Before Bradley got set to take on Illinois Tuesday night, Braves’ sophomore pitcher Noah Edders encapsulated the mindset that he hoped his teammates would also adopt as the season hit a critical mark.
“I think there’s been a lot of frustration this year and I think pretty much this season has went the exact opposite of how we all planned it to go,” Edders said. “I hope everyone is kind of just like ‘alright, screw it, we have nothing more to lose so just go out there and play our hardest and see what happens.’”
The Braves (13-23, 4-11) sit tied for last in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference, and with a quarter of the season remaining they’ve got to hit the gas pedal as we head into the final stages of the season. The MVC Championship in Terre Haute, Indiana will only include the top eight in the conference, making it that much more necessary for Bradley to hit their stride sooner than later.
That stride may have been reached at a gusty Dozer Park Tuesday night.
Fighting past the Illini
Nearly mimicking one another, the Braves and Illini replicated scores down to how each run crossed home. After seven innings, Illinois scratched one more across for a 6-5 lead.
Opening up the bottom of the eighth, Bradley’s nine-hitter Jackson Chatterton lined a bunt between third and second. Running through the bag, the junior beat the throw and set up the Braves with one on and nobody out.
Highlighting his 3-for-3 night at the plate, junior Ryan Vogel fouled off four straight pitches before he sent a ball bouncing into shallow right center field. Getting past a diving Illini outfielder, the ball trickled to the warning track, allowing Chatterton to knot the game at six as the beneficiary of Vogel’s emphatic standup triple.
Not stopping there, Bradley’s Cal McGinnis lined a double down the right field line, giving the Braves their first lead of the night at 7-6. The sophomore’s drive made the difference as graduate Connor Langrell picked up his ninth save of the season in the tight win over Illinois Tuesday night.
Avenging their 6-4 loss in Champaign, Illinois earlier this season, the Braves did it by once again displaying the type of team they can be.
Roughing it with the Redbirds
Before Bradley’s battle with Illinois, they tussled with their I-74 rival and MVC standings cellar bunkmate Illinois State. The Redbirds have struggled similarly to the Braves this season but were still able to beat up Bradley’s sophomore starters Jacob Kisting and Jacob Norris to take two of three in Peoria.
Braves’ head coach Elvis Dominguez explained how that affected the team’s weekend.
“I mean we gave up 25 runs and 31 hits in two games; it’s impossible to win like that,” Dominguez said. “When your starters don’t give you a chance, it’s pretty much an uphill battle.”
In the first showdown Friday afternoon, Illinois State jumped all over the scoreboard early on.
Splitting up three homers between the second, third and fourth innings, the Redbirds tagged Kisting for eight runs on ten hits in 3.1 innings of work. That lead swelled to 11-1 before the Braves began to crash the run column in the sixth.
With the help of a few wild pitches and a handful of singles, Bradley tabbed six runs in the inning, now trailing their rivals 11-7. Unfortunately for Dominguez, his club allowed two more balls to leave the yard which contributed to Illinois State’s 16-9 win. Afterward, he explained the deflating factor of the uphill battle.
“It’s tough to play from behind,” Dominguez said. “It’s tough offensively because you can’t do things offensively that you normally need to do. You can’t bunt or steal when you’re down four, five or six runs. Our pitching just has to be better.”
In the following game on Saturday, temperatures hit the low 40s with the sporadic appearance of sleet. With sunglasses being used to shield the falling precipitation and save the little visibility left, the two teams played on.
Allowing five runs on eight hits, Norris pitched into the sixth inning before exiting with no run support. Bradley junior catcher Logan Delgado batted 3-for-5 but the rest of the lineup combined for just three hits. The Braves’ offense was held scoreless, and the Redbirds would clinch a series win by way of a 9-0 win.
Looking for some sweet revenge, Bradley showed their signature flashes of potential to salvage the series finale.
“That’s what we’re capable of and we’ve shown flashes of it,” Dominguez said in reference to the 19-3 win Sunday morning.
Taking a 4-0 lead, the Braves scored five in the fifth to create a 9-2 separation. After scoring 10 in the sixth frame and shutting out the Redbirds in the seventh, the run rule was enacted, giving the Braves their largest win of the season.
Scoring 19 runs on 15 hits, the Bradley offense was able to breathe with Edders pitching five innings and only allowing three hits and two runs on the bump.
The biggest factor in the win was the bottom of the order. Batters seven through nine finished with a combined 8-for-9 day at the dish, including a 4-for-4 day from sophomore Cole Luckey.
“Going into the weekend, I haven’t been an everyday guy for the entire year,” Luckey said. “I knew going into this weekend that I was pretty nervous… it definitely showed this weekend during some at-bats in some big situations.”
“By the third game I was feeling really comfortable compared to the first game so I think as time progresses I’ll feel more comfortable,” he added.
Luckey finished the four-game stretch by batting 8-for-17, driving in seven runs and only leaving two on base all weekend. Dominguez talked about the spark that seemed to pop out of nowhere in the lineup.
“[He’s] a kid that has been so close and shows flashes but takes one step forward, two steps back,” Dominguez said. “He’s got all the tools, it was just how can we get him into the lineup and give him a chance. He’s done the best with that opportunity.”
After a 2-2 week, the Braves will only play conference games the rest of the way. With 12 games remaining including league-leader Indiana State (26-12, 14-1) at home and Illinois-Chicago (17-19, 4-11) on the road, the path for Bradley won’t be free of obstacles. To get themselves into the tournament field, they’ll need to capitalize starting with the series in Chicago this weekend.
“I think we should definitely take advantage of the series that we should win,” Luckey said. “UIC is right at the bottom of the standings as well [so] it’s gonna be a big series this weekend.”
Bradley begins its three-game series at Illinois-Chicago on Friday at 6 p.m.