NORMAL — Collin Braithwaite refused to let Missouri State pitcher Dylan Carlson wriggle free from a first-inning jam, while Illinois State starter Matt Walker steered clear of such predicaments during six superb innings.
That combination proved magical for the Redbirds, who reached up from the cellar of the Missouri Valley Conference standings to spoil the perfect league season of Missouri State with an 8-4 victory Friday at Duffy Bass Field.
“It’s a very satisfying win. We did something no one else in the league has done this year,” ISU coach Bo Durkac said. “Let’s not make too big a deal of it. But for a team that’s struggled this year you saw every facet of our team that this program is building toward.”
The No. 12-ranked Bears were two wins shy of the first undefeated MVC season since 1968 but slipped to 37-15 overall and 18-1 in the Valley. ISU (13-38) prevailed for just the second time in 20 conference encounters.
“We don’t look at it like that honestly. We take it game to game,” said Missouri State coach Keith Guttin, whose team was the last Division I program in the nation to lose a conference game. “Illinois State pitched better than us and hit better than us and deserved to win.”
Momentum would be captured one way or the other in the bottom of the first inning when Braithwaite stepped into the batter’s box. Ryan Hutchinson walked, Owen Miller singled and Derek Parola walked to load the bases, but Carlson struck out Noah Sadler and Joe Butler.
Braithwaite then turned on a 2-2 fastball from Carlson and lifted it over the left-field wall for a grand slam.
“I had two strikes and was trying to get a piece of the bat on it. I got my hands through and it went,” Braithwaite said. “I feel like it set the tone and gave us the confidence we can do this.”
Handed an early cushion, Walker was spectacular. The freshman left-hander who entered the game with an 0-2 record and 8.39 ERA, walked one, struck out four and allowed only a double to Justin Paulsen over six innings.
“The wind was helping my fastball move. I didn’t throw many off-speed pitches because the fastball was working,” said Walker. “I had this game marked on my calendar for awhile because I know they’re so good. They’ve been climbing up in the rankings. That made me want to face them more.”
Durkac removed Walker after 84 pitches because of plans to use him on Thursday in the MVC Tournament.
“That’s the kind of talent that kid has,” Durkac said. “The biggest thing was getting ahead of hitters. We convinced him his fastball was good enough he can challenge guys early in the count and get weak contact or foul balls.”
ISU tacked on runs in the fifth as Parola’s sacrifice fly scored Miller and in the sixth when Butler walked and sprinted around to score on John Rave’s double down the right-field line.
Those runs loomed large when Missouri State’s Hunter Steinmetz blasted a three-run homer to right in the eighth against Redbird reliever Jeff Lindgren.
The Bears brought the tying run to the plate after an ISU error and a walk. Jeremy Eierman’s drive to left was caught at the edge of the warning track before Trevor Cross took over and retired Blake Graham on a fly out to center with his first pitch.
Sadler doubled and scored in the bottom of the eighth, and the Redbirds surged ahead 8-3 as Butler raced home on Nick Zouras’ successful safety squeeze.
Cross allowed one ninth-inning run before notching his second save.
“We have the pieces in place to play like that on a regular basis,” said Durkac. “We just have to continue to stay with the process and trust it’s going to happen like that a lot more often.”
The series concludes Saturday with first pitch scheduled for 1 p.m.