Image credit: DBU's dugout celebrates (Photo by Will Becque)
CARBONDALE, Ill. – On Saturday, Dallas Baptist collected a 10-1 win over Indiana State, pushing the Patriots to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship on Sunday.
The Patriots followed a formula that has worked well for them all week in Carbondale, riding quality starting pitching and the home run ball to victory.
The effort that righthander Luke Eldred gave DBU on Saturday could be described as better than just quality. He was excellent.
He faced the minimum through four innings and had a no-hitter until he allowed a solo homer to Indiana State shortstop Jordan Schaffer in the sixth. He ended the day having thrown six innings, giving up just the Schaffer homer with three walks and a career-high 11 strikeouts.
Of all the batters Eldred faced in six innings, just three put the ball in the air. Schaffer’s homer was one and there were two fly outs to center field. Otherwise, everything was a ground out or a strikeout.
“I feel good,” Eldred said. “Fastball is (good) right now and other stuff is coming, but I felt good from the start. There’s a little bit of kinks here and there. Three walks is way too many for me, but yeah, I feel really good.”
Eldred has been working up to an outing like the one he enjoyed on Saturday all season. He missed most of 2019 and all of the abbreviated 2020 season due to Tommy John surgery. This season, he has been effective, but it’s only recently that he’s been stretched out.
On the season, he’s now 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 29 innings. But his start against the Sycamores was the first time he’s gone six innings this season, and only two other times has he gone five innings. All three of his outings of five or more innings have come in the month of May. His 83 pitches is also a season high, which was previously 60 in each of his five-inning starts.
If Eldred is ready to be a guy who can get deep into games, it makes an already dangerous DBU team even more dangerous in regional play, with a rotation of Dominic Hamel, Rhett Kouba and Eldred capable of winning games against just about anyone.
“I think he’s ready to now,” DBU coach Dan Heefner said of Eldred’s readiness to be a workhorse. “We built him up gradually. It’s been very conservative with how we’ve built him up. He could have gone one more inning today, but as we want him to be able to get to 100 pitches next week, that’s why we stopped him at 83.”
Saturday’s win was also another impressive offensive performance for the Patriots, who have scored 32 runs in three games.
Second baseman Jackson Glenn, the MVC player of the year, had two homers, giving him 19 on the season and three in this tournament alone. Center fielder Jace Grady and left fielder Austin Bell also had homers. As a team, the Patriots have nine home runs this week by six different players.
In addition to being able to strike quickly with the long ball, the Patriots wear the opposing pitching staff down by putting together good at-bats all game long and keeping pressure on. In its three games, which have all been blowout wins, it has scored 14 insurance runs in the seventh inning or later.
“They’ve done a great job,” Heefner said “We have had some home runs, but to us, the thing that makes the offense go is just quality at-bats, and when you’re doing that one through nine, a lot of times you’re going to break through late in the game if you just keep doing it over and over and over. Eventually you just kind of wear him out and then you have a big inning at the end.”
DBU is also the only team in the tournament to have walked more than it has struck out this week, and although it hasn’t needed to win this way this week, it can also win games with base running. They lead the conference in stolen bases with 79.
They score enough runs in enough ways to keep pitchers at ease and they pitch well enough to give the offense time to go to work if needed. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
“It’s really nice,” Eldred said. “You can just kind of go out and do your job. It kind of doesn’t really change too much honestly because our job is to go out and throw up zeroes, so they can score as many runs as we need and we just kind of go out and do our thing.”
In its time in the MVC, DBU has found the conference tournament to be very hospitable. It has now been to the tournament final five straight years and in six of seven tournaments since joining the league. But it’s not just the MVC Tournament in which it plays well. The Patriots play well in tournaments in general, having reached the regional final in each of its last five postseason appearances.
Beyond DBU just always being a talented team capable of competing with anyone, there’s a team mindset that lends itself to playing its best in tournament situations.
“We treat the regular season like the postseason,” Eldred said. “So our high intensity doesn’t have to go up for postseason. Nothing changes. We’re the same all the time, and that’s just kind of the Patriot way and how we do things.”
On Sunday, DBU will have a chance to capture its fourth MVC Tournament title, but just its first since 2017.
It has found a formula for winning games this week. Doing it again next week in a regional will require a step up, but the efficacy of the formula this week suggests the Patriots will compete just fine next weekend in the home away from home that is regional play.