Tourney time: Redhawks begin title quest vs. Racers

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Southeast Missouri State knows its road to a potential Ohio Valley Conference baseball tournament title could have been made easier with an opening-round bye.

But the Redhawks still believe they are more than capable of bringing home the program's first OVC tournament championship and NCAA regional berth since 2002.

"I have a really good feeling about the tournament," senior Asif Shah said. "I think we can do it."

Added senior Robby Moore: "We're all real confident that we can win the tournament."

The third-seeded Redhawks (31-22) begin their title quest at 6:30 p.m. today as they play sixth-seeded Murray State (18-33) at Brooks Stadium in Paducah, Ky.

Today's first game in the six-team, double-elimination event pits fourth-seeded Samford (29-26) against fifth-seeded Eastern Kentucky (23-27-1) at 2:30 p.m.

Regular-season OVC champion Austin Peay (36-20) and runner-up Jacksonville State (31-25), as the top two seeds, received opening-round byes and advance directly into Thursday's semifinals.

If Southeast wins today, it will meet defending tournament champion Jacksonville State at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. A loss today sends the Redhawks into Thursday's 11 a.m. elimination contest.

"It's obviously an advantage to get the bye," said Southeast coach Mark Hogan, whose squad contended for one of the top two spots until the final game of the regular season.

But, added Hogan: "I feel good about our team. I feel we're very capable of winning the tournament."

While Hogan believes a team can win the championship without having a first-round bye, he realizes it's incredibly tough to capture the crown after suffering an opening-round loss.

That's why today's two games loom so large. The losers would have to post six straight victories to earn the league's automatic NCAA regional berth.

"This first game is so important," Hogan said. "Not that you couldn't come all the way back and win [after losing the opener], but in any logical line of thinking, it would be really tough.

"You can't think about anything other than the first game. All four teams will do everything they can to win [today]."

Southeast posted a 16-10 OVC record, while Murray State was 12-13, but Hogan expects nothing to be easy when the Redhawks and Thoroughbreds square off.

The Redhawks took two of three at Murray State in both teams' second OVC series this year, but two of the games were decided by one run.

Southeast won the opener 6-5 in 11 innings, then romped 17-3 before the Thoroughbreds avoided a sweep with a 6-5 victory.

"Murray State is a tough team. They're in the tournament for a reason," Hogan said. "Everybody starts 0-0 now."

Both squads are among the lower-ranked hitting teams in the OVC. Murray State is sixth with a .285 average and Southeast ninth at .275.

But the Redhawks have scored the fourth-most runs in the conference at 346, which can be partly attributed to having the second-most home runs in the league (43).

In conference play, the Thoroughbreds are batting .302 while the Redhawks are at .271.

"We kind of went through a tough time at the plate for a while, but I think we showed signs of coming out of it late in the season," Hogan said.

The Thoroughbreds boast two of the league's top seven averages. Former Central High School star Seth Hudson is third (.373), while Tyler Owen is seventh (.356).

In OVC play, Owen is fifth (.398) and Tyler Pittman is seventh (.383). Pittman is batting .309 overall.

Murray State, however, has struggled on the mound with a 7.53 earned-run average that ranks ninth among 10 teams.

Southeast, on the other hand, has the conference's No. 2 ERA at 4.52.

No pitcher for the Thoroughbreds has an ERA under six runs per game, and none have allowed less than a hit per inning.

Junior right-hander Mike Perconte, today's probable starter, is 6-6 with a 7.27 ERA, but he has pitched much better than that in the past several weeks.

Perconte was hammered for eight hits and seven runs in just 1 2/3 innings during Southeast's 17-3 romp.

Hogan said Southeast's starter will be junior right-hander Dustin Renfrow (4-1, 2.33), who has the league's second-best ERA.

Renfrow, who has been Southeast's starter for the nine-inning openers of OVC series, threw seven shutout innings against Murray State earlier this year but was not involved in the decision.

"Dustin has been as good as anybody we've had this year," Hogan said. "He threw very well at Murray earlier and I feel really good about him."

Win or lose today, senior left-hander Asif Shah (7-2, 2.85) will get the ball Thursday. Shah is fourth in the league in ERA, while leading in shutouts with three.

Shah, who has pitched the seven-inning second games of conference series, worked all seven innings during the 17-3 rout of the Thoroughbreds.

"I feel good with Asif whether we're playing Jacksonville State or trying to stave off elimination," Hogan said.

Noteworthy

* Tickets for the tournament are $25 for a tournament pass, $8 for a day pass, $12 for a tournament pass for college students and youths age 12 to 18, and $3 for a day pass for college students and youths age 12 to 18. Anybody under 12 will be admitted free.

* The entire tournament can be viewed live at OVCSports.TV. The tournament package is available for $15.95, which includes every game (single-game purchases are not available). Visit www.OVCSports.TV to sign-up.

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