One out from yet another narrow Missouri Valley Conference defeat, the Illinois State baseball team needed a hero last Saturday in Carbondale.
Senior Ryan Court stepped forward with a game-tying two-run home run and was followed by more homer heroics from freshmen Brock Stewart and Mike Hollenbeck in the 10th inning of an 11-9 victory over Southern Illinois.
The Redbirds captured an 8-2 win over the Salukis the next day and are feeding off that success entering the final series of the MVC regular season. ISU battles Evansville Thursday and Friday at 4:30 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m.
“What a momentum swing that was,” Redbird coach Mark Kingston said. “Ryan hits that home run and that totally changed the feel of our dugout. We were able to build on that, and we’ve been playing great baseball since.”
Court believes he was able to succeed with the game on the line because he did not get caught up in the moment.
“I was seeing the ball well all weekend. I was real relaxed in that at-bat and had good results,” said Court. “I hope that’s a changing point in the season. We were at a low point losing Friday. I hope we can get on a roll from here.”
Stewart’s blast was his first home run in conference play.
“I was just trying to get on base. I got a pitch right over the heart of the plate and put a good swing on it,” said the Normal Community West product. “It felt really good running around the bases. It boosted my confidence to be a freshman and contribute that much to the team.”
While ISU (32-16, 10-8) will not repeat as Valley champion, the Redbirds are jockeying for position in next week’s conference tournament in Omaha, Neb. The MVC regular season will be won by either Creighton (12-6), Missouri State (11-6) or Wichita State (11-7).
“It’s all about getting hot at the right time,” Kingston said. “Last year we peaked at the right time and had a great run in the postseason. We’re hoping we’re moving in that direction this year as well.”
Kingston has pointed out to his team that even though the Redbirds are not faring as well in Valley play as in 2010, several other measuring sticks point to another fine season.
“Our league’s RPI last year was 17. This year it’s nine. The league is that much better this year,” said the ISU coach. “Last year at this time our RPI was 104. Now it’s 72. Last year we had 27 regular-season wins. This year we have 32 with three to play.
“We have continued to improve. It’s just that the league is as good as it’s ever been.”
Evansville is 28-19 overall and 7-10 in the MVC. The Purple Aces are led by Player of the Year candidate Cody Fick, who tops the conference in RBIs (68) and is second with a .403 batting average. Fick also has a 7-3 record and a 2.38 ERA on the mound.
Around the Valley: Creighton and Missouri State will likely decide the regular-season crown this weekend in Omaha. Wichita State’s only chance to grab the title is if the Shockers sweep at Bradley and the Bears take two of three from the Bluejays.
Missouri State junior Dan Kickham saved all three Bears’ victories last week. That ties Kickham with Milwaukee Brewer Shaun Marcum for the single-season school record of 13.
Wichita State junior catcher Chris O’Brien is riding a 21-game hitting streak and leads the Valley with a .411 average.
ISU senior Tyler McNeely is No. 1 in MVC on-base percentage at .500 and second with 11 home runs.