Series: Creighton wins 3-0
Creighton: 39-13, 15-6 MVC
It all started with a bunt by arguably the most valuable player in the Missouri Valley Conference. Trailing Missouri State 1-0 Thursday afternoon in the sixth inning and watching starter Jonas Dufek give up only one hiccup run to that point, Trever Adams knew he needed to start a rally. Thus, leading off the bottom of the inning, Creighton’s star offensive player placed a perfect bunt down the third base line. Alex Staehely followed with a clutch double to score Adams, tying the game at 1-1. And over the next 48-plus hours, the Bluejays never let up making clutch plays.
The result? The Creighton baseball program’s first Valley regular season championship since 2005. Dufek and Ty Blach did what was expected, Greg Hellhake and CU relievers did what was hoped for, and the defense made as many crucial plays as the offense in a three-game sweep that cemented Creighton as the top seed for this week’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
Through five innings in the first game of the series, the Bluejays left various scoring opportunities on the base paths. CU couldn’t push a run across in the second inning after loading the bases with no one out. The Jays left runners on base in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, too. Meanwhile, the normally solid defensive club let a leadoff pop fly land between a few players, allowing Missouri State’s Aaron Conway to end up on second with a leadoff “double”. A sacrifice fly brought Conway home a few batters later, and just like that Dufek was trailing 1-0 while locked in a great pitching duel with MSU’s Nick Petree.
The Jays would get all 3 of their runs in the sixth inning. Adams scored on Staehely’s double. A one-out single by Scott Thornburg brought Mike Gerber to the plate, and the freshman knocked a double to bring home Staehely and move Thornburg to third base. A Chance Ross sac fly ended the scoring for CU, with the third run proving to be the winning tally. Missouri State scored a run in the top of the eighth inning, but Kurt Spomer limited the damage and picked up a four-out save to keep the Jays’ outright title hopes alive.
The weather seemed uncooperative all afternoon and early evening, but rain and wind gave way to a chilly but relatively dry night in downtown Omaha. Creighton’s Blach seemed unaffected by the climate or the Missouri State lineup, offering perhaps his best pitching performance of his two-year CU career. Staked to a 3-0 lead with solo CU tallies in the fourth, fifth, and seventh innings, Blach went eight strong frames for his 10th win of the year. He allowed only four hits and one run, while issuing just one walk and striking out eight Bears.
Earlier in the day, Wichita State took two games from Bradley to complete a three-game sweep and leap Creighton in the standings. Ed Servais and his players knew before they took the field Friday they would need to win that evening and Saturday to take the league’s title outright and capture the top seed for the Valley tournament. An RBI single by Jimmy Swift in the fourth, a run-scoring double by Thornburg in the fifth, and a solo home run by Adams in the seventh were all the Jays would need to capture at least a share of the Valley title.
Senior Day saw the Jays poised to pick up a league championship trophy. But unlike Dufek on Thursday and Blach Friday, even the most positive of Creighton baseball fans couldn’t project a dominant performance by Hellhake. But the senior lefty from Quincy, Illinois, gave Servais and pitching coach Rob Smith four and one-third innings of one-run baseball, scattering four hits and three walks while his offense provided an early 3-0 cushion.
Ross brought Adams home from second base with a run-scoring single in the second inning, and then three consecutive singles in the fourth inning gave the Jays a 3-0 lead. Hellhake left with the bases loaded and one out, and Chase Webb walked Missouri State’s first run in on a close 3-2 pitch. But the Bluejays got one of their most timely double plays of the year, leaving the score 3-1. The Bears grounded into double plays in the fifth, seventh, and eighth innings, helping Webb, Jack VanLeur, Mark Winkelman, and Reese McGraw close the door on Missouri State.
After all was said and done, the Bears and Bluejays ended up in the same side of the bracket for this week’s Valley tournament. So, Missouri State may have a chance to enact some revenge against the Jays as the league’s #4 seed (vs. #5 Southern Illinois Tuesday, 4 p.m.).