By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Fuelled by incredible pitching, timely hitting, and three of the biggest crowds they’ve had all year at Hammons Field, the Missouri State Bears continued the nation’s longest win streak through three games at the Springfield Regional to advance to the Super Regional round on the road to Omaha.
In their first NCAA Division-I championship appearance as a regional host, the Bears brought their consecutive win streak to 19 games with a 14-1 blowout victory over the Canisius College Golden Griffins, and then two straight against the Iowa Hawkeyes in front of crowds that totalled more than 17,000 fans in two days of competition.
On Saturday, the Bears had to overcome a 2-0 deficit against Iowa, putting up five runs in the middle innings and eventually taking the game 5-3. On Sunday they faced the Hawkeyes once more, after the pool’s No. 2 seed staved off elimination with an extra-inning win over Oregon. MSU led the entire final game, despite being no-hit for six innings, and took the game 3-2 in front of 5,656 ecstatic home fans.
“It was everything,” Bears shortstop and native of Whitby, Ont., Joey Hawkins said of the crowd. “It was so much fun having all those people behind us. We were down [Saturday] and then to get that hit from [right fielder] Blake Graham, the place just erupted.
“Then [Sunday] we had some strikeouts in some key spots and that place is just going nuts…some of those strikeouts I couldn’t even think. And that last catch [in centre field by Tate Matheny to end the game], I don’t even know what I did, but it was crazy. It was so much fun to be out there [and] it’s easy to play behind that.”
Beyond his team’s pitching prowess and ability to put up a lot of late-inning runs, Hawkins believes that the biggest factor in their success over the weekend and what will keep pushing them forward is their audience.
“It’s playing in front of a crowd like that,” the 22-year-old senior said. “You get into the post-season and the crowds start getting big. Then you get to Omaha and there are thirty thousand people there, so just to play in front of all those people would help us. The home crowd was amazing …
“We’ve played in front of some crowds since I’ve been here, and for me I’m just enjoying the moment right now. I don’t know how much longer my career is going to last in this game so I am just going to soak it up and enjoy it.”
Sunday night’s matchup was highlighted by one of the most impressive displays of pitching of the entire Springfield Regional, neither hurler allowing a hit until the fifth inning. Iowa’s Nick Hibbing was named the tournament MVP after two outstanding outings on Sunday to follow the right-hander’s Friday relief appearance.
Against Oregon in the Hawkeyes’ first game, Hibbing came into a tie game with bases loaded and none out in the bottom of the ninth inning, got out of the jam with a strikeout and a double play and lasted three innings with 20 pitches, allowing no hits and striking out three.
Entering Sunday’s second matchup he had not allowed a walk since the first day of the season on Feb. 13. In his longest outing of the year against MSU, the native of Lindenhurst, Ill., completed 5 2/3 frames with 97 pitches after coming on in the first inning with bases loaded and one out, allowed just one hit, left a runner on base who eventually came around to score, walked three and struck out eight Bears batters.
“My hat’s off to him,” Hawkins said. “He threw three innings in the first game against Oregon and then he comes in and just shuts us down. He walked a few guys but we hit some balls hard off him, and that’s part of success – you have some luck sometimes. He was all in with his team on the line and the season on the line and he did a hell of a job.”
Jordan Knutson took the Hill for MSU to follow incredible starts from the Bears’ potential first-rounder in Jon Harris, who went eight innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts in Saturday’s first game, and the nation’s strikeout leader in southpaw Matt Hall, who went eight innings and allowed just two runs with 11 strikeouts on Saturday night.
The sophomore left-hander was even more impressive than his hurling counterparts, keeping his team in the game for all of his seven innings of work, giving up just three hits, allowing two runs, walking one, and striking out five.
“I’m going to have to go with Knutson,” Hawkins said of who impressed him the most this weekend. “That start was lights out today, and you don’t know what you’re going to get from the starters late in the tournament. My hat’s off to him and he did an amazing job …
“Sometimes when you get this deep in the tournament, you don’t really know what to expect from the third or fourth starters. You’d like to get five or six innings, a quality start, but he goes out there and just shoves. He put up zeros and went pitch for pitch with the other kid. It was fun to play behind him … We definitely know what we’re going to get when Jordan’s on the mound and he’s going to compete.”
Knutson left to an ovation from the enthusiastic audience, and found himself trying to temper his emotions a little bit on his way back to the dugout.
“The crowd helped out a lot,” he said. “Seeing all the people behind us really gets us going and helps us play. The ovation was nice. I had to try not to smile on the way off. It was pretty cool.”
The young left-hander was taken out of the game in the eighth, after allowing two straight singles to the Hawkeyes. Sam Perez came on in relief and allowed one run to score in his 1/3 of an inning before Bears closer Bryan Young came in to close it out. Young came in with bases loaded, and shut down the Hawkeyes for his 16th save after allowing one inherited runner to score.
“Terrific game,” MSU head coach Keith Guttin said. “Obviously you feel that way when you win, but it had a little bit of everything; a little bit of drama. My hat’s off to Iowa. [Hawkeyes head coach] Rick Heller gets as much out of his players as anybody I know. What a great year for them ... Jordan Knutson gave us everything he could possibly give us. I thought it was the best outing of his career, at the most important time.”
As the Bears look to keep rolling, facing Arkansas in the Super Regional round of competition on their way to a hopeful bid in the College World Series, Hawkins – who drove in the team’s first run, and eventual decider, with a sacrifice fly – is happy to be along for the ride.
“We’ve had a lot of come-from-behind wins,” the Canadian infielder said. “I know we weren’t down today but we were getting no-hit and we were hitting some balls hard and competing at the plate. We knew we were going to break through eventually with a couple walks and quality [at-bats] and that’s what we did. We scratched a couple across and had some padding and that clearly helped …
“I was just enjoying it. It was so much fun being in the dugout and having a good time, and honestly I didn’t know we were getting no-hit until probably two hitters before we got a hit. It was fun. The last inning was a little tense, but that’s what we play for.”