Two OVC leaders prepare for crucial baseball series

Friday, April 23, 2010
Southeast Missouri State's Jim Klocke hits a home run against Eastern Kentucky during a game earlier this season at Capaha Field. (LAURA SIMON)

The Ohio Valley Conference regular-season baseball title won't be decided this weekend.

But what happens in Jacksonville, Ala., could go a long way toward determining the champion.

Southeast Missouri State and Jacksonville State square off in a three-game series featuring two of the three teams virtually tied for the OVC lead. There will be a 1 p.m. doubleheader Saturday and 1 p.m. contest Sunday.

"It will be two good teams battling it out," sophomore shortstop Kenton Parmley said. "Whoever wins this series could win the OVC. We have to win this series."

Southeast coach Mark Hogan doesn't quite see it as a must-win situation for either squad, but he acknowledges the series' importance.

Southeast (23-14) and JSU (20-16) both are 8-4 in the OVC halfway through their 24-game league schedules.

Murray State, which at 6-3 has played one less OVC series, is deadlocked with the same winning percentage (.667). Southeast hosts Murray State next weekend.

"It will by no means define a whole lot, but it will put some people in position," Hogan said. "I'm expecting a heck of a series."

The Redhawks and Gamecocks have come from different positions to stake their claim as OVC contenders.

Southeast was picked seventh in the preseason OVC coaches poll after graduating many of its top players from last year.

JSU was tabbed second, no surprise since the Gamecocks have the OVC's most wins since joining the conference in 2004.

"They're always at the top. They've got one of the most storied programs in Alabama, going back to their Division II days," Hogan said.

Southeast has won the last two series against JSU in Cape Girardeau but has dropped all three series in Alabama since the Gamecocks joined the OVC.

"It's going to be a fun series. It should decide a lot in the conference," said All-American senior catcher Jim Klocke, who is riding a 25-game hitting streak that is the fourth-longest active streak in the nation. "They've always been a tough team and they play hard."

The Redhawks recently hit one of their few rough patches when they lost four straight, including suffering their first OVC series defeat at Tennessee-Martin last weekend.

"We felt like we didn't play to our potential against Martin, but we've picked it back up," said junior third baseman Casey Jones, second in the OVC and among the national leaders with a .446 batting average. "We're looking forward to the series. We have to go in there pumped up."

After being swept in Saturday's doubleheader at Tennessee-Martin, Southeast crushed the Skyhawks 15-1 in Sunday's series finale.

Two more lopsided nonconference victories followed as the Redhawks have outscored the opposition 38-4 during their three-game winning streak.

"I like the way we're playing," Hogan said.

While Southeast had two midweek games, JSU has been off all week. Hogan doesn't believe that will give the Gamecocks an advantage.

"They'll be rested and we've got the long bus ride [of a little more than 400 miles]. We'll see how that goes," Hogan said. "But this time of the year I'd rather be playing."

Like Southeast, JSU features some of the OVC's top players.

Junior left fielder Todd Cunningham was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America after leading the prestigious Cape Cod League in batting (.378) last summer and being voted the league's outstanding pro prospect. He leads JSU with a .352 average.

Senior second baseman Bert Smith recently became the OVC's all-time hits leader, passing Southeast's Jeremy Johnson, who played from 1997 to 2000.

Smith, JSU's career leader in stolen bases, is batting .350 and has swiped 23 bags in 25 attempts.

"They've got some tremendous players, just like we do," Hogan said.

Southeast leads the OVC with a .355 batting average that also ranks among the national leaders. The Redhawks are second in ERA (5.94) and tied for first in fielding percentage (.962).

JSU is sixth in batting average (.309), third in ERA (6.36) and eighth in fielding (.948).

In conference play, JSU has a much better ERA than Southeast -- 5.51 compared to 7.89 -- but the Redhawks are hitting .385 compared to just .283 for the Gamecocks.

But Hogan knows those figures won't determine what happens this weekend. It's how the teams perform on the field that will decide things.

"It should be a fascinating series," Hogan said.

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