By Richard Polen
Globe Sports Writer
For most of March and April, Minnesota State endured a long winter as it gradually made its case for the home-field advantage that goes along with being the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division II Central Region baseball tournament.
In a matter of a few days, a big part of the Mavericks’ home landscape changed. Warmer weather, including a temperature of 97 degrees at 5 p.m. Tuesday, has removed the snow cover in Mankato, where the Mavericks call home.
“We were hoping to show you the Minnesota way of life here but, unfortunately, we won’t have any snow for you,” said Mavericks head coach Matt Magers.
With a tournament field that includes Missouri Southern and Southern Arkansas, the heat wave is unwelcome for Minnesota State and its conference rival to the north, St. Cloud State. Temperates are forecast to be near 80 degrees each day in the double-elimination tournament, which runs through Sunday.
No. 6 seed Missouri Southern (34-20) faces Minnesota State (35-8) in the first round at 7 p.m. today. During the heat of the day, other first-round games pit Southern Arkansas against Missouri Western at noon and Central Missouri against St. Cloud State at 3:30 p.m.
Live audio and live video streaming will be available free at www.mssulions.com.
From April 18 until April 27, the Mavericks had eight games cancelled because of snow and cold weather. A three-game series at Truman State scheduled for the first week of May also was wiped out.
“Last year, we played 63 games,” Magers said.
Through it all, Minnesota State has relied on an experienced, deep pitching staff that broke the school record for strikeouts per nine innings and a defense that set a school record for fielding percentage.
“We knew these guys would be reliable guys for us,” Magers said. “It’s a veteran pitching staff. We had a couple of question marks for a set-up man and a fifth starter, but those have been filled by juniors.”
The Mavericks’ starting rotation is led by right-handers Harvey Martin (7-0) and Jason Hoppe (7-1), who both have ERAs below 2.00.
Martin, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior, is among 40 semifinalists for the Tino Martinez Award as the player of the year in Division II. Mahlon Zimmerman, a senior right-hander, is the Mavericks’ top relief pitcher.
Offensively the Mavericks are averaging nearly seven runs per game, led by catcher Nolan Johnson (.353), third baseman Connor McCallum (.345) and second baseman Lucas Skjefte (.342).
Defensively, the Mavericks have a school-record fielding percentage of .981 and have allowed 20 stolen bases in 37 attempts.
Minnesota State, which won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament, has played only six games this season at home, where they are 6-0. The series against Truman State was the Mavericks’ only MIAA opponent on their schedule.
Missouri Southern, batting .301 as a team, is led by right fielder Dallas Burke (.350), second baseman Michael McCoy (.341), who leads the team in hits (75) and total bases (101), and catcher Sam Ryan (.332), who leads the Lions in doubles (16) and RBI (38).
The Lions’ starting pitchers are senior left-hander Brett Abell (5-3), who has a school-record 105 strikeouts; junior right-handers Ryan Bates (8-2) and Drew Noble (7-3) and freshman left-hander Payton Walker (6-5).
“We don’t see MIAA teams very often,” Magers said. “All we know about them (Missouri Southern) is what we read and through social media.
“They’re a scrappy baseball team and have to be one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament after they won their tournament,” he said. “Whether you’re seeded No. 1 or No. 6, ultimately the team that can get hot up here for four games is the team that’s going to win it.”