Missouri State’s Cory Kay turned one of the game’s biggest mistakes into one of the game’s biggest plays.
“Don’t ever run the bases like that again,” a coach told him when he reached the dugout.
“I swear to God I was safe,” Kay replied.
Third-base umpire Tim Catton agreed and Missouri State is on its way to hosting an NCAA baseball regional after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament by defeating Bradley 5-2 on Sunday at Eck Stadium.
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The top-seeded Bears (45-10), who trailed 2-0 and broke a 2-all tie in the seventh, used their usual formula of lockdown pitching and timely hitting to win their first tournament since 1997.
“We’ve done it all year,” shortstop Joey Hawkins said. “We just keep believing and stick to our approach offensively and keep making plays defensively and get those wins.”
Third-seeded Bradley (35-19) will have to wait until Monday’s NCAA selection show to see if its RPI, No. 18 entering the game, is enough to earn an at-large bid. The Braves last made the NCAAs in 1968. Their belief is reaching the championship game, and knocking off No. 11 Dallas Baptist on the way, will make up for a late-season slump.
“The RPI, I’d like to think, doesn’t lie,” Bradley pitcher Elliot Ashbeck said. “If you go off RPI, we should be well into the field.”
The game, tied 2-all, turned on Kay’s over-aggressive sprint from second to third in the seventh inning. He doubled, pinch-hitting, to lead off the seventh. Pinch-hitter Jake Burger bounced a ball to shortstop Tyler Leffler and Kay ran.
“Brutal base-running,” Kay said.
Leffler back-handed and threw, a bit high, to third baseman Spencer Gaa, who tagged Kay near the shoulder. Catton immediately ruled him safe.
“I thought I got the tag on him,” Gaa said. “The umpire disagreed and you have to respect his call.”
Kay, replays showed, snuck his hand past Gaa far and fast enough to convince Catton.
“But (Gaa) was on the outside of the base and I slid in on the inside,” Kay said. “I got my hand in there. The ump made a great call. He was right on top of it.”
Kay scored on a groundout by Dylan Becker. Landan Ruff, pinch-running for Burger, scored on a single by Hawkins for a 4-2 lead.
With a lead, MSU coach Keith Guttin happily turned the game over to Matt Hall, Wednesday’s starter, who struck out five of the six batters he faced. Closer Bryan Young gave up a single in the ninth and ended the game with a double play to earn his 14th save.
The Bears rushed to the mound to consume Young in a maroon-and-white dogpile. With a No. 8 national ranking by Baseball America, their goal is three more of those celebrations, ending in Omaha.
“We’d love to have three more,” Hall said.
Bradley, with Ashbeck throwing four strong innings after throwing 113 pitches in Wednesday’s opener, put itself in position to win its first MVC post-season title since 1968. Saturday’s rain delay gave him another day of rest and he held the Bears to two hits and an unearned run, which scored on a passed ball.
“You don’t get an opportunity like this very often,” Ashbeck said. “Maybe once in a career. I wanted to be out there and give our team the best chance to win.”
Bradley’s Chris Godinez led off the bottom of the first with a walk, moved to third on a throwing error by shortstop Joey Hawkins and scored on a groundball out. With two outs and right-handed batter Paul Solka at the plate, Isaac Smith broke for a steal of home and catcher Matt Fultz tagged him.
The Braves took a 2-0 lead in the third when Evan Gruener scored on a fielding error by third baseman Dylan Becker, who, on the run, couldn’t handle a two-hopper off the bat of Smith.
The Bears added an insurance run in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Hawkins, driving in Kay after his leadoff single.
1B - Ryan Tinkham, Wichita State
2B - Eric Cheray, Missouri State
3B - Dylan Becker, Missouri State
SS - Tyler Leffler, Bradley
C - Gunnar Troutwine, Wichita State
UT - Chris Godinez, Bradley
DH - Trooper Reynolds, Dallas Baptist
OF - Landon Curry, Indiana State
OF - Tate Matheny, Missouri State
OF - Mikel Mucha, Wichita State
P - Jeff Degano, Indiana State
P - Matt Hall, Missouri State
Most Outstanding Player:
Eric Cheray, Missouri State