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Redhawks eye OVC regular-season title in baseball
Southeast needs a sweep and some help to capture the crown
The Southeast Missouri State baseball team would love to win the program's second Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship.
Finishing at least second in the league, which means one of the two first-round byes in next week's conference tournament, also would be nice.
The Redhawks have an outside shot to accomplish the former and a much better chance to accomplish the latter as they finish the regular season with a three-game series at Eastern Illinois.
Southeast (29-21, 12-7) and EIU (15-32, 9-11) will play a noon doubleheader today and a 1 p.m. contest Saturday in Charleston, Ill. Today's twin bill originally was scheduled to start at 1 p.m. but was changed.
OVC series usually are played Saturday and Sunday but are moved up for the final series so squads can set their pitching rotation for the conference tournament that begins Wednesday.
"This series will be huge," senior All-American catcher Jim Klocke said.
Southeast already has locked up its 16th straight OVC tournament berth, a league record.
The Redhawks have qualified for the event every season under coach Mark Hogan. They made it this year despite having 19 newcomers, suffering several key early injuries and being picked to finish seventh.
"For a team predicted to be seventh, with all the new players and the injuries we've had, I couldn't be prouder of this group," said Hogan, who led Southeast to its lone OVC regular-season title in 2002, along with OVC tournament crowns and NCAA tournament berths in 1998 and 2002.
Southeast is third in the nine-team conference, one game behind first-place Murray State, although the Thoroughbreds lead the Redhawks by two games on the loss side.
The Redhawks are percentage points behind second-place Tennessee Tech, which hosts Murray State today and Saturday.
Another half-game back of Southeast is fourth-place Jacksonville State, which closes at Morehead State.
"We're in striking distance," Hogan said. "It's going to be an interesting weekend."
The only way Southeast can win the OVC regular-season title is by sweeping EIU -- possible but a difficult task -- and having Murray State lose two of three to Tennessee Tech.
But several other scenarios would allow the Redhawks to finish at least second and gain a first-round tournament bye.
"It's a huge advantage to have a bye," junior right fielder Louie Haseltine said. "We haven't had one since I've been here. This is a huge series."
Hogan knows Southeast will have its work cut out against fifth-place EIU, the defending OVC regular-season champion and preseason favorite that has not yet clinched a berth in the six-team league tournament.
"They'll be hungry," Hogan said.
The Panthers' strength is pitching, primarily their starters. EIU leads the OVC with a 5.54 ERA, including 4.38 in conference play.
EIU features three of the OVC's top starters in sophomore Mike Hoekstra (3-4, 3.60 ERA), junior Mike Recchia (5-5, 4.14) and junior Josh Mueller (2-1, 4.20).
That right-handed trio ranks fourth, fifth and sixth in ERA among OVC hurlers. Recchia and Mueller both average more than a strikeout per inning.
In league play, Recchia is 3-3 with a 2.51 ERA. Hoekstra is just 2-4 but has a 3.44 ERA.
"They've got some of the best arms in the league," Hogan said.
EIU has struggled offensively, batting an OVC-worst .279, although the Panthers are hitting .308 in league play.
The Panthers have scored an OVC-low 244 runs, averaging just more than five runs per game. They also are last in the league in home runs with 28.
Senior Alex Gee leads EIU with a .340 average. Sophomore Zach Borenstein is batting .337 with team highs of nine home runs and 40 RBIs.
By contrast, five Southeast players are batting higher than Gee's team-leading mark. Four Redhawks have more homers and RBIs than Borenstein's squad-high totals.
Four Redhawks rank among the OVC's top 11 hitters, led by junior third baseman Casey Jones (.403, sixth) and junior left fielder Michael Adamson (.399, seventh). They are followed by sophomore shortstop Kenton Parmley (.382, ninth) and Klocke (.373, 11th).
Southeast leads the OVC and ranks in the top 10 nationally with a .348 average, including .363 in league play. The Redhawks are scoring 8.4 runs per game, second-best in the conference, and their 73 homers rank second.
The Redhawks' 6.18 ERA is second behind EIU, although Southeast has a 6.74 conference mark.
Hogan shuffled his pitching rotation for last weekend's OVC series against Austin Peay and will use that same format against EIU.
That means junior Nick Thomas (6-2, 5.02) will start today's nine-inning opener, freshman Shae Simmons (3-1, 1.35) will go in the seven-inning nightcap and junior left-hander Jordan Underwood (5-5, 4.57) in Saturday's nine-inning series finale.
Underwood and Thomas rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in ERA among OVC hurlers.
Simmons would lead the league if he had enough innings to qualify. The former Scott City standout, Southeast's closer most of the season, is fourth in the conference with four saves.