Creighton 5, Southern Illinois 0 [Box Score]
Following their 10-3 loss in the early morning hours of Thursday, Creighton found themselves in the losers bracket, where they would need to win two games later in the day just to survive. Coupled with having played at 9AM on Wednesday in a make-up of their postponed game from Tuesday night, it would mean they would be playing their third and fourth games in 36 hours — and without their two ace pitchers, who had started the first two games of the tournament.
Coming into the first game of the day, against a Southern Illinois team that had taken two of three from the Jays at TD Ameritrade in April, the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that the Jays needed five good innings from starter Greg Hellhake — that if he could give them five innings and keep them in the game, he’d have done his job. Even those modest hopes seemed a bit of a stretch from a guy who, in 14 prior starts this season, averaged four innings per start. He carried an ERA of 4.66 into the game, and he’d started elimination games in the MVC Tournament each of the previous three seasons, losing all three.
Earlier in his career on the Hilltop, Hellhake earned the Friday night starter spot in the rotation as a sophomore and thrived, leading the team with 15 starts, giving up two runs or fewer in eight of them. During April of that year, he had a five-start run where he pitched 23.2 innings and allowed just four earned runs while striking out 15. Big things were expected from him his junior year, but he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and he’d never really been the same pitcher since. Last year, he was 1-2 in ten appearances, seven of them starts, with a 8.10 ERA and a ghastly 1.91 WHIP. His senior campaign had been better at times, but inconsistent: he began the year 3-1, then had four straight starts where he failed to get out of the fourth inning. The worst of those starts came against Wichita State, where he pitched 2 innings, walked four and gave up four earned runs in what became a 12-3 loss.
However, in his last start of the regular season — the day the Jays clinched the MVC regular season crown — Hellhake started and pitched brilliantly, throwing 4-1/3 innings and giving up just one earned run. That’s exactly the kind of start Ed Servais and the Jays hoped he could repeat Thursday morning.
What they got was a masterpiece that will be talked about for years to come.
Southern Illinois’ Clay Murphy led the game off with a double. Hellhake struck out the next batter, walked Austin Montgomery, and then induced a double play to escape the inning. He would allow just one more baserunner the rest of the way — a fourth inning single by Brock Harding — retiring 24 of the final 25 batters, including the last 16 in a row, in a complete game shutout. It was a virtuoso performance, and it came in the biggest of moments: an elimination game in which the bullpen was worn out from the previous day, with another game to come later on.
He told the media after the game, “The guys have really had my back since I had surgery two years ago. To come back from that has been a blessing. Our guys played their hearts out today. I just wanted to go out there and give our guys a chance because I knew they would back me up on the offensive end.”
The offense did exactly that, scoring five times, the first coming on a wild pitch in the fifth inning. With runners at second and third, the Salukis opted to intentionally walk Trever Adams but on the second offering, the pitch sailed to the backstop, ruining their strategy as the lead runner scored to make it 1-0. Creighton added a second run in the sixth, after Clay Cuno reached base on a fielding error by SIU shortstop Jake Welch, and advanced to second when Welch threw the ball wild to first. Chance Ross then drove him in with a base hit to make it 2-0. They would tack on three more, but those were insurance runs Hellhake would not need.
Creighton 6, Missouri State 5 [Box Score]
The nightcap was a rematch of game which had ended at 12:30AM earlier that morning, and would be the fifth game between Missouri State and Creighton in the past six days. It would be up to starting pitcher Brandon Koenigstein to keep the Jays in the game this time, though they knew they had a rested bullpen in case of emergency thanks to Hellhake’s masterpiece.
And it looked like the bullpen might be needed sooner than expected when the Bears scored twice in the first frame. Aaron Conway led off with a single, moved into scoring position by stealing second, and then with two outs, Brock Chaffin worked a walk. Both would come around to score when Brent Seifert doubled over the head of Trever Adams in right field.
Creighton wasted no time cutting the lead in half, with Trever Adams singling, stealing second, and then scoring on a base hit to right by Scott Thornburg. It would be a recurring theme on the day, as Creighton would rally from two runs down three separate times.
In the bottom of the second, MSU went up 3-1 after Chance Ross threw wild to first on a routine grounder, allowing Spiker Helms to come around from second base. It remained 3-1 until the bottom of the fifth, when Creighton loaded the bases on consecutive doubles by Clay Cuno and Mike Gerber, followed by Chance Ross being plunked with a pitch. Gabriel Thibodeaux then pinch-hit for Michael Mutcheson, a move some in the press box questioned. As usual, though, Ed Servais played his hunch correctly — Thibodeaux promptly delivered a base hit to right that scored Cuno, and when the throw sailed not only past the cut-off man but also the catcher, Gerber scampered home with the tying run.
MSU knocked Koenigstein out of the game in their half of the fifth, as Kevin Medrano led off with a stinging double to the gap. Brock Chaffin singled, Brent Seifert smacked a double to score Medrano, and Koenigstein’s night was through. Jack VanLeur came in relief, and promptly gave up a sacrifice fly to Travis McCormack making it 5-3 Bears.
The next two innings would see the Jays have the bases loaded (sixth inning) and runners on first and second (seventh inning). They would score two runs. They would get just a single hit.
How in the world does that happen, you ask? Three Bears errors in the sixth inning started the madness. With one out, Alex Staehely struck out but the pitch was dropped by the catcher, who then threw up the baseline as he attempted to complete the out. Scott Thornburg was then hit by a pitch. Clay Cuno grounded a ball to first, but the Bears’ first baseman, Brock Chaffin, threw wildly to second base in an attempt to force out Thornburg, allowing Staehely to score CU’s fourth run. The potential tying run was gunned out at the plate moments later when Chance Ross hit a ball up the middle, kick-saved by the pitcher, who threw home to get Thornburg by a hair.
The seventh was just as wild. Creighton had runners at second and third with two outs when Scott Thornburg struck out to end the inning…except the Missouri State catcher failed to hold on to the pitch, which sailed to the backstop. Thornburg beat the throw to first, Nick Judkins alertly came home on the throw, and the game was tied 5-5.
Even the manner in which Creighton took the lead was wild. Singles by Chance Ross and Gabriel Thibodeaux put runners at second and third with one out. Nick Judkins lofted a lazy fly down the left-field line which drifted foul, inexplicably caught by the left-fielder in foul territory who was in no position to throw home should the runner tag. Ross did exactly that, and the rare foul-ball sacrifice gave Creighton their first lead of the night. Kurt Spomer then earned the Mitch Williams-style save in the ninth, loading the bases before working out of the jam to preserve the win.
The bullpen, which had been allowed to rest thanks to Hellhake’s complete game earlier in the day, was the quiet hero in the nightcap. After Koenigstein allowed five runs and nine hits in 4-1/3 innings of work, Jack VanLeur threw two innings of shutout baseball, allowing one hit and striking out two. Reese McGraw threw 1-2/3 shutout innings, picking up the win, and Spomer worked a scoreless (though nailbiting) ninth for the save.
The two wins set up a third game in as many days with Missouri State, with the winner moving into Saturday’s MVC Championship game against the winner of Indiana State-Wichita State. It has big shoes to fill if it hopes to come close to the drama, the wildness, or the sheer fun of the two games on Thursday.