Ex-Tiger prospers in starting role with Salukis

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Early frustration with his role on Southern Illinois University's baseball team ultimately turned into elation for Central High School graduate Jason Chavez.

Chavez has become arguably the Salukis' most dependable starter heading into this week's Missouri Valley Conference tournament in Springfield, Mo. Fourth-seeded SIU (24-30-1, 15-16-1 MVC) opens play Wednesday night against third-seeded Southwest Missouri State.

A junior right-hander in his first season at SIU, Chavez has pitched much better than his 4-4 record. His stingy 2.31 earned-run average leads the Salukis' starters and ranks in the top 40 nationally. Monday, he was named all-MVC honorable mention.

"I'm definitely a lot happier than I was early in the season," said Chavez.

That's because Chavez, a starter virtually his entire baseball life, began the season in the bullpen -- and he was seeing limited action at that.

"Early I wasn't pitching much and they had me in a reliever role. I wasn't really accustomed to that and I wasn't doing that well," Chavez said. "I went to the coaches and told them I hadn't done that before. They said I'd get a start, I did pretty well, I pretty much stayed as a starter, and things have worked out well."

Chavez has made eight starts, seven of them in MVC play. His conference ERA of 1.78 is even lower than his full-season mark, although his record isn't better primarily because of a lack of run support.

"As coaches, sometimes you have to feel your way through things. When the season started, we thought we had our one, two and three starters in place," SIU head coach Dan Callahan said. "But things didn't work out and after three weeks we had to totally evaluate things. Jason stepped up to be our No. 2 starter, and he has had a great second half."

A little help from SoutheastChavez got his first victory for the Salukis in relief against Southeast Missouri State University on March 23. It wasn't long after that game when he was moved into the starting rotation and has thrived ever since, with two complete games and SIU's only shutout of the season.

"All my pitches have pretty well been working," said Chavez, a 6-foot-5, 195-pounder who has struck out 30 and walked 30 in 66 1/3 innings while allowing 67 hits.

Chavez, the son of Southeast offensive line coach Mike Chavez, had two solid seasons at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo., after graduating from Central High School. He was even drafted in the 40th round by the Giants following his freshman campaign at MAC but did not sign.

Chavez had a big summer last year for the Capahas.

"I think it had a lot of carryover to it," he said. "It gave me a lot of confidence."

Chavez is almost certain to start at least one game in the double-elimination MVC tournament, and he could even get the ball in Wednesday's opener because No. 1 starter Eric Haberer (5-3, 3.58) is questionable with an injury.

"Our team started off slow this year -- we lost our first 12 games -- but we've played pretty good lately, and hopefully we can do well in the tournament," Chavez said. "I'm looking forward to pitching and helping out as much as I can."

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