NORMAL — In his first team meeting back in August, first-year Illinois State baseball coach Steve Holm informed his team they would win the Missouri Valley Conference championship.
“We told them that’s what they were going to do,” Holm said matter of factly Saturday afternoon at Duffy Bass Field.
And how many Redbirds believed him?
“You have to ask them,” said Holm. “Thirty-three right now.”
The Redbirds completed an unlikely voyage from a 22-30 record last season and a sixth place in the preseason MVC poll to conference co-champions with an 11-4 victory over Evansville in the regular season finale.
“This is an unreal feeling right now,” third baseman Joe Butler said. “This was a huge game. Everybody was locked in and ready to go. You could see it in a lot of our eyes.”
Earning its first MVC regular-season title since 2013, ISU shared the crown with Dallas Baptist at 14-7. The Redbirds (32-22 overall) are the No. 2 seed for the Valley Tournament next week at Duffy Bass Field and open play Wednesday at 3 p.m. against either Bradley or Southern Illinois.
After Evansville (24-27, 11-10 in the MVC) tagged Redbird starter Brett Wicklund with six hits and three runs over the first two innings. Holm sent Jeff Lindgren out for the third, the same hurler who worked two innings on both Thursday and Friday nights.
The former weekend starter came up big with five stellar innings. Lindgren’s only blemish was an Eric Roberts solo home run in the third.
“We talked this morning and he said he would be hot (available),” said Holm. “I was hoping he could give us one or two, and the guy gives us five. Out of nowhere would you expect something like that. I told him you take yourself out. Tell me when you’re done.”
Lindgren’s mother was not on hand for her son’s Senior Day. Kim Lindgren was with Jeff’s older sister, Ally, who was in labor during the game.
“It’s just a really exciting day. We’ve been working for this forever and we got one,” Jeff Lindgren said. “I’m very excited for my sister as well. It will be really cool to be an uncle and a champion in the same day.”
“Lindgren was outstanding all weekend,” said Purple Aces coach Wes Carroll. “For him to come out of the pen three straight days and the third day work five innings is really a testament to his character. He kept us off balance with his slider all weekend.”
The Redbird offense was patient and persistent. Butler singled home John Rave in the first inning and Joe Aeilts did the same in the third. ISU’s third two-out RBI came when Aidan Huggins’ single brought home Jack Butler, who had doubled off the wall.
ISU did not lead until the fifth when Joe Butler’s double knocked in Jordan Libman and a Nick Zouras double plated Butler. A two-run Zouras double in the seventh increased the Redbirds margin to 7-4 before a weather delay of 1 hour, 13 minutes.
When play resumed, ISU added four eighth-inning tallies with Gunner Peterson’s single driving home two.
Lindgren (5-4) allowed two hits and struck out three. Colton Johnson and Jacob Gilmore finished with one perfect inning apiece. After the final out, Zouras sprinted from behind the plate to tackle Gilmore as the rest of the Redbirds joyously joined the pile.
Evansville starter Alex Weigand (2-6) took the loss. ISU totaled 16 hits off four Aces pitchers.