Missouri State broke out of an offensive dry spell thanks in large part to an eight-run, seventh-inning rally to stave off elimination at the 2017 Missouri Valley Conference Baseball Championship with a 13-3 run-rule victory over Southern Illinois Thursday afternoon at Hammons Field.
Jake Burger belted a tie-breaking grand slam—his 21st home run of the season—and added a run-scoring double in the eighth as part of a 3-for-5 afternoon that helped extend the Bears’ streak of recording at least one victory at the Valley tourney to 22 consecutive appearances dating back to the 1995 MVC Championship.
Missouri State (38-16) survived an early power surge by the Salukis (27-30), who used back-to-back first-inning long balls from Ryan Smith and Greg Lambert to take an early 2-0 lead. Will Farmer joined in the act to start the second, launching his fifth homer of the season to stretch the SIU advantage to three runs and help chase MSU starting pitcher Jordan Knutson from the contest after just an inning and a third.
But MSU right-hander Austin Knight would curtail the Salukis’ surge, limiting the SIU offense to a single hit over the ensuing 4 2/3 innings to give the Bears time to forge a comeback. Knight issued three walks and hit three more SIU hitters, but the junior worked out of a key jam in the fourth with some help from catcher Drew Millas, who gunned down a runner at third to squash a scoring chance.
In the home half of the fourth, Jeremy Eierman powered up a Missouri State offense that had been held scoreless over its first 12 turns at bat in the MVC Tournament, driving a two-run homer into the Bears’ bullpen in left to pull his club to within one run.
The Bears would strike the deciding blows three innings later, as SIU starter Michael Baird (4-4) plunked Jack Duffy with one out in the seventh to kick off MSU’s big inning. John Privitera and Hunter Steinmetz coaxed walks to load the bases, and Justin Paulsen plated the tying run with a base hit to right off Jacob Williams. Burger then lined a 2-1 offering over the wall in left-center to give the Bears their first lead in 25 innings of play spanning the last three games.
Eierman drew a free pass to keep the rally alive, before a Blake Graham single and an Alex Jefferson double added another run to the MSU tally. Millas lofted a sacrifice fly to center to bring in Graham, snapping a string of nine-straight Bears reaching base safely.
Jake Fromson (8-3) picked up where Knight left off, closing out the victory with 2.0 scoreless innings. The MVC’s Pitcher of the Year combined with Knight to hold the Salukis to two hits over the final six-plus innings, allowing only a one-out double to Farmer in the eighth.
MSU completed the victory with a three-run eighth, using a walk to Paulsen and doubles by Steinmetz and Burger to make it an 11-3 game. With two out, Jefferson drove in his second and third runs of the day with a line-drive single to right that chased home both baserunners to invoke the 10-run rule decision.
Jefferson finished his day 2-for-5 with three RBIs to complement the power display by nation’s top home run hitting duo of Burger and Eierman. The two Bears have combined for a Division I-best 40 round-trippers on the season, with the Bears going 9-0 in games in which both Burger and Eierman have gone deep.
The win will set up another 12:30 p.m. elimination contest Friday afternoon, as the Bears will square off against the loser of a Thursday evening game featuring No. 5 Wichita State and No. 8 Illinois State. The Shockers pulled out a 3-1 victory over SIU in their opening game of the Championship, while ISU became the first club to blank the Bears at home in over three years with a 1-0 victory to open tourney play Wednesday evening.