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18 May 2007
JSU Could Get Rags or Riches after Weekend

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

The Jacksonville State baseball team has its sights on winning the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title this weekend, but the Gamecocks can't afford to ignore their rear-view mirror.

As they travel to Murray State for the final conference series of the year, the Gamecocks find themselves squarely in the middle of the championship race — with definite rewards and dangers on either side.

With some help, JSU can win the regular-season championship and earn the top seed in next week's OVC tournament. If not careful, though, the Gamecocks could fall out of the top two and into the less desirable position of having to play a first-round tournament game.

“The exciting part is we feel like we've had some ups and downs but we put ourselves in a position to have an opportunity to win the league,” JSU coach Jim Case said. “This is what you've tried to prepare yourself for — to be in this position going into the tournament.”

The Gamecocks (29-24, 16-8) sit in second place, a full game behind league-leading Austin Peay (34-19, 17-7) and a half-game ahead of third-place Southeast Missouri (30-20, 15-8). Peay entertains fourth-place Eastern Kentucky and SEMO, which lost a league game to rain earlier this year, visits seventh-place Tennessee Tech.

Six teams make the conference tournament. The top two finishers draw first-round byes, which would be quite a relief for the JSU pitching staff.

The Gamecocks would earn the top seed by winning at least one more game than Peay this weekend; they hold the tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping the Govs back in March. They would maintain their No. 2 spot by doing the same thing as SEMO, but they'd drop into the first round if the Redhawks win one more game than the Gamecocks or those two teams finish tied.

“It's important we win as many games as they (SEMO) do,” Case said. “You try to control the things we can control and the only thing that is, is how (this team) plays.

“Luckily for us, to be in the top two in the league, we don't have to have help. Obviously, we'll have to have help to win the league … I think the focus is what we do.”

Murray (17-31, 11-11) needs victories to hold a playoff spot. The Racers are fifth, a full game ahead of Samford, which holds the final playoff spot, and two games up on Tech. They can clinch a spot with a win against JSU and a loss by Tech or a win against JSU and two losses by Samford.

The Racers struggled with their non-conference schedule, but in OVC play they're the third-best hitting team in the league (.314). Since opening the season 6-21, they are hitting .324 as a team and averaging 7.7 runs a game. They have four of the top 10 conference-only hitters, led by third baseman Tyler Owen's .430 mark (.370 overall).

“As usual, they have done a real good job offensively,” Case said.

That means the Gamecocks will have to be efficient on the mound. In a departure from the normal schedule, the teams will play a doubleheader today and a single game Saturday.

JSU is expected to start left-hander Tony Drinkard (6-2, 3.97 ERA) in today's opener and seven-inning ironman Donovan Hand (6-7, 4.36) in the nightcap. Ben Tootle (5-2, 6.12), the OVC Pitcher of the Week, will draw the start Saturday. The Racers are expected to counter with Mike Perconte (5-6, 7.78) and Lucas Allen (2-4, 6.02) today and either Jake Donze (3-7, 8.18) or Matt McGaha (2-5, 6.45) on Saturday.

“From a starting pitching standpoint, we need strong efforts from them,” Case said. “We need to get the nine-inning games to the seventh, eighth and ninth inning. Our struggle has been in middle relief. We need for our starters (to be strong).”

The pressure might be even greater on the JSU starters considering the brown-out the Gamecocks' offense has had of late. After a stretch of six straight games scoring 10 runs or more, the Gamecocks have scored only eight runs in their past three games.

But Case said he isn't concerned.

“We've been a very good offensive team and we will be,” Case said. “We've had a couple games we haven't scored the way we were, but I'm not worried about that.”

Jax State at Murray State
Today (DH), 1 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m.

About Al Muskewitz

Al Muskewitz covers golf and Jacksonville State University sports teams for The Star.

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