PEORIA, Ill. - It has been a good week for the ace of the Braves' pitching staff.
On Tuesday, senior Joe Bircher earned a spot on the CollegeBaseball360.com honor roll and was named co-pitcher of the week in the Missouri Valley conference following his performance Friday against one of the conference's best teams, the Missouri State Bears (24-10, 4-2 MVC).
Friday's victory marked the first at home for the Braves on the season and ended a 6-game home losing streak that dated back to last spring. All Bircher did was throw nine innings of 1-run ball, not allow walk and move with striking distance of Bradley's all-time career leader by recording a career-best 12 strikeouts.
Ok, maybe it was a really good week for Bradley's ace.
Bircher will go into Friday night's home game versus Indiana State -- 6 p.m. at O'Brien Field -- needing five strikeouts to surpass current-leader Wyman Carey's career mark of 261 strikeouts, a record that has been safe since 1959.
Last Friday night's contest was the first of a three-game set against the Bears. After a stumbling in a 12-2 loss on Saturday, the Braves rebounded Sunday behind a solid outing from junior Patrick Flanagan. The right-hander had been throwing out of the bullpen for the Braves but started the game in place of the injured John Nasshan. He threw six shutout innings before turning things over to the Braves' bullpen. Danny Gifford worked the last frame to record his fifth save of the season.
Last Sunday's victory gave the Braves (16-12-1, 3-3 MVC) a 2-1 series win over the conference's second-best team and allowed them to climb to .500 in conference play.
This weekend won't get any easier for the Braves, as Indiana State (26-8, 6-3 MVC) visits O'Brien Field sitting atop The Valley standings.
"We're going from the 25th-ranked team to the 28th-ranked team in the country," said Braves coach Elvis Dominguez. "There is no such thing as a down weekend. Yeah we can celebrate ... (but) every weekend is really a bloodbath in this league."
Indiana State enters the weekend with the best record in the conference after posting series wins against their first three MVC opponents, taking 2-of-3 at the expense of Evansville, Illinois State and Creighton.
On Monday, Dominguez forecasted this weekend's rotation but said it may be changed during the week. After Bircher goes on Friday night, senior Justin Ziegler will take the mound for Saturday's 2 p.m. game and Flanagan will make his second start of the year Sunday at 1 o'clock.
Dominguez wants to set the tone for the weekend on Friday night, and Bircher has been the man to do it for the Braves this season. The senior is 4-1 on the year with a 2.65 ERA and an impressive 7.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
"Joe has been our Friday night guy for the past two years and he gives us a chance to win," said Dominguez. "Game one is really the key."
Dominguez praised Bircher's performance on-the-mound and the leadership he brings off of it.
"You (have to) keep in mind that he goes up against everyone else's number one on Friday nights," Dominguez said. "You talk about a total Bradley student-athlete, I think he encompasses that."
Bircher is facing the game like any other Friday night start. When asked if he was going to do anything different to prepare for the Sycamores, the senior replied casually, stating that winning was the only thing he focuses on when his number gets called. Until recently Bircher didn't even know he was in range of the all-time strikeout record.
"I'll do whatever I can to record outs, whatever way I can, and strikeouts are fun way to do it, too," said Bircher with a smile.
Dominguez is not picky about how Bircher records the outs either; his only concern is Bircher keeps shutting down opposing hitters and providing his team with a chance to win.
"(The defense) knows that every pitch a ball can be put into play, (Bircher) will be the first to tell you that he'd like to go ahead and throw three, four pitches an inning and be out of it," said Dominguez.
Currently, the Braves sit in the middle-of-the-pack in the conference -- their 3-3 record is good for fifth place -- but even a 2-1 series win over Indiana State would put them only a game behind the Sycamores.
"If we can win two out of three, or even sweep this series, we're really going to set the table to do some really impressive and awesome things in conference," Bircher said. "We've got some serious talent and quality players and toughness on this team and we're going to be able to do some big things as far as winning goes."