OVC's top teams will square off at Capaha
Friday, April 6, 2007
The Redhawks will host conference-leader Jacksonville State in a three-game series.
Nothing regarding the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season baseball championship will be decided in Cape Girardeau today and Saturday.
But that doesn't diminish what shapes up as an early showdown between Southeast Missouri State and defending OVC tournament champion Jacksonville State.
The teams, one-two in the OVC standings after two series, will have a 1 p.m. doubleheader today and a 1 p.m. contest Saturday, all at Capaha Field. The games will be preceded by a 12:45 p.m. ceremony to commemorate Southeast coach Mark Hogan's achievement of becoming the program's all-time leader for coaching victories.
Jacksonville State (16-13, 6-0) leads the OVC after sweeping both its conference series, against perennial power Austin Peay and at defending regular-season champion Samford, which is also the OVC preseason favorite.
"We're all psyched for it," Southeast sophomore left fielder and former Notre Dame High School standout Matt Wulfers said.
Southeast (19-10, 5-1) stands second in the 10-team league, although the Redhawks' two series have been against perennial OVC bottom-feeders Tennessee-Martin and Murray State.
"It's going to be a big test for us," Southeast senior shortstop Robby Moore said.
Hogan acknowledges as much, since the Gamecocks have been among the OVC's premier programs since they joined the league in 2004.
But Hogan doesn't want the Redhawks to get too up or too down regardless of what happens in this series, since after it's over, there will still be 18 conference games remaining.
"It's looking like a huge series for the third weekend," Hogan said. "Somebody will come out of it in pretty good shape.
"They've been a great team since they've come into the league and it will be a major challenge for us. But no matter what happens, from either end, there will still be a lot of baseball left to be played."
Southeast has matched its best six-game OVC start since joining the conference in 1992 after sweeping visiting Tennessee-Martin and taking two of three at Murray State.
"Our goal at the start of the season was to win every [OVC] series," Wulfers said. "So far we've done that."
While Southeast's pitching staff leads the OVC with a 4.06 ERA, Jacksonville State ranks seventh at 5.84.
But the Gamecocks' three primary starters in conference play have been solid and Hogan expects to face a strong group of hurlers in the series.
"They've got an excellent pitching staff," Hogan said.
Jacksonville State's rotation against Southeast is expected to be senior right-hander Tony Drinkard (4-0, 3.35) for today's nine-inning opener, freshman righty Ben Tootle (3-2, 5.49) for today's seven-inning nightcap and junior righty Donovan Hand (3-4, 4.84) for Saturday's nine-inning finale.
Hand, already a two-time all-OVC selection, has been the league's pitcher of the week for the first two weeks of conference play.
In two league games covering 17 innings, Hand has allowed just 10 hits and four runs, with 17 strikeouts and only one walk.
During his first two seasons with the Gamecocks, Hand was a combined 19-8 with a 2.72 ERA.
"He's been one of the best pitchers in the conference since he was a freshman," Hogan said.
Southeast's top weekend starters have been rock-solid all season. They rank among the OVC's top six in ERA.
Junior righty Dustin Renfrow (2-0, 1.40) will work today's opener, followed by senior lefty Asif Shah (3-0, 2.43) in the nightcap and freshman lefty Josh Syberg (4-1, 3.23) on Saturday.
Renfrow leads the conference in ERA, with Shah third and Syberg sixth.
"They've really pitched well for us," Hogan said.
Offensively, the teams are among the OVC leaders in batting average, Southeast at .294 and Jacksonville State at .297.
Jacksonville State junior outfielder Clay Whittemore is the OVC's third-leading hitter at .405, and he ranks high in many other statistical categories.
Sophomore second baseman Bert Smith is batting .380 and is among the OVC's stolen-base leaders with 15 thefts in 18 attempts.
Senior designated hitter Garrett Bass, the son of former major-leaguer Kevin Bass, has the OVC's longest active hitting streak at 22 games. He is batting .343.
"They've got a very formidable team and we're looking forward to a great series," Hogan said. "It should be exciting."