NORMAL — A topsy turvy regular season has not diminished the luster of Missouri Valley Conference baseball.
Although preseason favorite Missouri State has suffered through an injury riddled campaign and finished sixth in the league standings, Illinois State has emerged as a surprise co-champion with Dallas Baptist as the MVC Tournament opens a five-day run at Duffy Bass Field on Tuesday.
The Valley ranks sixth in RPI (Rating Percentage Index) among all Division I conferences and although only the tournament champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the league has three teams with realistic at-large berth aspirations in ISU, Dallas Baptist and Indiana State.
"You look at the depth and see the RPIs and you've got to realize Missouri State, one of your best programs if not the best, and they're having a poor year by their standards," Illinois State coach Steve Holm said. "To still do what the rest of the league has done, and sustain them having the rough year, is pretty amazing."
The Valley also has its top three teams well positioned in RPI with Dallas Baptist No. 24, Illinois State No. 29 and Indiana State No. 32.
"It's a special conference," said Wes Carroll, coach of No. 4 seed Evansville. "We have a lot of great coaches and a lot of great rosters really competing at a high level. The top, middle and bottom are competitive. It's going to be an exciting conference tournament."
The tournament, held at Duffy Bass Field for the first time since 2013, begins Tuesday with a pair of loser heads home play-in games. Sixth seed Missouri State (19-34) takes on No. 7 Valparaiso (14-35) at 2 p.m. with No. 5 Bradley (31-18) and No. 8 Southern Illinois (24-27) squaring off at 7 p.m.
The rest of the tournament is double elimination with top seed Dallas Baptist (38-16) facing either Missouri State or Valpo at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Second seed Illinois State (32-22) then opposes either Bradley or Southern at 3 p.m. with No. 3 Indiana State (36-15) taking on Evansville (24-27) at 7 p.m.
Dallas Baptist also is ranked 22nd nationally behind the hitting of Bryce Ball (.320 average, 17 home runs, 52 RBIs) and Luke Bandy (.350-5-21) and a top-flight starter in MD Johnson.
Shooting for its first tournament title since 2010, Illinois State hit a league-high .310 in conference games. Third baseman Joe Butler set the pace with a .422 average in league action and is batting .324 overall. Right fielder Joe Aeilts (.353-9-43) and center fielder John Rave (.310-11-44) also are key Redbird hitters.
If the Braves survive Tuesday, Bradley is a team to watch with the eighth best team ERA (3.33) in the nation and potent hitters Luke Shadid (.348-10-41) and Dan Bolt (.333-11-40).
Either Missouri State (2015, '18) or Dallas Baptist ('14, '16, '17) have won the last five Valley tournaments. The top two seeds have taken home the crown in 29 of 38 past events.
Pitcher of Year?: MVC specialty awards will be announced Tuesday. Pitcher of the Year voting should be particularly interesting.
Based on overall numbers, the top contenders are Bradley's Mitch Janseen (1.94 ERA), Indiana State's Collin Liberatore (2.45) and Johnson (2.48).
Yet Redbird Brent Headrick also warrants consideration. The junior left-hander has a 3.69 season ERA but was the best hurler in conference action with a 7-0 record and 1.31 ERA.
Feeling a draft: According to Baseball America, Missouri State catcher Drew Millas is the MVC's top prospect for next month's amateur draft.
The publication lists three Valley players in its top 250 prospects with Millas at 165, Rave at 200 and Evansville pitcher Adam Lukas at 226.
Lukas sports an electric fastball that reaches the high 90s and has touched 100 mph.
"For him, the secondary pitches need to get over (the plate). That's something he's been battling," Carroll said. "Whenever people can get keyed up for the fastball, it kind of catches up to him."