By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Going into the last week of the MIAA baseball regular season, Missouri Southern was battling to hold onto home-field advantage for the postseason tournament.
First the Lions overcame a late-inning deficit against a pitcher who hadn’t lost a game in two years en route to a split against regular-season champion Missouri Western. Then Central Oklahoma lost its season finale at Truman State, meaning the Lions would finish no worse than fourth. And when Emporia State lost three games at Central Missouri, the Lions moved up into third place.
“I think we’re playing pretty good,” Lions coach Bryce Darnell said. “We had two good performances against Missouri Western. The effort was good. We outhit Western on the weekend, which is saying a lot because they are second in the nation in hitting.
“We’re an older bunch. I think our guys are ready to keep playing.”
As the No. 3 seed, the Lions start the conference postseason tournament at home against sixth-seeded Northeastern State. Weather and field conditions permitting, the best-of-three series will start at 5 p.m. today at Joe Becker Stadium.
The winners of the four first-round series advance to a double-elimination tournament on May 9-11 in Kansas City, Kan., at CommunityAmerica Ballpark.
The Lions (29-18) won three of four games over the RiverHawks (27-21) this season. The teams split a doubleheader on March 20 in Tahlequah, with NSU winning the first game 7-3 and the Lions taking the nightcap 5-4. One week later at Joe Becker Stadium, the Lions swept NSU 5-4 and 12-2.
Brett Abell, senior left-hander from Miami, Okla., will start on the mound for the Lions. He has a 4-2 record and 4.21 earned run average, allowing 74 hits in 77 innings with 92 strikeouts and 36 walks.
“I’ve been really proud of the way Brett Abell has been able to come back and have the type of year he’s had after Tommy John surgery last year,” Darnell said.
Darnell is undecided on the starting pitchers for the rest of the series.
“We’re taking the approach, if we can use Payton Walker or Ryan Bates to help us win a game, we’ll go ahead and do it,” he said. “We’ll try to play for the day, so to speak.
The first five hitters in the Lions’ batting order are above .300 — Michael McCoy (.332), Dallas Burke (.344), Will Wagner (.321), Sam Ryan (.331) and Thomas Wilson (.329).
Wagner paces the Lions with seven home runs and 35 runs batted in, and Ryan and Tee Helsel have 32 and 30 RBI, respectively.
“I felt coming into the fall we had a chance to be a good club,” Darnell said. “We were able to withstand a few injuries. You look at our season, our main relief pitcher (Stephen Vaughn) broke his collarbone, a starting pitcher (Ryan Bates) missed three starts with a concussion, and the guy we wanted to do the bulk of our catching (Mitchell Osburn) broke his wrist the first weekend.
“We were able to figure things out and have hit our stride. I’m pretty happy our guys have been able to handle so many things that were unexpected.”
Northeastern State is making its first postseason appearance since reaching the Lone Star Conference championship game in 2000.
Kegan Knight is batting .372 with six homers and 40 RBI, and Cody Robinson has 16 homers and 44 RBI.
Craig George is 6-4 with a 6.82 ERA in 10 starts, and closer Trevor Walch has nine saves and a 4.16 ERA.