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Apr. 24—The first baseball series in nearly two years between border rivals Missouri Southern and Pittsburg State will be a key one.

With both teams looking to secure favorable positioning near the top of the MIAA standings, fourth-place PSU (19-11, 14-10 MIAA) plays host to second-place Missouri Southern (24-7, 17-7) in a three-game series this weekend at the Gorillas’ Al Ortolani Field.

The series opens with a Saturday doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. before a final game is played on Sunday at 1.

“We respect Pittsburg State, and they’re going to be a really good opponent,” Southern head coach Bryce Darnell said. “We’re going to have to play really well and match the intensity we played with last weekend to have a chance to win each game. … If you look in the standings, we’re relatively close. As we head to the home stretch, you want to be playing well.”

“I know this: They’re ahead of us, and we’re trying to move up the ladder,” PSU coach Bob Fornelli said. “They’re playing very well and have a very good baseball team. So yea, it’s another important weekend just like any other in this conference. We have to come out ready to play.”

The last meeting between MSSU and PSU was in late April of 2019, when the Gorillas picked up a 2-1 series win at Warren Turner Field in Joplin. The teams’ series in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If both teams maintain their top-four positions in the conference standings, they’ll host their first-round series in the MIAA Tournament, which starts on May 14.

“Our goal is to make sure we stay in the top four so we can host,” Fornelli said. “But it’s ahead of us. A lot of people still play each other coming up. We have six games at home and three on the road. So we feel good about where we’re at, but we have a lot of work to do.”

“You start by trying to get in the top four, and from there you just maneuver as high as you can,” Darnell said. “I don’t think anybody is going to catch Central Missouri (six games up on MSSU in the league standings), but Missouri Southern, Northeastern State and Pittsburg State are kind of all fighting for positioning after that. and Central Oklahoma, too, has got something to say about it as well. … There’s still a lot that could change.”

Southern, ranked as high as No. 8 in the national polls, is coming off an important 2-1 series triumph over Northeastern State, which lifted the Lions to a tie for second place with the RiverHawks in the league standings. MSSU owns the tiebreaker over NSU due to its head-to-head advantage.

Southern leads the MIAA in doubles (85), shutouts (3) and strikeouts (336), while ranking second in walks (137), batting average (.311), ERA (4.52), home runs (58), on base percentage (.396), runs scored (254) and slugging percentage (.562).

The Lions rank in the top 10 nationally in three categories — third in doubles, seventh in strikeout-to-walk ratio and eighth in home runs.

Troy Gagan leads the Lions with a .408 batting average with nine homers and 31 RBI. Henry Kusiak is batting .374 with 31 RBI, while Jordan Fitzpatrick is hitting .358 with eight home runs and 34 RBI. Tommy Stevenson leads the team with 40 RBI, and Joe Kinder leads the team with 10 home runs.

Zach Parish, the all-time career strikeout leader in the MIAA, is 8-1 on the season with a 1.38 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 65 innings. Parish has 451 punchouts in his career and is 23 away from the all-time Division II record. Will Bausinger is 5-2 on the season with 66 strikeouts, and Cole Woods leads the team with four saves.

Pittsburg State, coming off a 2-1 series win over Newman, is hitting .292 this season and averages 7.7 runs per game. On the mound, the Gorillas hold a 5.44 ERA.

Outfielder Aaron Gerdes leads the offense for PSU with a .364 batting average. Gerdes has posted 28 hits, including seven doubles, one triple and one home run. First baseman Garrett McGowan has a team-leading nine home runs, 34 RBI and 34 runs scored.

PSU righty David Henderson leads the Gorillas’ pitching staff with a 2.98 ERA. Henderson has posted a 6-2 record with 44 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings of work.

Contact Jared Porter on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.