CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO- The Ohio Valley Conference sure does know how to put on a show.
The league might get flak from time to time for being too offense-oriented and for routinely showcasing games that have linescores that look like something out of MLB: The Show on Playstation.
Some of that’s unfair, though. For one, that undercuts how talented some of the offenses in the league truly are (see: Tennessee Tech), but for our purposes today, it also fails to take into account how much fun these games can be when the result is almost always in doubt until the final out is recorded.
In Southeast Missouri State’s 9-8 win over Belmont on Friday night, we got one of those games. It simply had a little bit of everything.
It had some wild comebacks, as the Redhawks came back from being down 3-0 after the top of the first, 7-2 after the top of the fourth, and 8-4 at the time of the seventh-inning stretch. It also had homers galore, with the teams combined for four longballs on the night, a dropped foul pop that immediately preceded a Belmont run, a misplayed sky-high fly ball into left that dropped inches inside the left field line for an RBI double for SEMO’s Trevor Ezell, and finally, a walk-off single from Alex Canty in the bottom of the tenth inning that was made possible in part by a comebacker that caromed off the glove of Belmont reliever Kyle Brennan that could have been a double play had it been handled cleanly. Instead, it moved Justin Dirden to second and allowed Danny Wright to reach for Canty.
For the Redhawks, though, the strangest thing might have been Carlos Vega exiting the game having given up five hits and six runs in just 3.2 innings. Vega came into the game with a 1.82 ERA and had tossed gems earlier in the OVC slate against Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, and Jacksonville State. After the game, SEMO head coach Andy Sawyers said that Vega was perhaps a little too juiced up to pitch in his final home start with a lot of family in town.
Vega has missed some time of late with injury, and this was his first start since the Murray State series three weeks ago, but when he’s been healthy, the Redhawks have been leaning pretty heavily on Vega to turn in sparkling starts. Perhaps it’s instructive to see that there are other ways to win on Friday than by scoring just enough to support a pitcher shutting down the opponent.
“Carlos is a good teammate,” Sawyers said. “Sometimes you’ll see a guy who doesn’t have the outing that they plan on and they sulk. You kind of watch Carlos in the dugout and he’s not like that. He’s our best arm, and we know he’s going to get drafted. We’re happy for him and happy for the opportunity, but it’s not all about him in his mind. He comes off the field, doesn’t have a good outing, and we’re getting beat, and he was into the game, he was cheering on his teammates, and when you see him coming out of the dugout, it was real joy. I think that says a lot about the young man, but also for our kids to know that we can win a game when Carlos doesn’t dominate. We’ve been riding him, he’s been real, real good for us during the conference season, but we haven’t played real well since he went down. We haven’t won a series since he’s been hurt. I think maybe (it’s) a boost of confidence and maybe a message to our team that we don’t have to rely on Carlos to beat somebody by himself for us to win a series.”
Now the Redhawks are halfway to a pivotal series victory, and it was their veteran core that really led the way.
Tristen Gagan, a senior, went 2-for-5 with three RBI and got the scoring started for the Redhawks with a solo homer to lead off the second inning. In front of him, junior Trevor Ezell collected two hits, both doubles, in five at-bats. He also stung a line drive in the bottom of the ninth that looked ticketed for the right field corner, which would have scored the walk-off run had it not been snared by Belmont first baseman Chas Hadden and turned into a line-drive double play to end the frame.
His success has continued what has been an outstanding season for the second baseman. After missing just about all of last season due to injury after serving as a big part of Southeast Missouri State’s 2016 regional team, Ezell has immediately stepped back in and become a stalwart in the lineup in 2018, hitting .393 with 16 doubles and 44 RBI. That’s to say nothing of the intangible qualities he brings to the table. Sawyers was effusive in his praise about all of the above.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more out of Trevor Ezell as a human being, as a teammate, as a worker, as a leader, as a baseball player,” said Sawyers. “He has really, really advanced feel to hit. He is clutch. He gets big swings in big situations. The moment is never too big for him, and he’s just a fierce, fierce competitor. You don’t always see it on the field because he knows how to handle himself, but I’m telling you, the fire burns really bright in him…I think he’s one of the best pure hitters in college baseball in terms of his ability to barrel the ball consistently and in big moments. I can’t tell you how many games we’ve either won or we’ve had a chance to win because, for some reason, the good Lord is smiling on us and Trevor walks to the plate with runners on base in the eighth or ninth inning.”
The Redhawks also enjoyed a big day from junior Justin Dirden, who is in his first year in the program…He went 4-for-5 and scored the winning run on the Canty single. He also leads the team in homers with 13 and his 16 doubles are good for a tie (with Ezell) for second on the team, behind only Chase Urhahn and his 18 doubles. It has certainly been a nice payoff for the O’Fallon, Missouri, native at the end of what has been a winding journey from East Carolina to Jefferson College to Southeast Missouri State.
So to what extent did Sawyers expect Dirden to have this level of impact?
“Zero extent,” Sawyers said flatly. “He hit no home runs in the fall season, and honestly, wasn’t very good. We thought he had ability, we knew he’d play, but we did not know he was going to do what he’s done. He started out at East Carolina, and then came home. Didn’t play at East Carolina because he left in the middle of the year, and then got hurt the next year at junior college, so he doesn’t have a lot of college at-bats. This is the most at-bats he’s ever gotten in a college season…He has been clutch. He has a really even demeanor. If you watch him, you don’t see him get really excited or show emotion, and it’s that calm demeanor. He doesn’t get sped up in big moments.”
With Tennessee Tech dominating the league the way they have, the league title isn’t in play anymore, but there’s still plenty for Southeast Missouri State to play for down the stretch. With the win, they moved to 16-9 in OVC play. With Morehead State losing to Murray State on Friday night and Austin Peay out of conference play this weekend, the Redhawks moved into a tie for second place in the league, with the Eagles and Governors.
Getting to that point is not insignificant with the way the OVC tournament is played. Teams seven and eight in the league standings play a play-in game one day before everyone else plays. The winner of that game plays the second-place team the following day, which would obviously put the second-place team at a huge advantage. Finishing second also means you put off a potential matchup with Tennessee Tech until later in the tournament, with the hope being that they’re a little thinner on pitching by that point and a little more vulnerable as a result.
If SEMO is going to finish strong enough to secure that second-place finish and then make a run in the OVC tournament, they’re going to need those veterans to step up in a big way, and on Friday, we saw just how successful the Redhawks can be when they do, even in the face of some of your typical OVC wackiness.