SPRINGFIELD, MO- Missouri State or Dallas Baptist? Dallas Baptist or Missouri State?
Over the last few years, that’s seemingly been the binary choice you’ve had on your hands when picking a winner of the Missouri Valley Conference.
In 2015, both teams were outstanding and ended up hosting regionals, as you may remember, but it was Missouri State that ended up winning the league with a three-game edge over DBU in the regular season. In 2016, though, the tables were turned, and the Patriots took home the league title, with MSU stumbling toward the bottom of the league standings, despite winning 38 games overall.
Coming into 2017, it seemed that the league title would once again come down to these two. DBU returned a physical offense led by familiar names like Austin Listi, Matt Duce, and Camden Duzenack. The Bears, meanwhile, brought back a veteran duo in the rotation in Jordan Knutson and Dylan Coleman and some fire power of their own with Justin Paulsen, Jake Burger, and Jeremy Eierman back in the lineup.
Either was a perfectly understandable and explainable choice for league favorite.
But after an 11-8 win over Dallas Baptist, capturing the series from the Patriots, Missouri State has left no doubt about who the favorite is in the MVC moving forward.
Perhaps the final score doesn’t look like that of a good, old-fashioned boat race, but it had the feel of one for much of the afternoon, as the Bears buried the Patriots early on under a pile of 400-plus-foot home runs and line drives into the gaps and corners.
In the first inning alone, after Hunter Steinmetz led off with a single, Justin Paulsen launched a ball about 420 feet onto the berm behind the wall in right-center field to give his team a quick 2-0 lead. Three batters later, after Jeremy Eierman doubled and Matt Brown was hit by a pitch, Aaron Meyer tripled into the right-center field gap, making it a 4-0 lead. The next batter, Blake Graham, doubled into the left field corner, and just like that, the Bears were running away with things, up 5-0.
In the second, Paulsen achieved the feat of having home runs travel more than a combined 800 feet, as he banged a solo homer off of the building behind the left-center field picnic area to lead things off. In the third, it was Graham coming through again with an RBI single after Meyer had led off the inning with a double. In the fourth, Eierman, not wanting to let Paulsen hit all of the prodigious home runs on this day, lifted a ball out to left field that cleared the berm seating area behind the wall. After four innings, it was 8-0.
While a continuation of outstanding seasons so far for the likes of Paulsen and Eierman, the offensive outburst might be a sign that some others might be ready to break out in a big way, including Graham, a .300 hitter a year ago who missed about a month of the season from late-February to late-March dealing with a knee injury.
“He (Graham) has been out with a knee injury for about four-and-a-half weeks,” said Missouri State head coach Keith Guttin. “We missed his presence in our lineup offensively. We’d been inconsistent offensively, but Eierman’s done a good job protecting Jake (Burger), and we moved Paulsen, at coach (Nate) Thompson suggestion, to the two-spot. He’s not a base stealer, but he’s an on-base percentage guy, and he’ll hurt you if you make a mistake. Moving him to the second spot in the order has helped energize our offense.”
Another offensive breakout candidate is Meyer. Last season, he hit the ball well overall to the tune of a .315 batting average, but he was limited to just 12 hits and a .185 average in Missouri Valley Conference play. Already this year, he’s gotten a hit in four of MSU’s five MVC games, and with a three-hit day on Saturday, including a three-run home run in the eighth that officially put the game out of reach, he now has seven hits in league play, more than half of last year’s total for the entire conference season.
For Guttin, Meyer’s success is simply a continuation of what he started at the end of last year.
“At the MVC Tournament last year, he was 13-for-20,” said Guttin of his senior second baseman. “That’s slow-pitch (numbers). And he had a great summer in the Prospect League and led the league in hitting. He’s continued to mature. The last ten games or so, he’s really been better.”
During this most recent run of success for the MSU program, they’ve been known for outstanding starting pitching performances, and that should continue this season. On Friday, Jordan Knutson struck out 13 in eight innings of two-hit, one-run baseball, and even though he hit a wall on Saturday and allowed a four-run sixth inning that briefly breathed life into the DBU dugout, Dylan Coleman looks poised to turn in his fair share of quality starts this season.
But with the presence of Jake Fromson in the bullpen, to go along with veteran arm Bryan Young, MSU is far from a one-trick pony on the mound.
After closing out the 5-1 win on Friday with a scoreless inning of relief, Fromson came on in relief of Coleman to start the seventh inning, and shut things down when the Patriots were trying to build on the momentum from the outburst in the sixth. He threw two innings, giving up two hits and no runs with no walks and three strikeouts. With the three innings of scoreless relief on the weekend, he’s now thrown 36.1 innings over 17 appearances with a 1.73 ERA, a 40/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .165 opponent batting average.
Young also got some work, as he tossed the last one-third of an inning to close the game out after Jake Lochner ran into some trouble and allowed four more runs to the Patriots in the ninth inning. On the season, Young, over 11.2 innings, has a 0.77 ERA, an 18/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .146 opponent batting average.
Once again, Missouri State is a well-rounded, experienced bunch ready to carry the flag for the MVC come postseason time, and they’ve shown that through two days of this marquee series against Dallas Baptist.