Bradley coach Elvis Dominguez likes to tell hitters to make some memories when they come up late in a game. It’s a reminder for them to forget previous bad at-bats and swing with confidence.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Thursday provided one of those times it worked in a big way, perhaps to the tune of the biggest Bradley baseball moment since 1968. Left fielder Evan Gruener blasted a three-run home run to right field in the top of the ninth inning to propel the Braves to a 5-4 win over Indiana State at Eck Stadium in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
“My coach told me, before I went up there, ‘Make memories, you’re only as good as your last at-bat,’” Gruener said. “I went up there hacking at the first pitch I saw.”
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Gruener smashed a hanging slider from Austin Conway well over the fence, erasing the sting of a seventh-inning strikeout with runners on second and third.
“I definitely knew he was going to have a quality at-bat,” Dominguez said. “I could tell you that I drew it up, but I wasn’t expecting a home run.”
Third-seeded Bradley (34-18) plays at 4 p.m., Friday against either second-seeded Dallas Baptist or seventh-seeded Indiana State (28-25), who play at 9 a.m. The Braves will have two chances to win one game to advance to Saturday’s championship.
The Braves last won an MVC title in 1968, also the last time they played in NCAA post-season. Thursday’s game helped an NCAA at-large resume. Bradley, after limping into the tournament with five straight losses, rebounded to win two and can enhance its No. 20 RPI ranking, as of Thursday evening, with two opportunities to play No. 2 Dallas Baptist.
The Braves, of course, prefer to win the automatic bid on Saturday. History and NCAA resumes are thoughts better avoided.
“We came into this year expecting to have a great year,” Gruener said. “We just keep playing day to day.”
Indiana State led 2-0 after six innings and 4-2 after seven. Mistakes, however, cleared the path for Bradley’s rally and robbed the Sycamores of an upset to match Wednesday’s win over Dallas Baptist.
“We didn’t close them out,” Indiana State coach Mitch Hannahs said. “This time of year if you give teams extra outs it’s going to come back and bite you.”
In the seventh, Sycamores shortstop Tyler Friis fumbled a groundball with two outs and his poor throw allowed a run to score. Tyler Leffler’s infield single drove in another run to tie the score.
Conway walked Elliott Ashbeck to lead off the ninth. He got Paul Solka to pop up into right field, near the foul line. Right fielder Jacob Hayes, playing deep, failed to call off second baseman Andy DeJesus, who couldn’t make the catch. Two outs later, Gruener turned those mistakes into a game-winning home run.
The Sycamores started a promising rally in the bottom of the ninth when Hunter Owen walked with one out and Hayes singled to right. Owen aggressively rounded second before stopping 10 yards past the base. Bradley right fielder Carson Weber threw to shortstop Tyler Leffler, who tagged Owen for the second out.
Two singles followed before Bradley’s Matt Dennis struck out Manuel Estevez on a 76 mph changeup to end the game.
5 7 0
4 12 1
W – Dennis, 3-0. L – Conway, 4-2. HR – Bradley, Gruener (6). 2B — Indiana State, Curry 2, Owen.