Behind a career performance from freshman pitcher Nate Witherspoon, Missouri State kept its MVC Baseball Championship hopes alive with an 8-6 victory over Illinois State Friday evening at Hammons Field.
The Bears (40-16) took advantage of nine walks handed out by Redbird pitchers over the first two innings to build a 6-0 lead, then held on to seal the win after Illinois State engineered a ninth-inning rally thanks in large part to a trio of MSU errors.
In his first start since April 11, Witherspoon (4-3) allowed just two runs over a personal-best 7.0 innings to help the Bears reach the 40-win plateau for the 11th time. The left-hander scattered six hits, struck out three and worked into the eighth inning before ISU mounted its late charge.
On the heels of a 6-3 win over Wichita State earlier in the day, the Missouri State victory sets up a winner-take-all deciding 2 p.m. (CDT) game with Illinois State (15-39) Saturday (May 27) for a spot in the MVC title game against Dallas Baptist at 6 p.m.
Hunter Steinmetz posted his third-straight multi-hit performance and set the tone from the game’s first at-bat, lacing a base hit through the left side of the ISU infield. After Redbird starter Colton Johnson retired Justin Paulsen on a fly ball, Jake Burger drew the first of three-consecutive walks, the last of which (to Blake Graham) forced home the game’s first run. Alex Jefferson followed with a line single to center to make it a 2-0 game and force an early call to the Redbird bullpen.
ISU reliever Mitch Weis struggled with his command out of the gate as well, dealing a pair of bases-loaded walks to Jack Duffy and Logan Geha to stretch the MSU lead to 4-0.
A two-out rally in the second tacked on two more tallies, with Jeremy Eierman recording the second of his three walks on the night to initiate the threat. Graham delivered an RBI single before three-straight free passes gave the Bears a six-run advantage.
The Redbirds broke into the scoring column in the second after a leadoff walk to Collin Braithwaite came home to roost after a Joe Butler double and a Nick Zouras sacrifice fly. Witherspoon coolly retired eight in a row and 14 of the next 15 ISU hitters overall. He worked around a two-out error in the sixth and retired Butler on a pop up to start the seventh, but three consecutive singles produced a second Redbird run and cut the Bears’ lead to four runs.
Weis and thee additional ISU relievers would right the ship, combining to log six scoreless innings before the Bears came up with a two-run ninth to reclaim their six-run cushion. An error on a Jefferson grounder and the 11th walk of the night by Redbird pitchers set up a John Privitera RBI single, as well as a run-scoring wild pitch for an 8-2 Bears lead.
After a pair of Eierman miscues led to a ninth-inning opportunity for ISU, Bryan Young nearly finished off the Redbirds without incurring further harm. A sac fly and a walk kept the rally alive, before the senior All-American would be forced to leave the game. Three more base hits and a third error in the inning plated a total of four runs and moved the potential tying runs into scoring position.
But Jake Fromson would need just one pitch to extinguish any hopes of a comeback by the Redbirds, as the Valley Pitcher of the Year got Braithwaite to ground to third for the final out. The junior right-hander picked up his second save of the season and helped MSU move to within two victories of completing a season sweep of Valley titles.
Steinmetz’s 2-for-6 night led the Bears, while Graham drove in two runs and scored two of his own to help fuel MSU’s early outburst. Both Duffy and Eierman drew three walks, while Geha forced home two runs by drawing bases-loaded walks.
Butler powered ISU’s offense with a 2-for-4 effort, while Parola drove in a pair of runs for the Redbirds. Johnson (1-5) suffered the loss after surrendering the first four runs of the game in just one-third of an inning.
Due to the possibility of threatening weather in the Springfield area on Saturday, the final two games of the MVC Championship have been moved up one hour. Additional weather updates can be tracked on @MissouriStBears and @MSUBearBaseball on Twitter in addition to the MVC Tournament Central page on MissouriStateBears.com.