Austin Groth came into Sunday’s game against Bradley with a staff-high ERA that would have been a nice scoring average when he used to play basketball at South Sioux City.
The freshman right-hander left it not only having given his team a chance to finish off a sweep of the Braves, but planting himself firmly into the Bluejays’ weekend starting picture.
Groth scattered three hits in five innings of his first Missouri Valley Conference start that ended in a 7-3 Creighton victory in front of 2,278 at TD Ameritrade Park.
“His performance today certainly gives him another start next weekend, and it’s just a matter of whether it’s going to be on Saturday or Sunday,” Bluejay coach Ed Servais said. “We might have to do some juggling and some maneuvering.
“We need to find roles for these pitchers. There’s enough out there for us to be successful but we haven’t figured out all the roles yet. Austin helped us with that a little bit today.”
Tommy Strunc and Nick Musec have been Creighton’s top two starters all season, but Sundays have become almost audition day for some of the Bluejays’ young but talented pitchers. Groth earned his shot against the Braves with a solid two-inning start in Tuesday’s win against Kansas.
Still, Groth brought an 11.25 ERA into Sunday’s game. The elevated ERA was the result of giving up three runs without getting an out in his collegiate debut last month against BYU.
Since then, Groth has pitched nine innings in three appearances and allowed three runs on seven hits.
“For a freshman, he’s got really good stuff,” Creighton shortstop Alex Staehely said. “Today, we saw a little more poise out of him. He always has good stuff, but it’s a matter of whether he can control it. He did that today.
“He looked good out there, and anytime you can get five innings out of a freshman on a Sunday in conference, that’s a really big deal.”
Groth ran into an early challenge when a single, a walk and a hit batsman loaded the bases with one out in the second. After a brief conference on the mound, Groth struck out Curtiss Bunch on three pitches.
“I gained a lot of confidence from that,” Groth said. “It was really big getting out of that inning giving up only one run.”
The run scored when Groth walked Brady Wilkin, but he came back to retire Neal Sponsler on a groundout. He allowed two hits in his final three innings — one when a grounder hit a Bradley runner — to get the Bluejays into the sixth with a 4-1 lead.
“During that second inning, I lost a little confidence but my coaches picked me up a lot,” Groth said. “So did my defense.
“This game is really going to help my confidence. Obviously, my first outing (against BYU) wasn’t the best, but the coaches have continued to give me opportunities. I’m just trying to make the most of them.”
Creighton tied the game in its half of the second, then took a 3-1 lead on Staehely’s two-run double in the third. The Bluejays tacked on a run in the fourth on Brad McKewon’s RBI single and another in the sixth on Federico Castagnini’s run-scoring hit.
Bradley got two runs in its half of the eighth off reliever Mark Winkelman, but Creighton countered with its final two in its half on run-scoring singles by McKewon and Jake Peter.
“In each game, Bradley made a charge at us,” Servais said. “We’d get a lead and they’d come right back at us. I have to give our offense some credit for the way it responded all weekend.
“Going into the ninth up 7-3 instead of 5-3 was very important today.”
Bryan Sova finished off the win with his first save to improve the Bluejays to 18-6. Creighton used the win and Wichita State’s loss to Indiana State to take over sole possession of first in the Valley at 5-1.
It’s still early, but that’s a positive sign for a team that was picked to finish seventh in the league’s preseason poll.
“Any win is a big win the conference,” Staehely said. “You never want to look back at the end of the conference season and say, ‘What if we would have swept Bradley that last day?’
“We’re just trying to get as many wins as we can.”
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