Southeast to host OVC baseball power

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Southeast will host defending conference champion and preseason favorite Jacksonville State.

The Southeast Missouri State baseball team will look to continue the program's best league start in 26 years.

Standing in the way will be the Ohio Valley Conference's top squad over the past five years -- Jacksonville State.

The squads will have a three-game series at Capaha Field beginning with today's 1 p.m. doubleheader -- Kohlfeld Distributing will provide free food and beverages -- followed by Sunday's 1 p.m. contest.

"It's kind of a dream matchup for this point in the season," Southeast coach Mark Hogan said. "It should be a very exciting series."

Southeast, 16-9 overall, leads the OVC with a 6-0 record after sweeping its first two league series.

The last time a Southeast team was 6-0 in conference play came in 1983, when the then-Indians competed in the old Missouri Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

"It's a great way for us to start the OVC schedule," Hogan said. "But there is still most of the conference season ahead of us."

JSU (15-10, 4-2) has established itself as the OVC's most consistent program since joining the conference in 2004.

The Gamecocks are the defending OVC regular-season champions, going 23-4 in league play last year to set an OVC record for conference wins. They are this year's preseason favorites.

JSU has averaged 19 conference victories per season during its five years in the league, winning two OVC regular-season titles and two tournament crowns.

And the superlatives don't stop there. JSU has captured 14 straight OVC series -- believed to be a conference record -- dating back to the end of the 2007 season. The Gamecocks have won 25 of their last 28 league games.

"They've been the benchmark program since they came into the league," said Hogan, whose squad owns one series win over JSU, in 2007 at Capaha Field. "It's almost scary to think about what they've done."

Not only will JSU bring a perennial championship contender to Cape Girardeau, the Gamecocks feature one of the nation's top pitching prospects.

Junior Ben Tootle was clocked in the upper 90s during the Cape Cod League last summer and is considered a lock to be a first-round draft pick this year. Baseball America ranked him as the fourth-best prospect from the Cape Cod League.

Tootle, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound right-hander, became the first baseball player in OVC history to be named a first-team preseason All-American this year.

"He's one of the top pitchers in the country," Hogan said. "You don't get a chance to see a player like him very often."

Tootle, 10-2 with a 3.87 ERA last year, is off to a strong start in what figures to be his final collegiate campaign.

Tootle is 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA, having allowed 20 hits and 20 walks while striking out 41 in 32 2/3 innings. His 11.3 strikeouts-per-nine-innings leads the OVC. Opposing batters are hitting just .177 against him.

In his most recent outing, last weekend against Austin Peay, Tootle fired a three-hit, 10-strikeout shutout. It was his second straight start with 10 or more strikeouts.

Tootle is scheduled to work the seven-inning nightcap of today's doubleheader.

Hogan said Southeast will juggle its pitching rotation.

Senior left-hander James Leigh, Southeast's stop starter, has thrown the second game of the first two OVC series. But Leigh -- who is 4-0 with a 3.16 ERA and, like Tootle, ranks high in most of the OVC's statistical pitching categories -- will start today's nine-inning opener.

Senior Todd Strahlendorf (1-0, 5.56), who has been working the nine-inning series finale, will start today's nightcap.

Junior Kyle Gumieny (1-2, 6.21), who has pitched the opener of Southeast's first two OVC series, will go Sunday.

"It's not necessarily just for this weekend, I think this makes our pitching staff more presentable overall," Hogan said. "James has been throwing well, Todd is more of a seven-inning guy and Kyle has shown he can be a nine-inning guy.

"It's something we've talked about, and we feel like this is the best way for us to go."

Freshman left-hander Tanner Freshour (0-1, 3.45) is scheduled to start for JSU in today's opener, with junior Austin Lucas (3-1, 3.62) slated to pitch Sunday.

Both teams have exceptional closers.

Southeast junior Jim Klocke, the OVC's top catcher, has thrived in his first season as a collegiate pitcher. He leads the league with six saves, while going 2-0 with a 1.32 ERA.

JSU sophomore Bill Henke is tied for second in the conference with five saves, while going 1-0 with an 0.77 ERA.

On paper, Southeast has the better offense and JSU the better pitching staff, with the defenses about equal.

The Redhawks are batting .313, compared to .290 for JSU, but the Gamecocks have a 4.60 ERA compared to 6.43 for Southeast. Both squads are fielding .955, which ranks toward the bottom of the league.

"It has all the makings of a tremendous series," Hogan said. "I know our fans are going to enjoy it."

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