Redhawks, Panthers duel for first in OVC

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Southeast can overtake Eastern Illinois in the weekend series at Capaha Field.

Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Illinois met in the final round of last year's Ohio Valley Conference baseball tournament.

This weekend, when the teams square off in Cape Girardeau, there again will be plenty on the line.

The series that features a 1 p.m. doubleheader today -- River Eagle Distributing will provide free food and beverages -- and a 1 p.m. contest Sunday will go a long way toward determining the OVC's regular-season champion.

EIU (32-10, 10-3) leads the nine-team league, but only by percentage points over second-place Southeast (25-16, 11-4). The Panthers are ranked 24th nationally by Ping Baseball.

"It's a privilege to be where we're at, to play with this many marbles on the line this late in the season," Southeast coach Mark Hogan said. "When both clubs got off to good starts, I think people kind of circled this date.

"It should be a tremendous series, very exciting."

Both squads still will have six conference games left after this weekend, but whoever takes the series will control its own destiny regarding the regular-season title.

"Whatever happens, nothing will be decided this weekend," Hogan said. "But it does put the ball in somebody's court for the rest of the season."

The No. 1 prize in OVC baseball is winning the postseason tournament, which means an automatic NCAA regional berth.

But the regular-season crown, which rewards consistency over the course of the campaign, is not far behind.

"It's really the regular-season champion who is your best team, even though the tournament champion gets the [NCAA] bid," Hogan said.

Also important is finishing either first or second in the league, which means a bye for the opening round of the OVC tournament.

"There's just a lot on the line," Hogan said.

EIU, which beat Southeast in last year's tournament finals to finish the double-elimination event without a loss and reach the NCAA regional, comes to town with one of the country's premier offenses.

The Panthers are second nationally in batting average (.365) and slugging percentage (.599), and eighth in runs scored (9.5 per game).

EIU leads the OVC in all those categories, along with ERA (4.77) and fielding percentage (.965).

"Everything is off the chart," Hogan said of the Panthers' statistics. "They're a real solid ballclub, power up and down the lineup, good pitching, defense. I don't see any weaknesses."

The Panthers are thriving without star senior center fielder Brett Nommensen, who has missed the past several weeks with a wrist injury.

Nommensen, who was second nationally with a .521 average when he was hurt, is expected to be sidelined for at least the rest of the regular season.

EIU has plenty of firepower without Nommensen, as eight other regulars are batting better than .300.

Junior DH Richie Derbak (.429) leads the way, followed by freshman right fielder Zach Borenstein (.413) and senior shortstop Jordan Kreke (.397).

Kreke is hitting .537 in conference play to lead the league.

The Panthers, whose average is even better in OVC games -- .381 -- have belted a conference-best 79 home runs to rank eighth nationally, led by senior second baseman Jordan Tokarz with 12.

"They've handled Nommensen's loss very well," Hogan said.

EIU's top starting pitchers are sophomores Mike Recchia (7-1, 2.53) and Josh Mueller (7-0, 3.96). Derbak doubles as a premier closer with a 5-2 record and six saves.

But the Panthers pitching has not been nearly as strong in OVC play with an ERA of 6.32.

That could bode well for a potent Southeast offense that has surged recently.

The Redhawks have scored 75 runs in their last eight games, boosting their team average to .314.

"We're not chicken liver at the plate ourselves," Hogan said. "We just need to do what we've been doing."

Three Southeast hitters have been red hot in recent weeks.

Senior right fielder Tyrell Cummings (.390) leads the way, followed by junior catcher Jim Klocke (.378) and senior left fielder Justin Wheeler (.361).

Cummings is batting .446 in conference play.

Wheeler tops Southeast with 11 homers, while Cummings is first with 47 RBIs, just ahead of Wheeler's 46.

On the mound, the Redhawks will use normal conference starters senior left-hander James Leigh (6-1, 4.70), senior Todd Strahlendorf (2-2, 6.61) and Kyle Gumieny (3-2, 6.22).

Hogan wasn't sure the order in which that trio would pitch this weekend.

Like EIU, Southeast has a top closer in Klocke, who is tied for the OVC lead in saves with seven.

"We've been playing good ball," Hogan said. "We should have a huge crowd this weekend and it should be a lot of fun."

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