Dawgs preparing for run at conference title

SIU sophomore left fielder Greg Lambert laces an RBI double to left field March 29 at Itchy Jones Stadium. Lambert was 3-4 with three RBIs and two runs scored in a 16-10 loss to Austin Peay. - March 29, 2016, Carbondale, Ill.

SIU sophomore left fielder Greg Lambert laces an RBI double to left field March 29 at Itchy Jones Stadium. Lambert was 3-4 with three RBIs and two runs scored in a 16-10 loss to Austin Peay. - March 29, 2016, Carbondale, Ill.

By Thomas Donley, @TDonleyDE

Coach Ken Henderson and the Southern Illinois baseball team set a goal in the offseason to win the 2016 Missouri Valley Conference championship. 

The Salukis get their first chance to take steps toward that goal this weekend when they host Indiana State in a three-game series.

“I think we’re as ready as we can be,” sophomore left fielder Greg Lambert said. “We’re swinging the bat pretty good lately, so we’re ready to get it started Friday. It’s been a long wait.”

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SIU enters conference play at 18-11-1, the fourth-best overall record in the MVC after being picked to finish last in the preseason conference poll. The Sycamores, picked fifth, have been half a game better than the Dawgs at 19-11.

The Sycamores present a tight matchup for the Dawgs. Indiana State and Southern Illinois enter the weekend first and second, respectively, in the Valley in ERA. The Sycamores have posted a 3.47 ERA compared to the Salukis’ 3.50.

Offensively, the Sycamores are hitting .284 with 14 home runs and 177 runs scored. SIU is batting .271 with 14 homers and 151 runs.

“They’re usually a pretty good hitting team,” junior pitcher Chad Whitmer said. “I haven’t looked at the scouting report too much, but I’m sure they’re going to be a tough team.”

SIU earned its only series win last year at Indiana State, taking two of three games in Terre Haute. This season, the Salukis have lost just one series, the season-opener at McNeese State. 

Henderson said the MVC will be one of the country’s most competitive conferences this spring.

“A lot of people don’t realize we’re usually the sixth or seventh best league in the country,” Henderson said. “We’re down a little bit in the RPI right now, but everybody’s decent. Anybody can beat anybody.”

Missouri State received votes in the latest D1Baseball.com Top 25 poll. MSU was picked in the preseason to win the conference title after coming within a game of a 2015 College World Series berth, and has backed up that nomination. The Bears, led by standout sophomore third baseman Jake Burger, are the only MVC team with a batting average better than .300 at .316. 

With a record of 24-5, Missouri State is tied with Southern Mississippi for third in the country with 39 home runs. Burger is batting .405 with a conference-leading 42 RBIs. He is tied with teammate Spencer Johnson, a senior outfielder, for the conference lead with 12 home runs. 

While the Bears’ offensive attack is the Valley’s most potent, perennial contender Dallas Baptist has been dominant on the mound. The Patriots boast the conference’s second-best record at 19-10 and the MVC’s ERA leader in junior lefty Collin Poche.

Poche’s 1.48 ERA puts him ahead of Saluki sophomore Michael Baird (1.88 ERA) for the conference lead. Patriot freshman left-handed swingman Jordan Martinson is fifth in the Valley with a 2.27 ERA and holds opponents to a conference-low .168 average in 30 innings.

Wichita State, which earned a vote for the top spot in the preseason poll, has underwhelmed at 10-19. 

All Valley teams start conference play this weekend. Missouri State opens the conference slate at Bradley (14-9), Dallas Baptist heads to Illinois State (8-20), and Wichita travels to Evansville (15-12). 

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3307.

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