Under The Radar: Evansville Acing Difficult Schedule
If you have ever cast a dubious eye in the direction of a coach who points to senior leadership as a reason for stark improvement in performance from year to year, consider Evansville as evidence that this type of thing matters.
This year’s Aces are an older team that has taken its lumps. Two seasons ago, they were 18-39 overall and 8-12 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Last season, they took a step back, going 12-39 with a 3-18 mark in league play. And now, with a combined 15 juniors and seniors on the roster, all of that experience has paid off with a 17-11 record and 5-1 start in the MVC.
For Evansville coach Wes Carroll, that shift in fortunes is due in large part to the leadership found on this year's squad.
“It started back in the fall, just with them establishing a culture and really being a branch of the coaching staff,” Carroll said. “I want to really credit our seniors and how they’re leading right now and how they are bought in to having a really good student-athlete experience their final year playing baseball.”
Carroll also points to his veterans when it comes to how Evansville has arrived at its improved record. This isn’t a soft 17-11 record. The Aces have played a tough schedule, and some of their best baseball has come against the best teams on the schedule.
Already this season, Evansville has won two games against Boston College in a tournament at Eastern Kentucky and won non-conference series with Iowa and Creighton. Perhaps most impressively, it also won a series just last weekend with perennial MVC power Dallas Baptist, suggesting that the Aces will have something to say about how the conference race shakes out.
“I think we’ve had a tough schedule from the standpoint of some very quality opponents, and our seniors have really played well," Carroll said. "And we’ve kind of fed off of that and built a significant amount of confidence that really showed up significantly against Dallas Baptist this past weekend."
From a statistical standpoint, you can see the biggest difference in run prevention.
The Aces have a 4.17 team ERA and a .979 fielding percentage, the latter figure putting them in the top 20 in the country. Compare that to a 6.04 team ERA last season and a 5.69 ERA the year before, with the fielding percentage up from .962 each of the past two seasons.
On the mound, their bullpen has been a real strength, and that’s never been more apparent than in the series against Dallas Baptist.
In the three games against the Patriots, Evansville relievers threw 11 innings, allowing only one unearned run along the way. The best relief performance of the weekend actually came in the 4-3 loss in the series finale, when senior righthander Justin Hayden threw 5.1 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits.
A pair of freshmen, righthander Shane Gray and lefty Michael Parks, have been difference-makers. The former has held a bit of a swing role this season and has a 3.90 ERA in 30 innings of work, while the latter has a 2.75 ERA and four saves in 19.2 innings.
Senior righty Austin Allinger leads the team in saves with five and has a team-best 2.20 ERA in 16.1 innings, and with his standout performance against DBU, Hayden’s ERA is down to 3.05 in 20.2 innings.
“Our bullpen has been pretty remarkable,” Carroll said. “Seeing their ability—two freshmen, really, Shane Gray and Michael Parks, who just have a very unique personality where the moment is not big for them, and that’s special to have early in your college career.
“And then you see the effort we got from Justin Hayden out of the bullpen as kind of that senior guy that’s been piggybacking the last couple weekends. For him to just go out there and throw up goose eggs, I think our bullpen has been outstanding.”
The Aces also boast, well, an ace at the front of the rotation in righthander Adam Lukas. A converted reliever who has often been seen as a pure stuff guy in need of refinement, Lukas looks the part of a pitcher putting it all together this season. He currently ranks No. 172 on BA's Top 300 Draft Prospects list and figures to be the highest-drafted Evansville player since lefthander Kyle Freeland was selected with the eighth overall pick in 2014.
Lukas has still been up and down at times, as his 4-2, 4.57 mark suggests, but the ups have been outstanding, such as his seven scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts against Creighton and his six scoreless innings against Bradley to open MVC play.
Last weekend against Dallas Baptist, Lukas ran his fastball up to 99 mph, and he was still able to reach back for 95 mph as late as the seventh inning. As the weather continues to warm up after what has been a frigid season so far in the Midwest, there is a real chance he will crack triple digits with his fastball.
“What I like about Adam is that he’s really starting to figure things out between his ears and he’s really feeding off of everybody else and getting that mentality of being a Friday night starter in the Missouri Valley Conference,” Carroll said.
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Offensively, with a .245 team batting average, the Aces haven’t clicked in the way they have on the mound.
What they have done, however, is compete at the plate and manage to get on base at a steady rate. As a team, they have a .356 on-base percentage. Senior outfielder Nate Reeder leads the team with a .324 average and .425 OBP, but six other regulars have an on-base percentage of .347 or better.
One good example is that of redshirt junior Troy Beilsmith. He last season hit .335 to lead the team, but so far this season, he’s hitting just .192/.357/.313. His OBP has kept him productive even as the hits aren’t falling.
As its stands today, the Aces are in great shape from a postseason resume perspective. Their tough schedule has paid off in the RPI, which sits in the mid-30s, and their wins against Creighton and DBU have helped them to a 4-3 record against teams in the RPI top 50.
The potential tripwire for most mid-major teams as they push for at-large consideration is bad RPI games, particularly those against teams that rank 200 or worse in the metric. But Evansville really doesn’t have to worry about that too much.
The MVC ranks No. 8 in conference RPI, and as such, the Aces only have three league games scheduled against a team with an RPI worse than 200, a series against Valparaiso later this month. If you include midweek games, they only have five such games in front of them.
And at the same time, their remaining schedule provides a bunch of chances for resume-building wins. Indiana State and Illinois State are both currently in the top 50, and Evansville will play both later this season. And this coming weekend, it has four games—one at home and three on the road—against Indiana, yet another top-50 team.
So the Aces have clearly benefitted from a good season for their conference, but they’ve also scheduled aggressively, and that’s no accident.
“It’s in a position now if we can just continue to play good baseball and play against the game, then hopefully at the end of the year we’re going to be in position (for an at-large bid),” Carroll said. “Because in 2014, I had a quality club and we missed out on an at-large bid because of scheduling.
“I don’t want to lose out on the possibility of an at-large bid because of my scheduling. That’s something that I’ve tried to correct over the years.”
That 2014 team, led by Freeland, went 34-21 and won the league’s regular season title, but was undone by an RPI that was simply never going to put it in the discussion, even though it was a regional-quality club.
In 2019, the Aces are a regional-quality team once again, and this time, they’ve got the resume and schedule in front of them to allow for a postseason run.