Bears also in unusual position this year

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Southeast Missouri State will play its final two nonconference games of the year against a team that, like the Redhawks, is having a somewhat rare struggling season.

But, like Southeast, Southwest Missouri State has gotten hot toward the end, as the Bears try to squeeze into the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

The Redhawks travel to Springfield, Mo., for a two-game series with SMS, at 7 p.m. today and noon Wednesday.

SMS is 21-29 overall and 7-14 in the MVC, which places the Bears last among nine teams. With just three games remaining, SMS is two games out of a spot in the six-team MVC Tournament. But the Bears have claimed six consecutive victories.

Bears coach Keith Guttin, in his 23rd year at SMS, is in danger of posting just his second losing season, the other sub-.500 mark being a 24-33 ledger in 2000. The Bears are 803-480 under Guttin, including a College World Series appearance in 2003.

"It's unusual to see them with this kind of record," Southeast coach Mark Hogan said. "But they seem to be playing very well right now."

The same holds true of Hogan's squad, which is 21-28 overall and 12-12 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Southeast is in a three-way tie for sixth place in the 10-team OVC, with the top six finishers qualifying for the conference tournament.

Southeast's chances of making the tournament field did not look very good a couple of weeks ago, but the Redhawks have won five of their last six games, including a three-game sweep at Tennessee Tech over the weekend that at least gives them a shot to avoid missing the tourney for the first time in Hogan's 11 seasons at Southeast.

The Redhawks close out the season at home with a three-game OVC series Friday and Saturday against ninth-place Tennessee-Martin. A sweep would assure Southeast of a tournament berth, and taking two out of three might get the Redhawks in -- but it also might not.

"It's tough to sweep any team," Hogan said. "But we've put some wins together here in the last couple of weeks to at least put ourselves in a position to make the tournament. I'm proud of the guys for the way they've battled back."

Southeast needs a sizzling finish and a deep run in the OVC Tournament to avoid just Hogan's second losing season since he took over the program in 1995, the other sub-.500 record being a 24-33 mark in 1997.

But a suddenly revived offense has Hogan feeling pretty good about Southeast's chances of staying hot.

Southeast entered the Tennessee Tech series averaging less than five runs per game -- by far the lowest figure during Hogan's tenure at the university. But the Redhawks exploded for 46 runs and 48 hits. They have 62 runs and 66 hits in their last four games, all victories.

"It's the kind of offense we've been waiting for all year, and it wasn't just a few people, it was up and down the lineup," Hogan said.

The Redhawks have lifted their team batting average to .280, led by Eric Horstman (.358). Freddy Lopez has surged up to .301, while Brady Noll -- a catcher who has been playing left field to try and boost the offense -- has ridden a hot streak of several weeks all the way up to .292.

Brent Lawson (.273), Bo Jenkins (.260) and Jordan Payne (.258) are other Redhawks who have raised their averages considerably in recent outings.

Southeast probably will need all the offense it can muster against SMS because the Redhawks' pitching staff, already shorthanded due to injuries, doesn't figure to go very deep with the final OVC series coming up.

SMS has a .282 batting average, led by Chris Taylor (.333). The Bears' earned-run average is 5.18, compared to 5.32 for Southeast.

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