Jackrabbits face reigning conference champions

Carson Herbert, Sports Reporter

Winning four of its last six games, including a series win to open conference play against Western Illinois has the South Dakota State baseball team feeling confident.

But behind their record lies problems that need to be fixed before they go up against the four-time defending Summit League champions, Oral Roberts.

Consistency both on the mound and at the plate for the Jacks (9-9, 2-1) has been an issue.

The Summit League got its first look at freshman right-hander Nic McCay last weekend as he threw seven innings and struck out a career-high 10 batters to help the Jacks claim a 7-4 win over Western Illinois.

SDSU head coach Rob Bishop has been impressed with his first-year pitcher.

“He has stuff and he has command when he is at his best, but my favorite thing about Nic is that when he’s not at his best, he is still really good because he’s really a mentally tough kid,” Bishop said. “He’s not afraid of the moment and that’s really rare in a freshman.”

McCay’s strong Summit League debut helped take the focus off the recent late-inning struggles the Jacks had over the weekend, pitchers have combined to give up 16 runs in the ninth inning in the last four games played while the team earned run average is up to 5.02.

According to Bishop, there is another phase of the game the Jacks have struggled with.

“I would contend that there is another category in baseball that doesn’t get measured and those are plays that you expect to be made that don’t get made,” he said. “They show up as a hit or they don’t show up as an error. We’ve had a lot of that.”

Junior left-hander Brady Stover has battled recurring shoulder and elbow injuries throughout the season and has been out for the last three weeks, which has caused the coaching staff to shuffle pitchers around.

Just three players are hitting above .290 in the lineup. The Jacks went 10 games without hitting a home run. Three long balls in the second game of a doubleheader against Western Illinois March 16 erased that drought.

Two of those hitters led the offense in 2018 and have been swinging the bat well as of late. Sophomore infielder Gus Steiger is on a 10-game hitting streak and leads the offense, batting .322 with 17 RBI. Senior infielder Nick Smith is on a nine-game hitting streak.

“Those two guys, I thought were our best guys this weekend,” Bishop said. “They were our most consistent guys. When you look 3-9 [in the lineup], we hit for a very low average, we were on base at a very low percentage. To be able to win a couple (games) and to not swing the bat very particularly well I thought it was a victory for our team. I think good teams win when they are playing at a B- or a C+ and I felt like that’s what we did this weekend.”

SDSU will try to get above .500 for the first time in almost a month this weekend. Luckily for the Jacks, Oral Roberts went into conference play losing five games in a row. Unluckily for the Jacks, in Oral Roberts’ last series, they earned a series sweep of Purdue Fort Wayne which has shifted the momentum. In that series, the ORU offense combined to score 40 runs in the three-game series March 15-17 .

Looking at their 2019 schedule so far, the Golden Eagles started the season with a three-game winning streak but followed with a three-game losing skid. ORU swept Purdue and then lost five consecutive games.

Infielder Hunter Wilson, a grad transfer from the reigning College World Series runner-up Arkansas, is hitting .429 and went 9-for-12 against the Mastodons.

Junior infielder and right-handed pitcher Spencer Henson has hit five home runs and has driven in 21 runs in 16 games played this season.

Outside of freshman reliever Sam Rainwater, the Golden Eagles, much like the Jacks, have struggled on the mound this season as they go into the matchup with the Jacks with a 5.57 ERA.

“The place where they play, when the weather is good, it is an offensive place and Oral Roberts has been a very offensive team,” Bishop said. It doesn’t surprise me at all that they put up a bunch of runs.”

The series will start with a 6 p.m. game on March 22 followed by a 2 p.m. game on March 23 and a 1 p.m. game to finish the series March 24. All games will be played at J.L. Johnson Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“They have won the Summit League championship enough times in a row that it really doesn’t matter what the names on the back of the uniforms are. You know you just have to go down there play good baseball,” Bishop said.