“Our guys never complained about the situation they were in. They were so focused, and I think the thing that drove them was that we kept talking about how no Creighton team had ever won the regular season and the conference championship the same year. There have been some really good Creighton teams, and they wanted that stamp next to the 2011 Creighton squad. And they got it.”
Six games in four days. Two straight nailbiters against a good Missouri State team. And finally, a championship game against longtime nemesis Wichita State.
With the weather finally cooperating, the second-largest crowd in the history of the MVC Championship Game came out to see the two best teams in the league battle it out for an automatic berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament. Yes, second largest crowd ever. That’s probably hard to believe for Wichita fans who were laughing on Twitter and message boards at the number of empty seats, but its a fact.
And while the 6,939 in attendance didn’t see the late-game heroics of the previous two days, they did see a gutsy, dominant combined pitching performance by Creighton that handcuffed the Shockers all night long. Starter Jonas Dufek, who was denied the MVC Pitcher of the Year award earlier in the week, instead got a nice consolation prize: a matchup with the guy who won the award, Charlie Lowell, with the MVC title on the line.
Lowell was shaky early, and the Jays took advantage. With one out in the top of the first, Nick Judkins was hit with a pitch, and advanced to second on a base hit by Jimmy Swift. Trever Adams then drove an RBI single to left, scoring Judkins with the game’s first run. One hitter later, Scott Thornberg singled bringing home Swift, and it was 2-0 Creighton. Thanks to the pitching of Dufek and others, those two runs would be all the Jays would need.
Dufek, throwing on two days’ rest and with a pre-determined pitch count limit of 45, needed 43 pitches to go 2-2/3 innings. He gave up two hits, both with two outs in the first inning, and had electric stuff — of the eight outs he recorded, five were by strikeout.
Ty Blach, Creighton’s number two starter, relieved him with two outs in the third inning. Blach was looking to redeem himself; He gave up 13 hits and six runs in 6-1/3 innings in Wichita on May 6, and six hits and five runs in 2-1/3 innings against MSU on Wednesday night. Those two starts are statistical outliers from a guy who went 10-2 with a 2.72 ERA during the season, and he showed that on Saturday with a brilliant performance in which he was every bit as good as Dufek.
“I was disappointed the other night because I felt like I let the guys down a little bit,” Blach told the media after the game. “Same thing against Wichita. I knew I could pitch against these guys. I watched them all week and I knew they weren’t swinging the bats like they were down there in Wichita.”
Blach recorded 11 outs, six of them by strikeout, and gave up just one hit in 3-2/3 innings of work. Combined, Creighton’s top two pitchers got 19 outs with 11 of them coming by strikeout. That left just eight outs for the bullpen to record, and the usual trio of Jack VanLeur, Reese McGraw and Kurt Spomer all had a hand in finishing off the Shockers.
First up was McGraw, who entered the game with one out in the seventh. He set down two straight to end the inning, but after giving up a leadoff double, a walk and a sac bunt in the eighth, VanLeur came in out of the ‘pen to stop the rally. With runners on second and third with one out, it was a key moment in the game. On our WBR Live Tweetfest, I wrote:
“VanLeur into the game with Wichita’s big boppers coming up. Spomer is furiously warming up. These next ABs could settle the championship.”
It’s pretty damn hard to score when you can’t put the ball in play, as the Shockers were reminded of in the early and middle innings. But now, in the eighth, they finally had men on base, and it was their best chance in the game to score. With only five outs in regulation remaining and the heart of their order due up, you also sensed this was probably their last, best chance to rally, and that if Creighton could escape, the game was all but over. The first guy VanLeur would have to face was Wichita’s hottest hitter, Chris O’Brien, and he induced a groundball to short out of him. The Jays sacrificed the run for the out, making it 3-1 but now with two outs. He then gave up a harmless grounder to the first base bag, ending the inning and preserving the lead.
It had been noticeable somewhat with McGraw, and moreso with VanLeur, that the Jays pitchers were harnessing the adrenaline from the boisterous crowd and throwing harder as a result. Kurt Spomer, the closer, made it obvious. He entered to the sound of AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock N’Roll)”, a song which blared during his warmup tosses and jacked up both the crowd and, apparently, Kurt too. He threw gas that the Wichita hitters had no chance of putting in play, blowing away first Johnny Coy to open the inning and then Don Lambert for the second out. With the second largest crowd in MVC Championship Game history on their feet, most of them chanting “Lets! Go! Jays!”, Spomer got Dayne Parker to hit a grounder to third to end the game.
The dogpile that ensued was the first of many to take place at TD Ameritrade Park, but history will record that the first one belongs to the 2011 Creighton Bluejays. There’s no cheering in the press box, which as a die-hard Creighton fan had damn near caused me to bite my lip off the previous two nights; on this night, I allowed the WBR Live Twitterfest to express my emotions quietly — for better or worse. Mostly for worse, I think.
“JAYS WIN! JAYS WIN! JAYS WIN! OMG JAYS WIN! Dogpile on the mound! OMG JAYS WIN!!!!! Yeeaaahhhhh!!!”
For his efforts in winning two games in the tourney, Dufek was named the tournament’s MVP. He got my vote, and was deserving of the honor. Joining him on the All-Tourney team was Greg Hellhake, author of the complete game shutout in Thursday’s first elimination game against Southern Illinois. Hellhake’s complete game gave the bullpen the rest they needed to pitch big innings in not only the nightcap but the next two days. Its a distinct possibility that if he had only thrown five or six innings — which is what everyone hoped for in the best case scenario before the game — Creighton would not have had the arms to win the title.
Clay Cuno also was voted onto the All-Tourney team, and was as much of a surprise hero as Hellhake. Cuno had six hits, five of them doubles, after getting ZERO doubles all season. He also provided a defensive upgrade over Anthony Bemboom in left field, especially after Bemboom’s tough game in the field Wednesday night. Rounding out the Creighton contingent on the All-Tourney team was Trever Adams, who struggled early in the tournament but delivered key RBIs both Friday and Saturday.
The Jays now await the Selection Show on Monday to find out where — and who — they will be playing. Based on their RPI, its a good bet they’ll be a #2 seed in whatever regional they’re sent to. And if Jonas Dufek and Ty Blach pitch at all like they’re capable of — at all like they pitched on Saturday — no team in America will want to see them in a weekend regional.