NORMAL, IL- At this point, it’s far easier to list the offensive categories in which Illinois State center fielder John Rave doesn’t lead the team, but for the sake of the discussion, let’s talk about where he does pace the squad.
He’s tops on the team, or tied for the team lead, in batting average (.382), on-base percentage (.430), slugging percentage (.655), hits (42), triples (2), home runs (5), RBI (27), total bases (72), and stolen bases (5). Just about the only meaningful offensive stats in which he’s not the team leader are doubles, where Collin Braithwaite leads with 12, walks, also led by Braithwaite, with 26, and runs, led by Owen Miller, with 28.
Some of those numbers also put him near the top of Missouri Valley Conference leaderboards. His batting average is good for fifth in the conference. His slugging percentage lands him second, behind only Dallas Baptist’s Devlin Granberg. He’s also inside the top five in the league in RBI, doubles, triples, home runs, and total bases.
That’s quite a leap in his second year on campus. As a freshman, when Rave was immediately thrust into the lineup as the team’s everyday center fielder, he hit .258/.352/.362 with eight doubles, four triples, two homers, 20 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. He’s already eclipsed a great deal of last year’s totals, and for the ones he hasn’t, it seems like just a matter of time, as he has clearly announced himself as one of the most dynamic players in the league.
“He went out and he played all summer, and I think that’s huge for our development of our guys,” said Illinois State head coach Bo Durkac. “He worked really hard with Mike Stalowy, our hitting coach, on getting his swing on plane more. Last year, he just had a really hard time hitting the ball to all fields. And this year, you saw it today (Sunday), he lined out to left field. He’s really doing a good job of hitting the ball hard to all fields, and that is unbelievably important for a hitter. Unless you’re Barry Bonds in 2003, you can’t just live by pulling the ball. You have to hit the ball to all fields, and, of course, his speed usually gets him a hit a week, just on those ground balls.”
That type of improvement for a hitter from year to year is the type of thing that can go a long way toward taking a team to the next level, and early returns suggest that’s the case with this Illinois State team. Sure, an 11-15 overall record and 2-4 mark in MVC play might not seem like much to talk about, but that already represents a decided step in the right direction for the Redbirds.
Their two wins in conference have already given them as many as they had in the regular season a year ago, and they’re just five overall wins shy of equaling their 2017 total. And when it comes to the eyeball test, you can see that this is just a better team, particularly offensively.
Last year’s team hit .255/.341/.363. One hitter, Miller, had a batting average better than .300, and Miller and Braithwaite tied for the team lead in homers with six. This year’s team is hitting .279/.348/.439. Three different hitters, Rave, Miller, and Braithewaite, are hitting .300 or better, and Rave and Noah Sadler already have five homers on the year, suggesting that each has a good chance to fly by last year’s team-leading total. Fully, ISU has 26 home runs as a team in 2018, after hitting just 24 all of last year.
In particular, Rave, Miller, and Braithwaite, three players with very different backgrounds leading them to where they are, give the Redbirds a dangerous trio at the top of the order.
Rave is a hometown kid in his second year in the program and first as a bonafide MVC Player of the Year candidate. Miller is a three-year veteran from Fredonia, Wisconsin, who was a star from the start of his career. He’s a .329/.363/.493 career hitter in 132 games, with 49 doubles, 13 homers, and 105 RBI. Braithwaite, meanwhile, is an Arizona product who began his career at BYU before moving on to Chandler Gilbert Community College and now ISU. Like Rave, he had his moments a season ago, but has taken a star turn in 2018, hitting .322/.419/.563 with ten doubles, three homers, and 23 RBI.
Illinois State is still looking for answers on the mound to a certain degree, as they currently sport a 6.19 team ERA, and have just one pitcher, Brady Huffman, with more than ten innings pitched and an ERA under 4.00. Getting that area rounded into form will play a huge part in how serious ISU is as a player in the top half of the MVC this year, but make no mistake about it; led by Rave, they have the offense in place to be exactly that.
Missouri State (22-7, 5-1)
The Bears entered the College Baseball Central rankings for the first time this week, after they swept Evansville to run their conference record to 5-1, one week after taking two of three from Indiana State on the road.
Logan Wiley, a Kansas State kickback, could be a huge key in the second half for MSU as a Sunday starter behind Dylan Coleman (5-1, 2.77) and Ty Buckner (3-2, 2.50), and if his performance against Evansville is any indication, that’s great news for the Bears. He threw six shutout innings, giving up three hits and no walks with nine strikeouts, and he was incredibly efficient on top of it, throwing just 84 pitches.
It speaks to how high the standards are for a player of Jeremy Eierman’s caliber that he’s hitting .299/.406/.566 with 11 doubles and five home runs, and it feels a little bit underwhelming. Looking a bit closer, though, he’s hit better in recent weeks, and only a tough weekend against Evansville took his average back down under .300. After getting off to a slow start that had him sporting a .206 average on March 4, he was as high as .333 before the Indiana State series, and his doubles numbers are on pace to set a career high, so you have to figure that it’s also just a matter of time before more home runs follow.
Bradley (17-8, 4-2)
The Braves secured a key series win over Indiana State this past weekend at home. These two teams figure to occupy a similar place in the MVC pecking order this season, so this result could be an important differentiator down the road.
BU continues to feature a stout offense that’s hitting .302/.398/.421 as a team. In each of the three games against ISU, a different player stepped up to carry the load. In Friday’s 6-3 win, Dan Bolt went 2-for-4 with two doubles and four RBI. In Saturday’s game, a 9-3 Indiana State win, the Braves managed just five hits, but team each came from Luke Shadid and Derek Bangert.
The come-from-behind 7-6 win on Sunday was highlighted by Eli Rawlinson going 3-for-3 and a three-run bottom of the eighth inning that featured a two-run single from Luke Mangieri to tie the game 6-6 and a sac fly from Andrew Ivelia to put Bradley ahead.
Starting pitching was a concern throughout the weekend for the Braves, but they got a gem from Cole Cook on Friday. The lefty threw eight innings, giving up four hits and one run with two walks and five strikeouts. On Sunday, they got outstanding relief work from Alex Gray, who threw six innings, giving up four hits and one earned run with one walk and seven strikeouts for arguably his best outing of the season.
Southern Illinois (17-14, 4-2)
The Salukis have won each of their first two MVC series. After winning two of three against Illinois State two weekends ago, they did the same against Valparaiso this past weekend.
Michael Baird really set the stage for the weekend with a great start on Friday night in a 6-2 SIU win, throwing a complete game, giving up seven hits and two runs with two walks and seven strikeouts. Only a ninth-inning two-run home run by Valpo’s Sam Shaikin kept Baird from tossing a shutout. On Sunday, in an 8-0 win, Baird was outdone by Brad Harrison, who has been dominant at times this season, including this time around. He threw seven shutout innings, giving up just four hits and two walks with 11 strikeouts. He now has a 2.81 ERA this season with a .196 opponent batting average in 48 innings of work.
Offensively, SIU has gotten a great bounce back season from Logan Blackfan. After earning All-MVC honors as a sophomore in 2016 and coming into 2017 as a potential MVC Player of the Year candidate, he struggled to a .215 average with 12 doubles and four home runs. This season, he’s hitting .350 with seven doubles already, and he’s already equaled his career high in home runs with six. His .418 on-base percentage is also tracking to be a career high, as is his .553 slugging percentage.
Dallas Baptist (19-10, 2-1)
The Patriots, who also entered the top 25 rankings this week, kicked off MVC play this past weekend with a series win over Illinois State on the road.
The biggest takeaway from the series has to be DBU’s outstanding resiliency, as every game in the series was close, even if the final scores lines don’t necessarily suggest that was the case. On Friday, ISU led 1-0 heading into the fifth inning, when DBU plated two runs. Then, they exploded for seven runs in the top of the eighth to give them all of the breathing room they would need in a 9-4 win.
On Saturday, they trailed 4-0, 7-3, and 11-9, the last of which came as they came to the plate in the top of the ninth, before winning 17-11. For more on this game in particular, check out the piece that went up on the site Sunday morning.
On Sunday, they fell to ISU 4-3, but not before they scored two runs in the top of the ninth to tie the game 3-3 and send things into extra innings.
On the mound, DBU mixed and matched quite a bit, as the ISU offense gave them a stiff test, particularly on Saturday, but each day, they were able to find one guy to pull them through. On Friday it was Kragen Kechely, who threw 4.1 innings in relief, giving up two hits and one run with one walk and five strikeouts. Sean Boyle was that guy on Saturday, as he threw 3.1 innings to quiet the Redbird bats, giving up one hit and no walks with three strikeouts. On Sunday, Trevor Conn was outstanding in relief, throwing six innings, giving up three hits and one unearned run with two walks and six strikeouts.
Indiana State (16-10, 2-4)
The Sycamores have dropped each of their first two league series, first to Missouri State, and most recently, to Bradley.
Starting pitching was an issue for Indiana State in the Friday and Sunday games, each losses to BU, but on Saturday, Triston Polley continued what has been a breakout junior season for him. The lefty threw 6.2 innings, giving up four hits and three runs (two earned) with three walks and four strikeouts. For the season, he’s got a 2.61 ERA and a .211 opponent batting average in 51.2 innings of work.
More than anything else, he’s just been consistent. He’s thrown at least 5.1 innings in each start this season, and he’s only given up more than three runs in a game once.
Speaking of consistent performers, power bat Dane Giesler is leading the way again. He’s hitting .293 with five home runs, and with 20 walks, he’s getting on base more consistently and is well on the way to breaking his career high mark in free passes, 24, set just a year ago.
Valparaiso (9-18, 2-4)
After two weekends in the MVC, the Crusaders are still looking for their first conference series win as members of the league.
This past weekend, they lost two of three to Southern Illinois, with the offense serving as the biggest bugaboo. On Sunday, they were shut out 8-0, and a ninth-inning two-run homer from Sam Shaikin on Friday in a 6-2 loss was all that kept them from being shut out to open the series as well. For a team hitting .289 as a group, that was a bit of a surprise.
In Saturday’s 6-2 win, however, there were some clear bright spots. In his start, Trey Ferketic threw a complete game, giving up nine hits and two runs with two walks and seven strikeouts. Offensively, they got a huge day from Blake Billinger, who went 5-for-5. On the season, the junior from Los Gatos, California, is hitting .374/.433/.539 with 13 doubles.
Evansville (6-19, 0-3)
The Purple Aces were swept to begin MVC play by Missouri State this past weekend. They dropped a Friday heartbreaker 6-5, which had them leading 5-4 at the seventh inning stretch, before falling 8-2 and 11-4 on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
The Bears’ offense just never allowed Evansville’s starters to get comfortable, as none of the three threw more than 4.2 innings in the series. Offensively, Troy Beilsmith, the hitter who makes the Aces go, had a tough series, going 1-for-10.
On Sunday, they got big games from hitters at the bottom of the order, as eight hitter Craig Shepherd went 3-for-4 and nine hitter Stewart Nelson enjoyed a 2-for-3 day.