The Saluki baseball team was a few steps away from beating the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year earlier this season, but it got its revenge against him Tuesday.
The eighth-seeded Salukis (26-29, 4-17) upset the top-seed University of Evansville Purple Aces (34-20, 15-6) to open the MVC Tournament in Terre Haute, Ind.
Junior right-handed pitcher Sam Coonrod brought only one win to his 15th start of the year because the Saluki bats struggled to give him run support the entire season.
Coonrod did not have an easy task facing off against Evansville junior Kyle Freeland, but the Salukis earned a 9-1 win behind Coonrod.
Along with MVC Pitcher of the Year, Freeland was named to the MVC All-Conference First Team. He posted a 10-1 record with a 1.62 ERA and a 13.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio before Tuesday’s contest. He earned a no decision against the Salukis earlier this month in a 4-2 victory for the Purple Aces.
“We had some success off Freeland at our place,” coach Ken Henderson said. “He’s awfully good. He’s everything he’s advertised as. He is the best pitcher in this (conference) and he is one of the best in the country.”
Freeland struck out four Salukis in the first two innings, while Coonrod struggled with his command. Coonrod walked the bases loaded in the second inning, which allowed the Purple Aces to take a 1-0 lead off of a sacrifice fly.
It was all Salukis after that and Freeland began to struggle. He walked two batters in the fourth to load the bases and allow SIU to tie the game on a sacrifice fly from senior third baseman Ryan Rosthenhausler.
Senior catcher Matt Jones advanced to third on the sacrifice, which helped the Salukis steal the lead. Junior outfielder Parker Osborne attempted to steal second but was caught in a pickle. Jones stole home before Osborne was tagged out, which gave them a 2-1 lead.
The Salukis scored two more runs in the fifth off of a triple by senior designated hitter Cody Daily. Freeland only gave up one triple all season before Tuesday.
“I’m definitely seeing the ball really well now,” Daily said. “I’m trying to stay as patient as possible. When I’m hitting that good, I’m not going to get pitched to as much.”
Coonrod said he knew they were going to win at that point in the game.
The Salukis had a five-run seventh inning to extend their lead to 9-1and put the game out of reach.
“We just played well today,” Henderson said. “That’s the bottom line. Sam Coonrod threw a great game, we got timely hits and we found a way to win the ballgame.”
Coonrod said he knew it could be his last start as a Saluki. He said he plans on signing if he gets selected in the First-Year Player Draft in June.
“I told myself I was just going to have no regrets,” Coonrod said. “I wanted to win this game so bad and I’m so happy it happened.”
Henderson said if the Salukis get to the championship game Saturday, he isn’t sure if he would pitch Coonrod. He threw 117 pitches Tuesday and 97 pitches Thursday against Dallas Baptist University.
“I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize his health,” Henderson said. “He’s got a long and good future ahead of him.”
Henderson said in the third inning he was wondering who he should warm-up, but by the eighth Coonrod was still going strong, which made his start memorable.
“Big time guys step up in big time situations,” Henderson said. “(Coonrod) certainly did that. That was as good as he’s been all year and he was just in control.”
The Salukis play the fifth-seeded Illinois State University Redbirds today at 3:07 p.m. SIU was swept by the Redbirds on the road earlier this season, however all three games were decided by one run. The Redbirds beat fourth-seeded Wichita State University (29-27, 13-8) 6-0 before the Salukis played.
The Purple Aces will play the Shockers today at 8:07 a.m. The winner of that game will play the loser of the SIU game Thursday.
The Shockers also swept the Salukis while they 10-run ruled SIU twice in three games.
“I don’t care who we play,” Henderson said. “I feel like we can beat anybody if we play like we’re capable of.”
Aaron Graff can be contacted at [email protected], @Aarongraff_DE on Twitter or (815)-483-3781