NORMAL, Ill. — Creighton baseball players appreciate the special significance that would accompany waltzing off with a championship in their last dance as a Missouri Valley member.
The Bluejays hope to take the first step toward a third straight title Tuesday when they face Indiana State in a 9 a.m. game at Duffy Bass Field. The eight-team tournament is the last conference event for Creighton, which next season moves to the new Big East.
“Knowing that this is our last season in the MVC is something that will be in the back of our minds,” Creighton second baseman Jake Peter said. “We’ll go out there, play hard and with a lot of intensity, and see what happens.”
It’s been quite a final go-round for Creighton’s athletic teams. The men’s soccer, volleyball, women’s basketball, men’s basketball and softball teams won regular-season championships. Soccer, volleyball and men’s basketball also claimed tournament titles.
The baseball team finished third in the regular season to claim the No. 3 seed for the tournament, which will determine the league’s automatic qualifier for the NCAA tournament.
“We want to get back to a regional for the third straight time,” Creighton reliever Mark Winkelman said. “It would definitely make it special if we could do that in our last Valley event. We want to go out with a bang.”
Creighton still harbors hopes of sneaking into the 64-team NCAA field as an at-large qualifier. The Bluejays are 30-16 with an NCAA RPI of 48.
That’s good enough for at least one website that covers college baseball, SEC Baseball, to put Creighton in as an at-large qualifier in its tournament projections.
That’s nice, Creighton coach Ed Servais said, but not anything his team can bank on at this point. He knows that the Bluejays’ résumé is such that it likely won’t take the baseball committee’s breath away when it starts deliberations later this week.
Better go for the sure thing, Servais said.
“We still have a chance,” he said, “but we won’t if we don’t play well.”
It starts with Tuesday’s game against the Sycamores, who will bring a 24-23 record in as the tournament’s sixth seed. The other teams in Bracket A, second-seeded Wichita State and seventh-seeded Southern Illinois, will play at 12:30 p.m.
The team that emerges from Bracket A will play the Bracket B survivor of double-elimination play in a 7:07 p.m. championship game Saturday. Top-seeded Illinois State, fourth-seeded Missouri State, fifth-seeded Evansville and eighth-seeded Bradley are the Bracket B teams.
Creighton will start redshirt freshman Tommy Strunc, who absorbed one of his two losses when the Bluejays played at Indiana State on April 12. Strunc will bring a 7-2 record and a 4.11 ERA into the game.
He’ll likely be opposed by Indiana State ace Sean Manaea, who is being projected as a first-round pick in the MLB draft. The left-hander has been bothered by a hip injury, and Indiana State coach Rick Heller said Monday that Manaea’s status will be determined Tuesday morning.
Manaea’s record is 5-4, but he has a sterling 1.47 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 7313 innings.
Creighton defeated Manaea last May when it started its unlikely run to the tournament championship. The Bluejays were the eighth seed last season but won four straight games to win the crown.
Creighton won its title in 2011 as the No. 1 seed after the Bluejays won the regular-season championship. The back-to-back titles marked a Valley first for Creighton.
In Servais’ mind, winning three straight would trump the significance of claiming the school’s final Valley title.
“I don’t think as much about that as I do about what it would mean for this university and our program as we try to move it forward,” Servais said. “And I think about what it would mean for these kids. They’ve fought through a lot of adverse situations this year.
“They have kept on plugging. I want it for these players so that they can have the opportunity to play in the postseason. In order for that to happen, they’re going to have to play well this week.”
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