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MVC Showdown in Normal
The Indiana State, Illinois State series last weekend served as both a showdown for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference and an opportunity for each school to boost its at-large resume for the Field of 64. The matchup featured solid showings from both clubs and, despite lopsided wins on Saturday and Sunday for Indiana State, reinforced the idea that both the Redbirds and the Sycamores have a strong case for regional bids regardless of whether or not either is able to take down the MVC title at the end of the month.
Friday night’s Illinois State victory included a wild walk-off win for the Redbirds, but was driven primarily by junior LHP Brent Headrick, who went the distance for the “W”, allowing three earned runs on just five hits and two walks while striking out nine. It was the longest outing of the year for the southpaw, though he needed just 115 pitches to dispatch the Sycamores and showed an impressive ability to hold the quality of his arsenal through the late innings. Headrick effectively wielded his 88-to-92 mph fastball to both sides of the plate and leaned heavily on a solid average changeup/breaking ball combo the second and third time through the order, keeping the Indiana State bats regularly off-balance.
While the Redbird bats came to play on Friday, totaling 17 hits, Illinois State continually struggled to bring its baserunners in. After tying the game in the bottom of the fifth, the hosting club entered the bottom of the ninth with the score still knotted at three. Junior Jordan Libman starting things off with a base hit through the left side and was promptly lifted for speedy sophomore 2B Jeremy Gaines. Gaines reached second base two batters later off of an infield single by junior 3B Joe Butler, setting up an unlikely walk-off win.
With OF Gunner Peterson at the plate, Gaines took off for third on a ball in the dirt that did not scoot as far away from backstop Max Wright as it first appeared. After recovering and preparing to throw to third, Wright lost his footing mid-throw driving the ball low and to right of the bag with 3B Jake Means unable to rein it in. Unfortunately for Indiana State, the ball trickled slowly enough into the outfield grass that there was no real chance for left fielder Joe Boyle or SS Clay Dungan to close on the ball and deliver it back home before Gaines was able to hop up at third and sprint to the plate with the winning run.
The loss overshadowed another impressive performance by Indiana State stopper Tyler Grauer (2-3, 2.05 ERA/1.19 WHIP with seven saves and 37 strikeouts in 26.1 innings), who worked the final two innings of the game and struck out five while walking none and allowing four hits (taking the tough luck loss on the unearned run scored by Gaines), relying on a tough-angle fastball and plus changeup. Friday starter Triston Polley wasn’t his sharpest, allowing 12 hits in six innings of work, but did a solid job of working out of trouble and limited damage by issuing just one free pass and striking out five. He sat primarily 87-to-90 mph with his fastball and moved it around the zone well while mixing in a quality low-80s slider with solid tilt and an 80-to-82 mph changeup that turned over well and flashed above-average multiple times.
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