Next Up in Crusader Baseball: The Valparaiso University baseball team will play its third Big Ten opponent of the season on Tuesday night in Champaign, colliding with an Illinois team that has been nationally ranked at various points in the year. The Crusaders and Fighting Illini will get together for the first time since 1981.
Last Time Out: The Crusaders dropped to 0-8 in one-run games and suffered their fourth walk-off loss of the year in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader at Michigan State, falling to the Spartans 5-4 in 12 innings. Michigan State scored single tallies in the seventh and eighth innings to tie the game at four, then neither team scored again until Justin Antoncic’s game-ending single in the 12th. Valpo gained its first one-run win of the year in the nightcap, coming from four runs down to beat Michigan State 7-6. Trey Ferketic allowed six runs (four earned) over the first three innings, but did not permit the Spartans to score for the game’s duration in a complete-game victory.
On the Air: Tuesday’s game will air on BTN2Go ($) and a radio broadcast will be available courtesy of Illinois Athletics. Links to live video, audio and stats will be available on ValpoAthletics.com.
Series Notes: This marks the first time Valpo and Illinois have faced off since 1981. The Crusaders have dropped 16 of the 19 all-time meetings. The Illini prevailed 13-1 on March 24, 1981 in the only meeting since 1965. Valpo’s most recent win over Illinois came 5-4 on April 17, 1963.
Beating Big Ten Competition: After dropping the first game of Friday's doubleheader at Michigan State in 12 innings, Valpo picked up a 7-6 win in the nightcap. This marks the third straight season Valpo has beaten a team from the Big Ten Conference, as the Crusaders knocked off instate foe Purdue each of the last two years. It was also Valpo's first one-run win of the season, as the Crusaders were previously 0-8 in games decided by the slimmest of margins.
Tuesday’s Pitching Matchup: Lefty Michael Mommersteeg will make a midweek start for the second consecutive week after holding Milwaukee to three runs on six hits over six innings to notch his first victory of the season a week ago, a game Valpo went on to win 23-5. Illinois will give the ball to Ryan Schmitt, a right-hander who will make his second start and 11th appearance. He is 1-1 with a 5.48 ERA over 21 1/3 innings.
Going the Distance: Valpo starting pitcher Trey Ferketic hurled a 130-pitch complete game on April 7 at Southern Illinois, limiting the Salukis to two runs on two walks and nine hits while striking out seven. Ferketic became the first Crusader to throw a complete game since April 23, 2017, when Ellis Foreman went the distance in a 9-0 win over Wright State. He followed that with a second consecutive complete game on April 13 at Michigan State, earning the win to improve to 4-2 after scattering 11 hits and allowing six runs (four earned). After permitting six runs in the first three innings, Ferketic did not allow a run over the final six frames. He became the first Valpo player since Trevor Haas in 2016 to throw consecutive complete games. Ferketic owns both of Valpo’s complete games this season, two of the three that have taken place over the last two years and becomes the first Crusader since Dalton Lundeen and Trevor Haas in 2016 with multiple complete games in a season.
Tough-Luck Loss: Right-handed reliever Alex Dirienzo may have taken the loss in Friday’s extra-inning defeat at Michigan State, but his effort out of the bullpen gave the Crusaders ample opportunities to win the game. Dirienzo put goose eggs on the board in the ninth, 10th and 11th before allowing the Spartans to scratch out a run on three hits in the 12th. Dirienzo has allowed just three runs in 12 innings (2.25 ERA) since making his season debut on March 16 after missing the early portion of the season with an injury. The former Akron infielder has become Valpo’s most reliable option out of the bullpen.
Leaving Them Stranded: In Friday’s Game 1 loss at Michigan State, the Crusaders left 15 runners stranded on base. That marked the most they’ve left on in a game since leaving 17 on May 13, 2016 at Youngstown State, also the first game of a twinbill.
Runs Upon Runs: The Crusaders enjoyed their most prosperous offensive showing since April 2, 2010 in Wednesday’s 23-5 win over Milwaukee. That marked Valpo’s highest run total since scoring 26 runs against Chicago State eight years ago. In addition, Valpo has reached the 20-run mark twice this season (W 20-6 vs. Holy Cross on Feb. 24) after not scoring 20 runs in a game in any of the previous seven seasons. Valpo had 18 hits in the win over the Panthers, equaling a season high set on March 3 at Grand Canyon.
Eggimann’s Extraordinary Effort: Jayden Eggimann launched a grand slam, a two-run triple and an RBI single in Wednesday’s win over Milwaukee, becoming the second Valpo player this season to drive in seven runs in a game. Only four players in the entire Missouri Valley Conference have enjoyed seven RBI games this year, and two of them are Crusaders as Zack Leone drove in seven on March 17 at Arkansas Pine Bluff. Eggimann also became the second Valpo player to hit a grand slam this year, joining Chase Dawson (March 16 at Arkansas Pine Bluff).
Driving in Seven: Eggimann and Leone have joined a list that includes four other Valpo players who have had seven or more RBIs in a Valpo game over the last 10 years. Jake Hanson had eight RBIs against Oakland on May 15, 2016, and a pair of Crusaders enjoyed seven RBI outputs in 2015 – Dustin Beasley (March 3 at Western Carolina) and Nate Palace (March 7 at USC Upstate). Before that, no Valpo player had seven RBIs in a game since Steven Scoby on April 14, 2010 against IU Northwest.
Grand Slam Tracker: Like many offensive areas, Valpo has seen a considerable uptick in grand slams over the last four seasons. Valpo had one total grand slam from 2009-2014, and now has eight from 2015-2018.
RBI Machine: Eggimann has climbed into the team lead with 28 RBIs out of the No. 9 spot in the batting order. He is tied for fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference in that area. The other five players in the top six in the league in RBIs all hit in the top four in their respective batting orders.
In The Other Dugout – Illinois: The Fighting Illini swept Rutgers this weekend, securing a 10-4 win on Sunday behind a complete game by starting pitcher Ty Weber. That win marked the 400th career triumph for Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. Illinois has won 22 of its last 27 games and carries a five-game winning streak with it into Tuesday’s affair. Bren Spillane leads Illinois in hitting at .457, while Ben Troike (.336) and Michael Massey (.331) are also above .300. Spillane has crushed 14 home runs and driven in 43. Illinois has already matched its win total from last season in 20 fewer games.
Player-by-Player Quick Hits – Position Players
- Chase Dawson, 2B: Had already surpassed his career high for RBIs in a single season before conference play even began. Had 15 RBIs in 52 games last season after having 17 in 49 games as a freshman. Hit a grand slam against Arkansas Pine Bluff on March 16… Hit .221 over the first 29 games last season before batting .364 over the final month (April 23 – May 24, 16 games), leading the team in batting average and on-base percentage (.364) during that stretch… Has led off and started at second base for Valpo every game this season… A local to Northwest Indiana – Andrean High School alum and Chesterton native… Is the first Valpo player with four triples since Andy Burns in 2013… Has three games with four hits or more, the most on the team.
- Sam Shaikin, SS: Was the only Crusader to start all 53 games last season. Has started all 27 games this year… Led Valpo in batting average at .317 a year ago… Has started at shortstop the last 16 games after starting the first 12 games at third base. Switched positions with Chad Jacob… Has batted second for Valpo in every game this season… Launched his fifth home run of the year on Friday at Michigan State, lifting his season total to nine and surpassing his previous career high.
- Blake Billinger, LF: Was a unanimous first team all-conference selection in both seasons he played at Mission College (JUCO)… Has batted third and started in left field in every game this season… Hit a home run against Alabama in his first at-bat as a Crusader… Had a three-double game on March 2 vs. CSUN, becoming the first Valpo player with three doubles in a game since Andrew Quinnette on April 26, 2008 against Butler… Tied for the conference lead in doubles with 14… Hit .769 (10-for-13) in a three-game series at Southern Illinois (April 6-8), becoming the first Crusader since 2010 to go 5-for-5 in a game… Saw his 16-game on-base streak snapped on April 11 vs. Milwaukee.
- Giovanni Garbella, DH/RF: Missed nine games with an injury this season … Entered April 9 of last season hitting .213 with no home runs and eight RBIs in 26 games and was a career .204 hitter over three years. He hit .380 the rest of the way with five home runs and 24 RBIs over the final 25 games of the season… Drove in a season-high four runs and launched his fourth homer of the season in Valpo’s 6-2 win on April 7 at SIU… Followed that with his 12th career homer and fifth of the season on April 13 at Michigan State, ripping three extra-base hits and recording the go-ahead RBI in a 7-6 win over the Spartans in the second game of a doubleheader.
- Zack Leone, 1B: Transferred to Valpo this season after having tremendous success from 2014-2017 at Susquehanna, where he was named an All-American by D3Baseball.com and the ABCA… Racked up 178 hits (fourth all-time), a .405 average (second all-time), 112 RBIs (second all-time), 49 doubles (program record), 18 home runs (second all-time), a .470 career OBP and a .641 career slugging percentage in his time at the Division III level… Valpo’s leading hitter at .419 in 22 games… Leads The Valley in batting average… Had seven RBIs in a game on March 17 at Arkansas Pine Bluff, becoming just the second player in the Missouri Valley Conference with a seven RBI game this season… Of his 24 RBIs, 22 have come with two outs. With runners in scoring position and two outs, Leone is hitting .557 with 21 RBIs… Returned to the lineup on April 13 at Michigan State after missing the previous four games with a hand injury.
- Chad Jacob, 3B: Before March 9 at Loyola Marymount, hadn’t started a game at third base since his freshman year in 2015, but has started at third every game since, switching positions with SS Sam Shaikin… Has played in every game this season after dealing with various injuries through his first three collegiate campaigns… Leader on Valpo’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
- Scott Kapers, C: Missed three games this season before returning to the lineup on March 28 at Purdue after starting 52 of 53 games last season … Threw out 41.5 percent of would-be base stealers last year and has upped that to 44.4 percent this year… Batted a team-best .378 over the final 14 games of 2017 and started this season with a .317 average over the first 18 games. Has made tremendous offensive strides since batting .196 as a freshman… Brother Jake, also a catcher, has signed his NLI to play at Valpo starting next season.
- Riley Dent, RF: Brother Ryan has played 10 minor league seasons in the Red Sox and Cubs organizations, reaching as high as Triple-A… Leads the team with 15 walks.
- Jayden Eggimann, CF: Has 28 RBIs after having 13 all of last season… Leads the team in RBIs and is tied for fifth in the league… The other five players in the Top 6 in the MVC hit in the top four spots in the batting order, while Leone bats ninth… Drilled a three-run homer in the ninth inning of an 11-7 victory over Grand Canyon on March 4. The homer was extra special for Eggimann, who started his collegiate career at Grand Canyon and is a native of the Phoenix area… Racked up seven RBIs on April 11 vs. Milwaukee, finishing a double shy of the cycle. Launched a first-inning grand slam in the win over the Panthers.
- Christian Barczi, DH: Named to the Horizon League all-freshman team a year ago… Has launched two home runs in 23 games this year.
A Weekend To Remember: The Crusaders picked up several signature wins in the same day on Feb. 24 in Norman, Okla. Valpo upended host Oklahoma, a team ranked 28th nationally, 11-4 in the first game of the day, before routing Holy Cross 20-6. Both Oklahoma and Holy Cross reached the NCAA Tournament last season. The 20 runs in a game were Valpo’s most since April 2, 2010 (26 against Chicago State). The final game of the weekend in Norman saw the Crusaders take the Sooners to extra innings, but Oklahoma prevailed 3-2.
Ninth Inning Magic: On March 2 against CSUN – a neutral site game at GCU Ballpark in Phoenix – Valpo scored nine times in the top of the ninth to create a 13-13 tie. Chase Dawson capped the miraculous rally with a two-run homer, but CSUN walked off with a run in the bottom of the ninth for a 14-13 victory.
Walk-Off Winner: Valpo reversed the ghosts of years past on March 30 when Zack Leone crushed a three-run, walk-off home run, Valpo's first game-ending long ball in over 15 years. The swing that sent Valpo to a 5-2, 10 inning victory over Bradley for its first Missouri Valley Conference triumph also allowed the team to lay to rest the ghosts of the program's recent past. Three of the Crusaders’ first five losses this season came in walk-off fashion, while Valpo has been hurt by walk-off home runs in the past as well – most recently last year’s season opener at Western Kentucky and most notably a 2013 NCAA Tournament game against Indiana.
Head Coach Brian Schmack: Brian Schmack, the 17th head coach in Valparaiso University history, is in his fifth season at the helm of the Crusaders. He led Valparaiso to 25 wins in his inaugural campaign, a school record for victories by a first-year skipper. The former big leaguer followed that up with a 22-win season in 2015, then guided the team to its first winning record since 2013 in 2016. In 2017, Schmack continued his success despite guiding a youthful roster that featured 11 freshmen and 15 total newcomers. He led the Crusaders to 24 wins, including a strong finish to the regular season that saw them win eight of their last 11. Schmack, a member of the 2003 Detroit Tigers, served as pitching coach/associate head coach at Valpo for seven seasons prior to his promotion.
Looking Back: Valpo finished 2017 with a 24-29 record and a 13-15 mark in the Horizon League. Three Crusaders earned all-league freshman team honors, the first time Valpo had three players on the all-freshman team since 2013 and the seventh straight year the Crusaders had multiple players on the all-freshman squad. After posting a 4-1 record, 2.93 ERA and seven saves, right-handed pitcher Jon Tieman was named a Freshman All-American, becoming the first Crusader to earn that high honor since shortstop Spencer Mahoney in 2012. The 2017 season also saw the Crusaders set the program record for team fielding percentage, as they put together a .971 fielding percentage that bested the previous mark of .968, which had stood since 1998. The Valpo offense has enjoyed a significant statistical uptick over the last three seasons. The Crusaders held a combined average of .279, slugging percentage of .387 and on-base percentage of .372 from 2015-2017, all improvements from a .265/.351/.337 slash line from 2012-2014.
Preseason Poll: The Crusaders were picked to finish eighth in the preseason poll in their first season in The Valley. Dallas Baptist is the preseason favorite to win the league and is ranked 18th nationally by D1Baseball.com, 20th by the NCBWA and 17th in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Missouri State, picked second in The Valley, is ranked 35th nationally by the NCBWA and received 35 votes in the USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll.