis still have time to show people that they are capable of being a game winning team as they take on the rest of their season ready to attack at the plate.
Sports reporter Joei Younker can be reached at [email protected].
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