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Tiger baseball has chances to move up

Published on -4/26/2012, 10:20 AM

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The Fort Hays State University baseball team reset its season goals after a 2-10 start this spring. Instead of focusing on multiple goals, the Tigers just looked to have a winning season and reach the conference tournament. Fort Hays is now 23-19, including winning 12 of its last 16 games. The Tigers have nearly clinched a winning record and a spot in the conference tournament.

Now, the Tigers, with six regular season games left, could finish as high as second in the conference standings and significantly improve their chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II tournament.

Fort Hays stands at 19-16 in the MIAA, good for fourth place in the 11-team league. The top six make the conference tournament. The winner of the conference tournament earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

This weekend, Fort Hays has its week off from MIAA play and will play host to Wayne State (Neb.) College (25-13) in a two-game series at Larks Park. Game time is 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

FHSU can qualify for the MIAA tournament this weekend depending on the results from Pittsburg State University and Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University, currently in seventh and eighth place, respectively, in the league.

Then, Fort Hays finishes with a four-game homestand with Missouri Western State University May 4 to 6. The Griffons are currently in second place in the conference. If Fort Hays wins out and Missouri Western (22-10 MIAA) and third-place Emporia State University (19-13 MIAA) struggle, then the Tigers could take second place.

As well, wins against Wayne State, currently No. 5 in the first Midwest Regional rankings released Wednesday, and Missouri Western would provide the Tigers with more quality victories.

In a rarity, just one MIAA team, University of Central Missouri, is ranked in the top-eight in South Central Regional rankings (top six in the region qualify for the NCAA Division II tournament). UCM stands No. 1 in the poll with five losses - three to Fort Hays.

While FHSU has been inconsistent, the Tigers do have several quality wins, including a 3-1 record versus Central Missouri and a 1-2 mark versus West Texas A&M University, seventh in the region. That helps offset some poor losses.

"We have got to go out, take Game 1, try to get it from them and really not look at that," coach Steve Johnson said. "I think we did a lot of damage to our chances at a regional early in the season, so probably our best (chance) right now is to go win the conference tournament."

According to the NCAA, primary criteria used for at-large selection are at least a .500 Division II record, in-region Division II results, in-region strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, results against Division II teams with .500 or better records, results versus Division II out-of-conference teams with .500 or better records, road results, conference standing, results versus regionally ranked teams and input from regional advisory committees. In many years, the MIAA either earns two or three bids to the NCAA tournament.

"We do have a lot of quality wins, but we also have a lot of bad losses," Johnson said. "Right now, we just got to stay with trying to play good baseball. The thing that we can call on is that we improved and we can go out any day and beat anybody."

Rotation altered

Because Fort Hays isn't playing a normal four-game series this weekend, Johnson will adjust his pitching rotation. All four starters, senior left-hander Shawn Lewick, senior right-hander Andy Lewton and junior right-handers Alex Ellison and Jesse Hart, will all see work.

Lewick is 5-3 with a 3.34 earned-run average in a team-high 56 2/3 innings, while Lewton is 5-3 with a 6.28 ERA in 53 innings.

"Just go 3-4 innings a piece and give them a little bit of a break," Johnson said. "Especially with Shawn and Andy, they have toted a pretty every load this season. Up around the 60-inning range already with a couple of weeks left. They have got to get their work in. We will let all four of them get some work in."

Hart, a full-time starter for the last few weeks, is 3-1 with a 6.23 ERA, while Ellison is 3-4 with an 8.74 ERA. Ellison has pitched very well lately with a 3-0 record and 2.74 ERA with 12 strikeouts in his last 23 innings. Ellison has allowed 27 hits and no walks in that span.

"He has given up some hits, but that's him," Johnson said. "That's his game. Don't walk people and you can give up some hits and not get beat. We need him. He stepped up at a perfect time when we needed him the most. Yes, he wishes that he was better early. So do we. So does the team. We might be in a different situation, but it shows a lot about him to be where he was at and fight his way through it."


Senior second baseman/designated hitter Mace Krol earned MIAA Hitter of the Week honors for batting .526 with 10 RBIs in last weekend's four-game road series at Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University. ... This marks the first time Fort Hays has played Wayne State since 1997. FHSU holds a 10-3 all-time edge against the Wildcats. The series is on the schedule because University of Nebraska-Omaha left the MIAA last summer for the Division I ranks.

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