NORMAL, Ill. — Creighton squandered a big break Tuesday when Indiana State ace Sean Manaea couldn't make it out of warmups, and now one more loss could shut down the Bluejays' season.
The Sycamores combined solid performances by emergency starter Josh Negele and four relievers with a pair of rare home runs to post a 4-3 win against third-seeded Creighton in the opening game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
The loss dropped the Bluejays (30-17) into an elimination game at 9 a.m. Wednesday against Wichita State, a 5-1 loser to Southern Illinois in Tuesday's second game.
“We're going to have to play like it's our last game,” Creighton outfielder Mike Gerber said, “because right now, that's all we're guaranteed.”
Another loss likely will end the Bluejays' season. They showed up at their last Valley event harboring hopes of making the NCAA tournament as an at-large entry. Those hopes weren't dashed Tuesday, but took quite a bruising in the loss to an Indiana State team that lugged an NCAA RPI of 165 into the tournament at Duffy Bass Field.
“I still believe that if we can win two or three games down here that we might have a shot at an at-large,” Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “But we'll have no shot if we don't get something done down here. That's the way we have to look at tomorrow's game.”
Any advantage the Bluejays might have had when a stiff shoulder sidelined Manaea after a couple of warmup throws was lost when Tommy Strunc couldn't find the strike zone and his teammates couldn't figure out Negele.
Strunc, Creighton's No. 1 starter, didn't make it out of the second inning as he walked five — four in the second when Indiana State scored its first run. Mark Lukowski inherited a 1-0 deficit with the bases loaded when he took over in the second.
A groundout got him out of the inning, but he gave up a run in the third before he kept his team in the game, holding the Sycamores to one hit from the fourth through the seventh innings.
Negele, a junior left-hander who normally works long relief, shut out the Bluejays through five innings. He left with one out in the sixth after Creighton used singles by Federico Castagnini, Jake Peter and Gerber to load the bases.
Tyler Browning wiggled out of the jam, giving up a sacrifice fly to Alex Staehely before retiring Reagan Fowler on a disputed groundout. The Bluejays argued to no avail that second baseman Derek Hannahs' throw pulled first baseman Robby Ort off the bag.
Creighton stranded two runners in each of the seventh and eighth innings, and went into the ninth trailing 4-1 after Koby Kraemer and Mike Fitzgerald hit solo homers over the left-field wall in the eighth.
“We haven't had a lot of home runs this year,” said coach Rick Heller, whose Indiana State team ranked seventh in the eight-team league with 10. “Today, that was about the only place you could hit them to get them out of here. I'm just glad they did.”
That's because the Bluejays staged a late rally against relievers Kurt Kudrecki and Greg Kuhlman. Kudrecki gave up a single to pinch hitter Jordan Makovicka to open the ninth and walked Castagnini with two outs.
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Kuhlman, a left-hander, came in to face Peter and Gerber, both left-handed hitters. Peter loaded the bases with an infield single and Gerber followed with a two-run single that cut Creighton's deficit to 4-3. Kuhlman then got Staehely to hit into a forceout to finish off his second save.
Heller was forced to scramble after Manaea, a projected first-round pick in the amateur draft, couldn't make it out of warmups. He has been bothered by a hip problem, but Heller said it was his shoulder that put him on the sideline Tuesday.
“He couldn't get loosened up,” Heller said. “He said it just didn't feel right, and we didn't want to take a chance.”
Negele filled in nicely, pitching around seven hits in going a career-high 5 1⁄3 innings. The Bluejays loaded the bases against him in the third, but he got Castagnini to hit into an inning-ending double play.
“We didn't start that game off well,” Castagnini said. “I thought we matched up well, but we just didn't get it done.”
That left Creighton pondering what might have been as it prepared to try to extend its season.
“As hitters, you have to make adjustments, and we just didn't make any in the first four or five innings,” Servais said. “The second half of the game, we were locked in and ready to go.
“I think when Manaea left the game, we thought it was going to be an easier deal than what it was. That's the maturity of our club. We should have said, 'OK, turn the page and make adjustments.' That was just a letdown on our part.”
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