Eighth-seeded Illinois State extended its improbable Missouri Valley Conference Championship run with a 7-2 victory over Missouri State, earning a spot in Sunday afternoon’s title game against DBU at Hammons Field.
Missouri State’s bid for a sweep of the Valley’s regular-season and tournament titles was thwarted by the combined efforts of five ISU hurlers, led by 4.0 shutout innings from Jack Landwehr (2-5), as well as a lackluster defensive performance that included a season-high four MSU errors. The Bears struggled to move baserunners as well, stranding 13 men on base while going just 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
After winning just one of their first 19 regular-season MVC contests, the Redbirds (16-39) claimed their fourth win over a conference foe in their last five outings, including three out of four meetings with the league champion Bears over the last 10 days. Noah Sadler spearheaded the ISU offense with a 3-for-4 day that included the critical hit of the game with a three-run double in the first inning. Nick Zouras drove in a pair of runs with his 2-for-3 effort, and Derek Parola added two hits as well.
ISU capitalized on a series of first-inning miscues by Missouri State, jumping out to a 5-0 lead after Owen Miller’s fly-ball single to left started the rally. Bears freshman Tyler McAlister received little help from his defense in the first start of his career, as three MSU errors set the table for the key blow of the inning, a two-out, three-run double to right off the bat of Sadler.
The Bears found generating offense to be a challenge as well, despite generating several early scoring chances against Landwehr, who scattered four hits and three walks in his first starting assignment since March 10. A Justin Paulsen single and a hit batsman set up a first-inning threat, but Jeremy Eierman lined out and Blake Graham popped up on back-to-back pitches to squash the rally. Landwehr also worked around a pair of two-out walks in the second, getting Hunter Steinmetz swinging for the third out. MSU also left two men on in both the third and fourth frames and stranded nine in the first five innings, going 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
McAlister settled into a groove to retire six straight Redbird hitters following the Sadler double in the first. The right-hander struck out five batters in the first two innings, then worked around ISU singles in the third and fourth innings to keep the Bears’ deficit at five runs.
ISU would tack on single runs in the fifth and sixth innings, as Derek Parola singled and scored on a Zouras sac fly after back-to-back walks to Collin Braithwaite and Joe Butler loaded the bases in the fifth. Austin Knight would avoid further damage in the inning, but singles by Sadler and Joe Aeilts and a throwing error led to a sixth unearned Redbird run in the sixth, after the Bears plated their first tally on a Steinmetz RBI single in the top half of the inning.
MSU would engineer its best chance to cut into the margin in the eighth, using a leadoff walk to Millas, a John Privitera bunt single and another hit batsman to load the bases. Paulsen brought in Millas with a sac fly to left, but Michael Sebby coaxed an inning-ending pop up from MVC Player of the Year Jake Burger to kill the rally.
Graham and Steinmetz paced the Bears with two hits apiece, while McAlister (0-1) struck out a career-high five hitters and yielded just one earned run on six hits in his 4 1/3 innings of work.
With their MVC Championship complete, the Bears (40-17) will turn their focus toward a potential NCAA Regional berth. The NCAA Division I Baseball Committee will announce its first-round regional pairings and site assignments at 11 a.m. (CDT) live on ESPN2.