“Creighton’s Baseball Season Hits Rock Bottom”
That was my headline a month ago. After Ed Servais and the Bluejays bussed back from Carbondale following a sweep at the hands of Southern Illinois. The oh-fer weekend put CU in the basement of the Valley with a 2-10 record, a place the Jays would finish the season.
It serves as one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a few decades of watching Creighton sports, then, that the Bluejays can clinch a repeat trip to the NCAA tournament with a win against the Salukis in Saturday night’s winner-takes-all championship game at the Missouri Valley Conference baseball tournament.
Servais and his team, many of whom dogpiled Kurt Spomer this time last year when the Bluejays took the Valley tournament title in Omaha, traveled to Springfield intent on making history. Their run this week has been nothing short of magical, beginning with an opening game win against top-seed Indiana State and a blowout win against Illinois State in game two.
The Redbirds battled Evansville Thursday morning and eliminated the Aces, setting up the second of a possible three games between ISU and CU at the tournament. Having seen staffmates Ty Blach and Shane Liska lead the way to Creighton’s first two wins, Erik Mattingly was eager to take the mound Thursday evening against the Redbirds and send CU to the championship game.
Mattingly was on point, surrendering just one earned run in six-plus innings and leaving with a 5-2 lead. He went right after ISU hitters, not allowing a walk for the game while scattering seven hits and striking out two Redbirds.
And just like Blach and Liska before him, Mattingly benefited from early run support. Creighton plated two runs in the top of the first inning, then added three more in the fifth before Illinois State could push across their first two runs in the bottom of that inning. The Bluejays jumped on the Redbirds early and often: CU put the first two hitters on base in the first and second innings, forcing ISU’s Jeremy Rhoades to make extra pitches and run up his pitch count.
Still, thanks to a single Redbirds run in the bottom of the seventh inning, Creighton clung to a two-run lead to begin the eighth. After Scott Thornburg flied out to start the frame, Jake Peter singled for his fourth hit of the day and then stole second base. Brennan Murphy followed with a single to move Peter to third, then Brad McKewon took a bean ball to load the bases. ISU went to the bullpen and its ace reliever Kenny Long. Three pitches later Nick Judkins pulled a ball down the right field line to score Peter and Murphy. Chance Ross then brought McKewon home on a perfectly executed squeeze bunt. Anthony Bemboom grounded out for the second out of the inning, but Alex Staehely walked to load the bases again and Mike Gerber plated Judkins and Ross to cap a five-run eighth and effectively end the game.
Servais turned the game over to vet Mark Winkelman, who struck out the side in the ISU half of the eighth and retired the Redbirds in order in the ninth inning.
The Bluejays’ offense was outstanding for a third straight game, as CU collected 13 hits and plated 10 runs while drawing a walk (4) for nearly every strikeout (5). Peter (four), Thornburg (three), Judkins (two), and Gerber (two) all had multi-hit games for Creighton.
Creighton and Southern Illinois will take Friday off in anticipation of Saturday night’s MVC championship game. The Salukis withstood late inning heroics by the home team Missouri State Bears Thursday evening to punch their ticket to the title game. SIU is expected to run Cody Forsythe out to the mound to counter Creighton’s Blach, as both teams will go to their aces on short rest for a chance to earn the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.