• Box Score: Creighton 11, Illinois State 5
• Postgame Video: CU coach Ed Servais, players Nick Judkins and Shane Liska
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Illinois State coach Mark Kingston had a simple answer Wednesday for the surge that has carried last-seeded Creighton to within one win of a return to the Missouri Valley tournament championship game.
“That's baseball,'' Kingston said after watching the Bluejays maul his team for 16 hits in an 11-5 victory. “That's why they have these tournaments. If everything was done on paper, it would be very predictable.
“But you have to play the games and see what happens. They're a hot team now.''
While on target, Kingston's reasoning doesn't adequately convey how a Creighton team that won just six games over the eight-week league season could claim back-to-back tournament wins in the span of 30 hours.
Or how the Bluejays, one of the country's most offensively challenged teams, could string together 26 hits and score 16 runs in the two wins at Hammons Field.
Creighton finds itself in this position because a group of players never quit believing or working when their season took a drastic turn south.
The Bluejays knew early that they had played themselves out of the regular-season race, and their mantra over the past seven weeks has been to keep improving so they could get a shot to save their season in the tournament.
“I think we all knew what we were capable of doing as a team,'' said center fielder Mike Gerber, whose four hits Wednesday included a clutch two-run homer. “Now, we're bringing a lot of energy and playing the way we're capable. We just kept believing.''
Did the Bluejays ever sense that they might have been the only ones keeping the faith?
Gerber smiled, then replied, “Other than the team and some of the parents, I don't know if too many people believed we could do this. We knew we just had to stick together and not worry about what other people were saying when times were rough.''
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Now, the Bluejays don't intend to let a taste of tournament success go to their heads.
“We can't ask for any better results than we've gotten the past two games,'' first baseman Nick Judkins said. “But we didn't come here to win two games. We came here to be playing on Saturday.''
The Bluejays will have two shots to get to Saturday's championship game. Wednesday's win put Creighton into today's 4 p.m. Bracket A championship game against the winner of the 9 a.m. elimination game between Illinois State and Evansville, which handed Indiana State its second tournament loss Wednesday morning.
If Creighton would lose today's game, the Bluejays would play a second bracket title game on Friday.
Creighton roared past Illinois State by matching its season-high hit total that included a double, a triple and home runs by Gerber and Chance Ross. Gerber gave the Bluejays a shot of momentum after Illinois State scored twice in its half of the third to erase Creighton's 1-0 lead.
After losing pitcher Dylan Craig walked Scott Thornburg with one out in the third, Gerber launched his fourth homer of the season onto the berm behind right-center field.
“People don't think it, but baseball has momentum,'' winning pitcher Shane Liska said. “To get that momentum back was huge. I know I fed off that, and credit it to Mike. He put a pretty good swing on the ball.''
Not good enough that Gerber knew the ball was gone when it left his bat, but he hit it high enough to get a little assist from the 17 mph wind blowing out to left.
“I didn't think I got it,'' Gerber said. “But I looked into the dugout and saw everyone cheering and really excited. It gave us a lot of momentum.''
The homer was Gerber's first since April 22 and broke a Creighton string of 400 at-bats without a home run.
The Bluejays tacked on two runs in the fourth, one in the fifth and two more in the sixth, then capped its most productive offensive day since March 17 when Ross slammed a three-run homer into the left-field bullpen in the seventh.
Liska, a senior transfer from Xavier, picked up his second win with a solid six-inning effort. He allowed five hits and struck out six.
“He kept us off balance,'' Kingston said. “We never got comfortable swinging the bat. He pitched backward and was never predictable.''
Creighton will start senior Erik Mattingly (1-4, 3.02 ERA) today. A win would give the Bluejays a chance to play for the Valley's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament on Saturday.
That's heady stuff for a team that had lost 16 of 21 games from late March to early May.
“The players deserve a lot of credit because this is a tough road they've been through,'' Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “I know many a young player that would have backed away, but they just kept believing.
“I kept telling them I didn't know the time or the date it would happen, but they were going to get rewarded for all their hard work. We all would have preferred it happen earlier, but it's happening now.''
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