With five games against teams in the lower-half of the conference standings, this week will go a long way toward determining whether the Northwest Missouri State baseball team can make a late-season push necessary to climb into the top eight.
The 11th-place Bearcats (9-21, 7-18) host a doubleheader against Washburn today at 1 p.m. before traveling to Bolivar for a three-game weekend set with Southwest Baptist.
Washburn (5-18, 5-19) is one of three teams below Northwest in the standings, and the Bearcats have already swept a doubleheader from them in Topeka, Kan. by scores of 5-1 and 8-3.
Southwest Baptist (10-11, 10-15) is directly ahead of Northwest in 10th place, but the Bearcats would close the five-game gap with a series win or sweep.
A 4-1 or 5-0 week is needed with the Bearcats trailing eighth place Northeastern State (15-13, 15-13) by 6.5 games with 18 to play. Only the top eight teams in the conference qualify for the MIAA Tournament's best-of-three play-in series May 3-5.
"We got to start winning some series and putting some wins in the win column," said Northwest Missouri State head baseball coach Darin Loe.
Northwest has lost five straight to two of the league's top three teams—first-place Missouri Western and third-place Missouri Southern—following a three-game road sweep of Truman State. The Bearcats were in position to win the first two from Southern over the weekend, but lost game one 4-2 in extra-innings and game two 4-3 after giving up a three-run lead in the seventh.
Upcoming opponent Washburn has lost seven straight and is in the midst of its worst season in a while under long-time head coach Steve Anson.
Riley Price leads the light-hitting 'Bods with a .411 average. Pitching-wise, Washburn ranks next-to-last in the MIAA with an 8.54 ERA.
Top hitter injured
Held to four runs or less in each game over the weekend, Northwest Missouri State's offense is currently suffering from the absence of its most productive hitter.
Senior outfielder Tyler Durant has missed the last eight games with a torn quad muscle that head coach Darin Loe says has been bothering him all season.
"He keeps re-aggravating that thing, so we want to sit him down and get him healthy again," said Loe. "Hopefully we can get him back as close to 100 percent as soon as possible."
Durant leads all Northwest regulars with a .356 average, up from his .308 average last year.
He last appeared in the lineup during both games of a doubleheader with Missouri Western Mar. 19.
Since Durant has been out, the Bearcats have generally gone with an outfield of Paul Johnson in left, Ryan Abernathy in center and Alex Singleton in right.
Page 2 of 2 - Singleton is nowhere near the offensive threat as Durant, hitting just .240 with no extra-base hits.
Starters coming on
Northwest Missouri State left-hander Ryker Fox and powerful righty Marcus Garrett have done their part to stabilize a starting a staff that was the MIAA's worst over the first three weeks of the season.
Over his last four appearances—three as a starter—Fox has allowed a total of two earned runs, lowering his ERA from 10.50 to 5.26. He's produced three quality starts in a row, a stretch that began with a career-best 11 strikeout outing against Midland University.
Fox threw seven shutout innings at Truman State and held Missouri Southern to two runs over 5 2/3 innings.
Garrett has gone a season-high seven innings over his last two starts, allowing just three earned runs. He carried a one-hit shutout into the seventh inning of Friday's start against Missouri Southern before two errors contributed to him giving up four runs.
Garrett is 2-2 on the year with a 4.35 ERA.
Flair for the dramatic
Using a mix of clutch hitting, outstanding pitching and timely defense, Northwest Missouri State's softball team took three out of four games over the weekend at Pittsburg State and Missouri Southern.
The Bearcats scored just nine runs in the four games, with six of those coming in either the sixth or seventh innings. They also gave up only six runs and no more than two in any of the four games.
Third baseman Kristen Uthe tied the first game of Friday's doubleheader against Pittsburg State with a two-run homer in the top of the seventh, and the Bearcats won it on an RBI single later in the inning by first baseman Rachael Schmitz.
In game two, the Bearcats gave up a two-run lead in the sixth, but got it back with a two-run top of the seventh and went on to a 4-2 win.
Northwest preserved a 2-1 win in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader with Missouri Southern by throwing out the tying run at the plate in the bottom of the seventh.
The Bearcats (18-8, 6-4) are now tied for fifth place in the MIAA. They visit first place Fort Hays State Saturday and go on to Nebraska-Kearney Sunday.