May 28, 2016
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - Missouri State powered up once again to build an early lead, then turned to its bullpen to secure a 3-2 victory and a spot in the MVC Championship title game against Dallas Baptist Saturday at Bob Warn Field.
The Bears (38-20) won their third-straight elimination contest thanks to second-inning, back-to-back home runs by Spencer Johnson and Justin Paulsen and the familiar combination of pitching and defense to earn a shot at its second MVC Tournament championship in as many years.
Pitching on just two days of rest, Jordan Knutson held the Braves (29-21) to just one run on four hits over 4 2/3 innings, before the shutdown duo of Sam Perez and Bryan Young closed out MSU's fourth win at the Championship by allowing a single ninth-inning run over a combined 4.1 innings.
Using a formula that has become quite familiar at this year's MVC Championship, the Bears rode a pair of long balls to gain the upper hand in their third meeting of the tournament with Bradley. Johnson led off the bottom of the second with his fifth home run of the Championship-and his Division I-leading 24th of the season-to put MSU on the board. Paulsen followed suit by belting the next pitch from BU starter Allan Beer over the right-field wall to stake MSU to a 2-0 lead.
After turning in a pair of highlight-reel defensive gems to rob the Braves of at least one run in the top of the third, Blake Graham inflicted even more damage in the home half of the inning. After a trio of walks from Beer loaded the bases with one out, the junior outfielder lofted a sacrifice fly to left to bring in Alex Jefferson and make it a 3-0 contest.
Bradley reliever Eric Scheuermann would keep it there, taking over for Beer (2-2) in the fourth and holding the Bears to a pair of hits over 4.0 scoreless innings. BU tallied its first run of the day on Spencer Gaa's two-out solo shot in the top of the fifth, but Perez would relieve Knutson and promptly extinguish any thoughts of a rally.
After yielding a single to Paul Solka, MSU's iron man fanned Evan Gruener for the final out of the fifth. The senior right-hander, who tossed 7.1 shutout innings in Friday's win over Indiana State struck out four more Braves over his 2 2/3 innings, extending his string of consecutive-scoreless innings to 12 2/3 at the MVC Championship and 22 2/3 overall.
Closer Bryan Young finished the eighth, striking out Ian Kristan, before catcher Eduardo Castro gunned down Andy Shadid attempting to steal second.
BU made it interesting in the ninth, as a leadoff double by D.J. Gasso and a walk to Carson Weber put the potential tying run on base. A sacrifice bunt by Luke Mangieri moved both runners into scoring position, and Gaa's grounder to short brought in Gasso to cut the lead to one run.
But Young induced a game-ending pop-up behind the bag at first, securing his 11th save of the season and his MSU-record 27th as a Bear.
Perez (8-0) also continued his assault on the Missouri State record book, logging his single-season record 36th mound appearance of the year and climbing to fifth on the Bears' single-season strikeout chart (112), moving past three-time All-American Nick Petree on that list, while registering the 20th victory of his MSU career. Additionally, the Branson, Mo., native moved into the top spot on the Bears' career win percentage chart with a 0.909 career mark (20-2).
Paulsen led the Bears' offensive efforts by reaching base safely in all four of his plate appearances, finishing 2-for-2 with his sixth long ball of the year, to go along with a single and a pair of walks. Graham also enjoyed a big day, going 2-for-3 with an RBI to supplement his two key third-inning catches in right field.
Additionally, Johnson became the first Bear to homer in three-straight games since the 2003 MVC Championship, when Tony Piazza accomplished the feat.
Gaa paced BU's attack by driving home both runs for the Braves with a 2-for-5 day at the plate.
Up next, the Bears will take aim at their fourth Valley Tournament title vs. top-seeded DBU, which took two of three games from the Bears May 13-15, in Dallas.