NORMAL — Illinois State baseball coach Mark Kingston resides in the enviable position of having all of his top three starters sporting an ERA below 2.00.
Kingston also has been pleased with how his bullpen is developing as the Redbirds enter a weekend series with Southern Illinois at Duffy Bass Field with a 26-12 overall record and a 7-5 Missouri Valley Conference mark.
The return of Brock Stewart from a hamstring ailment gives ISU another late-inning option to pair with closer David Suarez. With three saves, Suarez features a 2.21 ERA and has 25 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. Stewart has fanned 14 in 9 1/3 innings and has a 1.93 ERA.
"For this weekend, Brock and David are our two key guys in the bullpen right now," said Kingston, who also has Ben Hecht (1.76 ERA) at his disposal.
Sophomore left-hander Will Headean will make one more midweek start Tuesday at home against Purdue before becoming another bullpen weapon. After early struggles, Headean has his ERA down to 3.67 and has 42 whiffs in 34 1/3 innings.
"That will further strengthen our bullpen," Kingston said.
ISU will start Dan Savas (7-2, 1.50 ERA) in Friday's 6 p.m. series opener with Dylan Craig (5-1, 1.80) pitching Saturday at 2 p.m. and Jeremy Rhoades (4-3, 1.80) toeing the rubber for Sunday's 1 p.m. contest.
Southern (21-20, 3-9) will likely start right-hander Sam Coonrod (0-5, 3.74), left-handed Heartland College transfer Aaron Hauge (3-3, 3.77) and righty Todd Eaton (2-2, 4.20).
Fieldcrest High School graduate Lee Weld has a 3-0 record and a 2.12 ERA out of the Salukis' bullpen.
Crowded Valley picture: ISU is right in the middle of a congested race for the Valley regular-season championship. Dallas Baptist and Evansville lead the way at 6-3 with the Redbirds and Indiana State one-half game back at 7-5. Wichita State and Missouri State are both 6-6.
"It's wide open," said Kingston. "There are a lot of good teams in the league. We think we have as good a chance as anybody. But it's all about what happens on the field."
RPI at 33: ISU has a current Rating Percentage Index (RPI) national ranking of No. 33, which would seemingly put the Redbirds in good position for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth if they finish strong and do not win the automatic bid that goes to the MVC Tournament champion.
"Our RPI is in a good spot right now," Kingston said. "But if we worry too much about that, we don't focus on the things that really matter. That's playing good baseball and preparing for your opponent. That's what we will continue to do and hope the RPI takes care of itself."
Soria signs: ISU has secured a signed national letter of intent from Zach Soria, a Mesa Community College catcher. Soria was ranked the No. 8 player in Illinois out of Chicago St. Rita. He originally attended Louisville.
Soria is batting .304 with 17 RBIs in 135 at-bats for Mesa.