Perhaps the preseason prognosticators were right.
Perhaps the SIU baseball team deserved to be picked eighth in the nine-team Missouri Valley Conference.
It certainly didn’t seem that way earlier this season when the Salukis jumped out of the gates with an 11-4 non-conference record and strung together an eight-game winning streak.
However, after two disappointing series with Bradley and Creighton, SIU is a fragile 4-4 in the MVC and about to head on the road for the first time in conference play against a team that has given the Salukis their share of troubles.
SIU (15-9, 4-4) is traveling to Normal to take on Illinois State this weekend with a lot more on the line than it may want to admit. This series against the Redbirds will be the Salukis’ last chance to gain some momentum before heading into a series next weekend against first-place Southwest Missouri State.
Illinois State shocked many last weekend when it split a series with SMS, something that SIU head coach Dan Callahan sees as a perfect example of how much parity there is in the conference.
In order for the Salukis to rise above this level of parity, they will have to be more consistent at the plate and on the mound.
Callahan has voiced his thoughts about how up-and-down SIU’s play has been over the past couple of weeks and said he would like to see it become more stable.
You’re always going to have bouts of inconsistency, Callahan said. Whether you’re playing 56 games or 162 games, there are going to be games where you don’t play well. But you’d like to see it not happen in the league, and you’d like to not see your worst day of the season happen in the middle of your first conference weekend.
One of SIU’s most pressing problems may be its starting pitching, which had been its strongest asset at the beginning of the season.
Starters Jake Alley, Jerel Deitering and Luke Nelson have begun to show signs of being human after starting the season looking nearly invincible. Last weekend against Creighton, Alley and Nelson both had their worst performances of the season to date, while Deitering, who’s been hampered by tendinitis in his pitching arm, has not pitched in more than a week and is not scheduled to start against the Redbirds.
SIU is countering this problem with a platoon of youth in the form of freshmen Ryan Welch, Bryan Rueger, Eric Haberer, Andrew Weber and sophomore Josh Joiner. Those five pitchers have combined to throw 34 1/3 innings in the last nine games for the Salukis and have even picked up a pair of victories in that span.
Another problem Callahan has seen in his squad is a lack of discipline at the plate, which he feels is a direct cause of the Salukis’ inconsistency. Callahan said a knowledge of the strike zone can go a long way toward having a successful at-bat.
A perfect example of that is Jeff Stanek, Callahan said. Jeff Stanek could have umpired on Sunday. What he did with the strike zone over the course of last weekend was just unbelievable.
If SIU can stay focused at the plate and snag a few decent pitching performances, it may be able reclaim its spot as a contender for this year’s MVC title.
If, however, the Salukis continue to dawdle in mediocrity, they will prove their critics to be wise soothsayers.
Reporter Todd Merchant can be reached at [email protected]