They ended the Missouri State Bears’ perfect Missouri Valley Conference record. They shut the Bears out 1-0 in the opener of the MVC tournament.
Sunday, the Illinois State Redbirds bounced MSU out of the Valley baseball tournament entirely and are heading to the championship game at 3:06 p.m. against the Dallas Baptist Patriots following a 7-2 victory over the Bears.
And according to the coach orchestrating the improbable run, no one saw it coming.
“Nobody gave us a chance to get this far,” Redbirds coach Bo Durkac said. “I don’t think anybody in the world gives us a chance to beat these guys (DBU) tonight, but we still have to play the game. They’re better than we are, just like Missouri State is better than we are, but they have to play better. We played better than Missouri State today and if we can play better than Dallas Baptist today, we have a chance to get to the big dance.”
The victory Sunday started with a five-spot in the top of the first, aided by three errors.
In fact, only one of the six runs scored against Missouri State’s freshman hurler, Tyler McAlister, were earned.
“I thought he pitched OK but his defense let him down,” Durkac said. “You can’t fault McAlister for that but maybe those extra runners on base and he gets a little tense and maybe loses a little sharpness. Whereas, our guy, who is a fifth-year senior, has had a pretty solid career for us. He’s been up and down this year but has been lights out in Valley play.”
The Redbirds added two more runs along the way – one apiece in the fifth and sixth – on sacrifice flys from Nick Zouras and Ryan Hutchinson.
Missouri State had its first runner plated in the top of the sixth on an RBI single from Hunter Steinmetz.
Justin Paulsen brought in a run two innings later with a sac fly.
The eighth could’ve been a bigger inning for the Bears, as the bases were loaded with one out when Paulsen had his sacrifice fly RBI.
After he was sent back to the dugout, Burger popped up for the third time to end the rally.
“We did a good job challenging Burger with fastballs,” Durkac said. “And there’s not a whole lot of pitchers in the country who can live to tell about that. He’s probably hit many of those fastballs over scoreboards because he’s that good. But sometimes when you’re desperate and your back’s up against the ball and you have to go against the grain. He’s probably been fed a steady diet of breaking balls in those situations. So, he probably hasn’t seen fastballs, not like we have blazing fastballs, but we were just good enough with fastballs and their locations to get soft contact from him.”
The Bears’ first baseman said McAlister needed more help than he got.
“Today the defense let Tyler McAlister down and I feel bad for him because he didn’t deserve the result that he got,” he said.
Durkac said had the Bears played better defense in the first, the postgame conversations could’ve been a lot different.
“It was a 2-2 game if you take out the first inning,” he said. “That five-run first was the difference in the game, no doubt about it.”
The NCAA Tournament selection show is at 11 a.m. CT Monday. Missouri State is expected to receive an at-large bid.
Typically, teams who are in the top 40 of the RPI (the Bears are currently sitting at 30) make the tournament on resume alone.
Along with the RPI factor, Missouri State also has 40 wins, 19 of which have come away from Hammons Field – also factors the tournament committee takes into consideration.
“I think we’re in,” Paulsen said. “It’s not in my control or coach’s control. We’re going to prepare like we’re in the tournament. We’re gonna think like we are in the tournament. We’re going to practice. We’re going to watch the selection show and hope our names are called.”