Valparaiso (1-2, 0-0 Horizon)
at UAB (3-1, 0-0 Conference USA)
Regions Field (8,500) | Birmingham, Ala.
Friday, Feb. 24, 4 p.m. CT – Losi (R) vs. Whitlock (R)
Saturday, Feb. 25, 1 p.m. CT - Gordon (R) vs. Ruggles (L)
Sunday, Feb. 26, Noon CT - Inman (R) vs. Graham (R)
This Week in Crusader Baseball: The Valparaiso University baseball team will hit the road again this weekend, traveling to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to take on a Blazer team that has won three of its first four games. This marks the second straight series against a team from Conference USA. The series will be played at Regions Field, also the home of the Birmingham Barons, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.
Last Time Out: The opening series of the season provided no shortage of drama last weekend, as the Crusaders dropped two out of three to Western Kentucky in a set that featured three close games. The Crusaders lost the opener in gut-wrenching fashion as Kaleb Duckworth belted a walk-off home run with two outs in the ninth to give the Hilltoppers a 6-5 victory. The middle game saw Wes Gordon rack up eight strikeouts while yielding two runs over 6 1/3 innings in his Crusader debut, but the bullpen took the loss for the second straight day and Western Kentucky prevailed 4-3. Valpo notched its first win of the season on Sunday, beating the Hilltoppers 5-2.
On the Air: This weekend’s games will have a video feed available, but a subscription is required. Links to the video and live stats are available on ValpoAthletics.com.
Head Coach Brian Schmack: Brian Schmack, the 17th head coach in Valparaiso University history, is in his fourth 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 a year ago. Schmack, a member of the 2003 Detroit Tigers, served as pitching coach/associate head coach at Valpo for seven seasons prior to his promotion.
Friday Starters: Senior RHP Mario Losi will make his second start of the season on Friday afternoon. He yielded three runs (three earned) on five hits and walked six over 5 1/3 innings in his Crusader debut against UAB and did not factor into the decision. The six walks was the most Losi has issued in a single appearance in his Valpo career. He’ll be opposed by Garrett Whitlock, the reigning Conference USA Pitcher of the Week. The sophomore right-hander made his second career start and yielded only five hits against Creighton while racking up a career-high six strikeouts and issuing no walks. A year ago Whitlock was a consistent force out of the bullpen, making 25 appearances with one start.
Saturday Starters: Gordon’s eight strikeouts on Saturday against the Hilltoppers marked the most by a Valpo player since Losi fanned eight Flames on May 1, 2016. Gordon is one of 47 players in the nation with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.00 or better. The Blazers will trot out junior southpaw Ryan Ruggles, who was second on the team in innings pitched with 71 and held a 4.18 ERA a year ago. He started the season by allowing one run (unearned) on four hits and one walk over five innings in a 5-1 win over Creighton last week.
Sunday Starters: Sophomore Grant Inman is the only Crusader player who enters this weekend with a win under his belt. He scattered eight hits and yielded two runs (both earned) while walking two and striking out one in five innings. UAB’s Tanner Graham picked up the win with six scoreless frames and racked up nine strikeouts last weekend.
Preseason Poll: The Crusaders were picked to finish fourth in the seven-team Horizon League based on voting by the league’s head coaches. Wright State hauled in five of the six first-place votes and is picked to repeat as the league champion, with UIC projected to finish second. Milwaukee is picked third, followed by Valparaiso, Northern Kentucky, Oakland and Youngstown State.
Series Notes: The Crusaders and Blazers have met 12 times in program history, with UAB grabbing wins in 10 of those meetings. The most recent matchup occurred on March 15, 2013, a 1-0 Valpo loss in Winter Haven, Fla. The Crusaders haven’t visited UAB since March 7, 1996. This marks the first time the two squads have hooked up for a three-game series since March 14-15, 1979. All of the other meetings have been individual matchups.
Looking Back: Valpo finished 2016 with a 30-28 record, its first winning season since 2013 and just the seventh 30-victory campaign in program history. Valpo scored 377 runs, fourth-most in a season in school history. The team also ranked fourth in program history in hits (586) and fifth in total bases (809). The Crusaders graduated 12 seniors a year ago including their top two starting pitchers, closer and 3-4-5 hitters.
Inside the Crusaders: Nate Palace leads the Horizon League in hitting after going 7-of-9 over the opening weekend, which computes to a .778 average. In fact, his batting average ranks second in the nation behind only Minnesota’s Luke Pettersen at .889. Palace had a double, triple and home run in the series, racking up a team-high 13 total bases. Chase Dawson (5-for-11 / .455) and Sam Shaikin (5-for-13 / .385) also put together strong opening weekends at the dish. Shaikin, Palace and Kapers all launched home runs for Valpo in the Western Kentucky series. Shaikin, a sophomore, clobbered his first career long ball, while Kapers’ opening-day dinger made it two home runs in a three-game span (Horizon League semifinal vs. Milwaukee last season) after homering once in his first 43 collegiate games. Freshman Easton Rhodehouse (3 IP, 1 H, 0 R) and senior Ellis Foreman (2.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R) both shined out of Valpo’s bullpen last weekend. The Crusaders lead the Horizon League in team batting average at .298. Valpo is the only team in the league that hasn’t made an error and one of five teams in the nation that has played at least three games and not committed an error.
In the Other Dugout: UAB was picked to finish ninth of 12 teams in the Conference USA Preseason Poll. The Blazers’ pitching staff had a strong opening weekend against Creighton, issuing only one walk and striking out 24. After sweeping the series against Creighton, UAB suffered a midweek 7-2 loss at Alabama State. Antonio Ralat and Prince Visintainer both went 4-of-10 on the opening weekend and lead UAB in hitting. The Blazers are under the direction of 10th-year head coach Brian Schoop, who is a 26-year coaching veteran with nearly 1,000 career wins. UAB volunteer assistant coach Ron Polk is a college baseball legend for his time in charge of Mississippi State’s program. He’s the winningest coach in any sport in the history of the Southeastern Conference and was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. Before retiring from Mississippi State in 2008, Polk recruited and coached future big league standouts Jeff Brantley, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen and Jonathan Papelbon.
Connection Corner: UAB does feature two players from the state of Illinois, as sophomore OF/RHP is from Eureka, Ill. and went to Saguaro High School. Jim Jeffries is a native of Mokena, Ill. and attended Providence Catholic. No other players on UAB’s roster hail from Indiana or Illinois.
Youthful Crusaders: The Crusaders have 11 freshmen and 15 total newcomers on this year’s roster. They have just five seniors after having 12 a year ago. This marks the fewest seniors Valpo has featured since having just four on the 2010 roster. The Crusaders haven’t had this many true freshmen on the roster since 2008. The Crusaders have the most true freshmen in the Horizon League, with UIC’s eight second most. Valpo and Wright State have the fewest seniors in the league with five apiece.
Driftless Drivel: Last weekend marked the first time in program history the Crusaders have started a season with back-to-back one-run losses… It’s the first time Valpo has dropped consecutive contests by one run since April 2013… The Crusaders are looking to win their second series of the season for the first time since 2009… Palace has a 10-game hitting streak dating back to last season… For the first time since 2012, the Crusaders have not allowed more than six runs in any of their first three games.