“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.”
That’s what we wrote yesterday, following the two wild games on Thursday. It seemed unlikely that Friday’s game could top it.
Unlikely. But it did.
It began with Creighton touching up Missouri State’s starting pitcher, Grant Gordon, for three runs in the first inning, sending him to an early shower. Nick Judkins led off with a walk, stole second, and scored on Trever Adams’ double to the corner in left. After a walk to Scott Thornberg, Clay Cuno — the unlikely star of this tourney for the Jays — continued his clutch hitting with his fourth double of the tourney, this one plating two runs and giving the Jays a 3-0 lead.
Behind the excellent pitching of “fifth starter” Mark Winkleman, who went four innings and surrendered just one run and three hits, the Jays handed a 3-1 lead to their bullpen in the fifth inning. Creighton’s middle relief has been stellar down the stretch, particularly Jack VanLeur and Reese McGraw, and with both lined up to bridge the middle innings Friday night, you could excuse Creighton fans for being confident in their chances.
Nick Musec was the first man out of the ‘pen for the Jays though, starting the fifth, and he gave up a hit and a walk to put the tying runs on base. With two outs, VanLeur came in to put out the fire, and with his first pitch, drilled Kevin Medrano in the back to load the bases. He then settled down to get a groundout to second, ending the threat and keeping the score 3-1 heading to the sixth.
VanLeur, pitching for the third consecutive day, was not his usual self. The hit-by-pitch foreshadowed that, and what followed in the sixth inning led to a MSU rally. He gave up a hit and walk, and one inning after getting out of a jam of Musec’s creation, he left a mess of his own for McGraw to clean up. Unfortunately, this time pinch hitter Trey Massenberg drilled a double down the line, scoring both runners, and tying the score 3-3.
McGraw would pitch a scoreless seventh, and get one out in the eighth before leaving in favor of Chase Webb, who got through the eighth unscathed. A single and a walk in the ninth forced Ed Servais to bring in closer Kurt Spomer — the last regular Creighton pitcher left — to get out of the jam. Spomer got the last out, and kept the score knotted at 3.
Spomer put two on the tenth, but pitched around it and exited the game with Creighton and Missouri State tied 3-3. The last man standing in the Creighton pen? Erik Mattingly, a junior college transfer who had pitched a grand total of two innings all season long, the last of which came at Evansville almost a month ago. He was getting such little work out of the pen that Servais and his staff had Mattingly taking fly balls in practice in case they needed an extra outfielder. Yet here he was, pitching the biggest innings in the biggest game of the year.
You could excuse a guy of so little experience a little nervousness. But instead, he was confident, as he told the media afterward. “I just kept thinking I wasn’t going to be the guy that would end the season for the rest of these guys. They’ve worked so hard to win as many games as we have. I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
A gutsy performance enabled him to accomplish that. In the 11th, he got the first batter out on a pop fly, then walked the pesky Kevin Medrano. Ed Servais popped out of the dugout. There was no one left in the pen, so this was obviously a strategy session. Or was it? After the game, he said it was more pep talk than strategy. Whatever it was, it worked — he got a double-play ball out of the next hitter, and Mattingly had worked out of his first collegiate jam as a pitcher.
While all of this was going on, J.C. Casey was pitching the game of his life for Missouri State out of the bullpen. Their fourth starter, pitching in what may have been his final game, pitched ten dominant innings. He gave up five hits and no runs, walking one and striking out 11 while throwing 136 pitches — 87 of them for strikes. But those numbers fail to do his performance justice.
He erased one of the six baserunners with a pickoff of Chance Ross in the fifth inning (fortuitous timing, as Nick Judkins later doubled and Ross would have scored what might have been the winning run). His pickoff move kept the few baserunners Creighton did have from getting big leads, or from stealing, and in doing his best Jack Morris impression, he kept MSU in the game. When he finally left the game after the 11th inning, he got a respectful round of applause from the Creighton fans (and more than a few salutes from the press box, too.)
As the game moved into the 12th inning, Mattingly came back out for Creighton and walked two of the first three hitters. Once again, Ed Servais came out of the dugout, and once again, it was more pep talk than strategy session. The message was to throw strikes and let them hit it to Creighton’s stellar defense. Instead, he took matters into his own hands, striking out both Brent McComack and Trey Massenberg — two of MSU’s better hitters — to end the inning.
In the bottom of the inning, MSU finally went deeper into their bullpen, but it wasn’t exactly good news. The next man in was First Team All-Valley reliever Dan Kickham, who had allowed only seven runs in 24 appearances this year. He proceeded to walk the lead off batter, Anthony Bemboom. The Jays then went to work with their brand of small ball, beginning with pinch hitter Joey Bowens laying down a textbook sacrifice bunt to advance Bemboom to second. Mike Gerber then hit a sac fly to center, moving Bemboom to third with two outs.
And then, in the ultimate display of small ball, they scored a run without a hit when Kickham uncorked a wild pitch that went to the backstop, allowing Bemboom to score ahead of the throw. Press box decorum dictates you not cheer, so Panon, Otter and I sat and merely smiled, but I can assure you we were going absolutely crazy inside. Really, you could do nothing else but shake your head. This Creighton team has, in this tournament, scored runs on a catcher’s balk, a wild pitch on an intentional walk, and on a foul ball sac fly. Of course this instant classic would end on a wild pitch. Of course.
The greatest game ever played at Rosenblatt was the 1991 College World Series game between Wichita State and Creighton. This game was the greatest game, so far, in the young history of TD Ameritrade Park. And I’ll say it again: Saturday’s championship game has big shoes to fill if it hopes to come close to the drama, the wildness, or the sheer fun of the game on Friday.
Panon, Otter and I may not have been able to cheer, but I think John Bishop and David Gustafson did plenty of that in our stead on Bluejay Radio. Their call of the final play is fantastic.