Creighton finds itself in the penthouse of the Missouri Valley baseball standings after being expected to be an outhouse occupant this season.
The Bluejays were picked to finish seventh in the league’s preseason poll but head into this week’s series at Indiana State alone in first place with a 5-1 record. Overall, Creighton stands 18-6 and owns the No. 30 spot in the Collegiate Baseball rankings.
Neither coach Ed Servais nor his players are making too much out of the good start to conference play. They say it’s early and that the first two series came against the teams that were picked sixth and eighth in the preseason poll. They also know the strength of their Valley schedule is back-loaded.
Yet, one senses the better-than-expected start has produced a certain degree of satisfaction within the ranks.
“We didn’t put too much emphasis on where we were picked but we are out to prove something,” Creighton shortstop Alex Staehely said. “We want to prove that we can play with the guys that were picked at the top.
“I think we’ve done a good job of doing that these first six (conference) games but we just have to continue doing that.”
Staehely noted timing has a huge impact on how a season develops. The Bluejays opened by winning two of three games at Evansville, which was picked eighth. Creighton then swept a home series against Bradley, which was picked sixth.
A year ago, Creighton had to open Valley play at preseason favorite Missouri State. The Bears swept the series, starting the Bluejays on a path of inconsistency that they didn’t pull out of until they won four straight games at the conference tournament to claim a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
This year, Creighton won’t play Missouri State and Wichita State — the teams picked 1-2 in the preseason poll — until the final two weeks of the regular season.
“I think having the schedule like that will be beneficial,” Creighton reliever Mark Winkelman said. “The word about Creighton is that we get better as the season goes along. We know we have some tougher conference opponents coming up at the end of the season, so we have to keep getting better.”
Wichita State and Missouri State are tied for second with 4-2 records. In order to make the end-of-the-season games against those teams meaningful, Creighton must take care of business in upcoming series against Indiana State, Southern Illinois and Illinois State.
The Sycamores come into this week’s games at Bob Warn Field in Terre Haute with a 4-5 league record and a 14-13 overall mark. They’ll throw the biggest challenge of the season at the Bluejays in Friday’s 5:30 p.m. opening game in starting Sean Manaea.
The 6-foot-5 left-hander is projected as a high first-round pick in this spring’s amateur draft. He’s 4-2 this season with a 0.99 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 45 innings.
“We’ve seen him for two years now, so we’ll have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to try to do out there on the mound,” Staehely said. “He’s throwing a little harder this year. We just have to have a good plan when we go out there to face him.”
Servais’ plan for his team heading into the season was to rely heavily on veterans such as Staehely, Mike Gerber, Brennan Murphy, Jake Peter and Brad McKewon. The Bluejays lost 12 seniors off last season’s team, and outsiders were fixated on their replacements.
Instead, Servais figured if his veterans could shake the offensive inconsistencies that plagued them last season that it would provide this season’s team with a solid foundation. Peter, who hit .217 as a freshman, leads the team with a .402 average and has pitched in five saves while doubling as the closer.
Staehely’s .299 average is more in tune to the .285 he hit in 2011 rather than his .207 junior season in 2012. Gerber’s average is up about 50 percentage points and his three homers at midseason is just one fewer than he hit last season. McKewon and Murphy also have shown improvement at the plate, hitting .309 and .263, respectively.
Their solid starts have allowed the newcomers on the mound and in the field to transition into roles that contributed to the 18-6 season.
“Our offense has been fairly consistent,” Servais said. “I’m seeing a lot of growth in our pitchers and our defense. When we pitch and defend, we can play with a lot of people.”
Servais downplays how much he might have emphasized the preseason projection of a bottom-of-the-conference finish for his team. Still, he takes pride that his program has been a championship contender in most seasons since he took over the program in 2004.
“We talked about it briefly before conference play started,” Servais said. “I told them that we think Creighton baseball is better than that. We’ve worked too hard over the last 10 years to establish who we are.
“We should not be considered to be the seventh-ranked team in this league. I understand what those polls are all about, and I’m mainly concerned about getting this team better.”
>> NOTES: Tommy Strunc (4-0, 3.23 ERA) will start Friday’s opening game, with Nick Musec (0-3, 5.91 ERA) and Austin Groth (2-0, 6.00 ERA) scheduled to start on Saturday and Sunday. … Creighton is hitting 52 percentage points higher than it did a season ago (.251). The Bluejays’ .303 team batting average is the second-highest in Servais’ tenure as coach. … Creighton is 7-0 in Strunc’s starts this season. … Winkelman is closing in on the school record for appearances. Scott Reese holds the record with 123, while Winkelman has 115. … Creighton’s 8-2 record in road games is tied for 10th-best nationally this season.
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