There should be plenty of fans at ISU's Redbird Field on Tuesday at 6 p.m. when the Horenberger-Bass Classic is renewed. (Photo courtesy GoRedbirds.com)
By Bryan Bloodworth
NORMAL – A pair of red-hot baseball teams collide Tuesday when Illinois Wesleyan travels across Division Street to meet Illinois State at 6 p.m. at Duffy Bass Field in the renewal of the Horenberger-Bass Classic.
ISU brings an eight-game winning streak and a 26-17 record into the contest. The Redbirds have won 15 of their last 17. Meanwhile, IWU counters with a 26-7 record, while winning four straight and 19 of its last 22.
“It started on our spring trip,” said Martel of the Titans’ successful season. “I was a little leery going into the season because our first 13 games were against really good teams. I thought if we came out 6-7 or 7-6, I’d be really happy.
“We came out 10-3 and have just been rolling since then. The kids have done a great job. Every day it’s been somebody new step up and get the job done for us. There’s just a really good karma around the team.”
The Titans clinched their 24th College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin regular-season championship over the weekend and their 10th straight trip to the CCIW Tournament – the longest streak in the league history – May 9-11 on the IWU campus.
“We have a lot of respect for Dennis Martel and the Illinois Wesleyan program,” said ISU coach Mark Kingston. “Obviously, we know what they have done in recent years. We know they’ve won their conference championship already this year.”
Kingston will send freshman left-hander Will Headean to the mound. He has a 2-5 record with a 4.66 earned run average.
“Will’s our mid-week starter and that’s who we’ll go with,” said Kingston. “We’re not going to change anything about how we operate for this game. We look at every game on our schedule as important and this is another one on our schedule. We’re going to go out there and expect to play good baseball and hope for good results.”
Martel brings a similar approach into the game, which has been rained out three of the last four years.
“You approach it that you want to win,” Martel continued. “You want to beat them without a doubt.”
Martel will start junior Matt Conrad on the mound and use a number of other pitchers out of the bullpen. Conrad has a 1-1 record with a 7.30 ERA.
“We’ll extend him out as far as we can and then go to others guys in the bullpen,” added Martel. “Unfortunately because of the rain, some of those guys haven’t been able to throw a lot the last two weeks.”
The Titans have seven regulars hitting over .300 and carry a .315 team batting average. The leaders are Jonathan Erickson with a .345 average, while two-time All-American Kevin Callahan has a .341 average with a team-high 30 RBIs and four home runs.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a great team with great players,” Martel continued. “We’re a great team with a lot of good, good players. Our balance and depth have probably been the keys.
“We can beat you in different ways. We can slug with teams or we can find a way to scratch out runs here and there. And our pitching staff has been absolutely phenomenal.”
Pitching also has been a key for the Redbirds in their recent surge to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
“Our pitching has really solidified this month,” said Kingston. “A lot of that has to do with having our pitching coach back. Coach (Bill) Mohl was dealing with some very serious family issues.
“Now that he is back, our team has kind of settled down and solidified. Our pitchers have really gotten back to where they can and should be with his daily guidance. That’s a big reason for why we’ve been able to play the way we felt we should be able to play.”
From an offensive standpoint, Eric Aguilera has paced the Redbirds with a .390 batting average. He also leads the team with 42 RBIs and seven home runs. Kyle Stanton and Normal Community High School graduate Zac Johnson are hitting .325 and 313, respectively.
“Eric Aguilera, Kyle Stanton and Zac Johnson are hitting in the middle of lineup,” said Kingston. “And Brett Kay and (NCHS graduate) Chad Hinshaw are setting the table for them. Those guys are all doing really good jobs.”
ISU leads the all-time series, 83-70, and is 4-2 since it was renewed in 2004. The series began in 1890.
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org