Today marks part one of a three part series examining Vanderbilt's competition in the Louisville Regional of the 2010 NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament. The Commodores, by virtue of their #2 seed, will face off against Illinois State in their first game - a rematch of their March meeting in Nashville. Though Vandy won that game, the Redbirds are a different team. So what do we know about ISU?
Illinois State - #3 Seed - Ranked #45 by USA Today - 31-22 - Missouri Valley Conference Champions
Illinois State punched their dance ticket by tearing through the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament, winning four straight games all by at least three runs. The Redbirds overcame an early 5-8 start to burn through the MVC and finish the season at 31-22 (15-6 in the MVC) - however, they've struggled against competition from tougher conferences, including a 0-3 mark against SEC schools as well as a three game sweep at the hands of Atlantic Sun also-ran Lipscomb.
However, since that sweep they've been 19-8 and playing their best ball of the season, making them a difficult match-up for anyone. The Redbirds don't excel in any one category but do excel in winning games, whether they're pitchers duels or slugfests. Like Vanderbilt, they have a strong core of solid hitters but no standout mashers, and a strong supply of role players who have come up big in ISU's late-season run. They only have one full-time starter with an ERA under 5.00, but utilize a solid bullpen and lockdown closer in Kenny Long to keep the team in games until their bats show up. While Illinois State is flawed, they're one of the hottest teams in the country thanks to hitting in bunches and adequate pitching.
Pitcher(s) to watch: Ryan Copeland and Kenny Long - Copeland and Long emerged as the Redbirds' best pitching options in 2010, and the pair make a dangerous duo in relief for ISU. They combined for six appearances in four games of the MVC Tournament, throwing a total of 10.2 innings and allowing just six hits and one run. The dangerous lefties also struck out 14 batters while propelling their team to the conference title.
While ISU's starters aren't spectacular, they'll only need throw five or six innings of adequate ball before turning the game over to their bullpen gems. Should the Commodores trail Illinois State going into the seventh inning, it will spell trouble for Coach Tim Corbin and his squad. However, even Vandy's anemic offense should be able to get something going against the Redbirds' lack of talent before the late innings, and ISU's bats have struggled against top tier pitching in 2010.
Batter to watch: Kevin Tokarski. Tokarski is a rarity in a mid-major conference, an absolute monster at the plate that can hit from anywhere in the lineup - though it just so happens that he's one of the best leadoff hitters in the country. The redshirt sophomore broke out in 2010 after a wrist injury sidelined him in 2009, sporting an average of .429 and a whopping OBP of .551. He's also a threat on the basepaths with 33 stolen bases in 39 attempts and has scored 67 runs in just 50 games. Over four games in the MVC Tournament, he scored seven runs.
However, Tokarski isn't one-dimensional at the plate. He's clubbed 25 doubles and seven home runs to pair with 49 RBI from the lead-off spot. While his defense at second base hasn't been spectacular, he's made up for that considerably with his unreal batting. He could be a major thorn in the side for Vandy's pitching in Louisville.
Overall Summary: ISU has gotten very good at winning games, and their formula has been to stick around long enough for their batters to dig them out of holes. However, against elite teams, this strategy won't work - and this is evidenced in their overall record. Against top 25 teams, the Redbirds were just 0-3, and their best wins of the season came against Wichita State. If Vanderbilt can silence their bats using superior pitching, then ISU can't win this game - their starting pitching is simply too porous, even against a struggling VU batting lineup. However, if the Redbirds can jump on Vanderbilt mistakes and hold a lead through five innings, things are going to get dicey for the Commodores very quickly.