By Kyle Daubs
If it were up to Hayden Birdsong, there would not have been a lot of buzz surrounding him.
Charleston is a small town. Word gets out eventually.
After spending a year at Lake Land College in 2020, Birdsong transferred to Eastern Illinois University. It was a tough season last year for Birdsong. The former Mattoon High School standout made 14 appearances as a pitcher, which included five starts, and finished the season 0-5 with a 9.76 earned run average in 27.2 innings of work.
Birdsong has come a long way this season at EIU.
The right-hander is coming off a pitching performance last week that netted him the Ohio Valley Conference Co-Player of the Week honors.
Because of his struggles, Birdsong said that he keeps his success low-key because, well, that is how baseball rolls, where one fails more than one succeeds in the game.
“I am not a very public guy when it comes to my success because baseball is really hard,” Birdsong said, “and anything can go wrong at any moment.”
Last week, Birdsong helped lead EIU to a come-from-behind win against Southeast Missouri. The Panthers trailed 5-0 in the first inning when Birdsong replaced Cameron Doherty. He would throw 5.1 innings of two-hit, no-run baseball with eight strikeouts, the longest outing of the year for Birdsong.
“It’s a pretty cool achievement coming from last year and then the beginning of this year,” said Birdsong. “I have struggled a little bit to slow the game down, and I think it’s starting to click a little bit.”
Birdsong currently leads the Ohio Valley Conference in earned run average with a mark of 1.40 in 10 appearances in conference play. On the season, he has made 19 appearances, two starts, and owns a 3.00 earned run average in 42 innings with 31 hits allowed, 15 runs, 19 walks, and 63 strikeouts. His strikeouts are tied for 10th in the league, while his 5-3 record has him tied for the team lead in wins.
On top of that, Birdsong is tied for fourth in the OVC in batters struck out looking with 21, while he is tied for second with three runners picked off.
“Recently, I have been working on a lot of off-speed pitches so that I can throw them for a strike more often because most of the teams we play can read a scouting report and they tend to expect a lot of fastballs because of previous outings,” said Birdsong. “Being able to mix my pitches a lot more has helped me a lot to stay in the game longer, and keep the hitters guessing.”
This has been one of the best seasons for EIU in recent memory. The Panthers are 33-19 on the season with a 12-12 mark in the OVC. The 33 wins are the most for the team since the 2009 squad finished 36-14.
“A lot of what is happening is because of the coaching that the team has taken on this past year,” said Birdsong. “There are a lot of new thoughts and new people that are making changes in a positive way around here. The mixture of great defense all around, and hitting when it’s needed has taken a huge part in our success. I wouldn’t ask for another defense behind me, which will always help with a pitcher’s confidence to know that if the ball is in play there will most likely be an out made. I also believe that our success has come from a lot of the older guys on our team.”
EIU is set to participate in the OVC Tournament as the No. 4 seed. The team takes on the winner of No. 5 seed Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and No. 8 seed Austin Peay on Wednesday. The game will start at 4 p.m., streamed on ESPN+.
Birdsong likes his team’s chances. EIU won 25 of its 33 games on the road, which leads all NCAA Division I teams. The team played away from Coaches Stadium for the majority of their season due to renovations. EIU is looking to win its first OVC Tournament title since 2008 and its first tournament win since 2014.
“I love our chances as long as we stay relaxed, and think of it as a fun game that we have played our whole life,” said Birdsong. “There’s not much that can get in our way. We have been battling some injuries, but we have a very deep team, and I think we can flip-flop a lot of positions, and still get a winning outcome.”