SPRINGFIELD, Missouri — Even as Southern Illinois built an early 3-0 lead in Thursday’s elimination game at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, there was a sense of missed opportunities.
The Salukis struck for back-to-back home runs from Ryan Smith and Greg Lambert in the first inning, then Will Farmer added a solo shot to lead off the second inning.
That three-run lead was not nearly enough, though.
Top-seeded Missouri State struck for two fourth-inning runs, then exploded for eight runs in the seventh and added three in the eighth for a 13-3 run-rule victory over the Salukis.
The key, SIU coach Ken Henderson said, was when his team had the bases loaded with one out in the second and couldn’t do more damage, and put the first two runners on in the fourth and couldn’t convert.
“Instead of it being three runs, it could have been seven or eight runs if we get a big hit there, and then it’s a different ballgame,” Henderson said. “That changes the whole complexion of the game with what you can do with your bullpen.”
The bracket worked against the Salukis, who finished fourth in the Valley’s regular season. First was a meeting with Wichita State, ending in a 3-1 loss in 10 innings on Wednesday night. Then came an elimination game against the nationally ranked and host Bears.
“We kind of got the tough draw, but we have a great group of seniors and we fought,” Lambert said. “We just didn’t come out on the winning side.”
Missouri State (38-16) came in as the top seed and prohibitive favorite, with an 18-1 Valley record, but fell into an elimination game with a 1-0 loss to Illinois State late Wednesday night.
The Salukis (27-30) put them on their heels immediately, with solo homers by two of their first three hitters. A third solo homer in the third made it 3-0, and Bears starter Jordan Knutson didn’t make it out of the second inning.
That was all the offense SIU could muster, though.
Missouri State scored its first runs of the tournament in the fourth, when Jake Burger singled and Jeremy Eierman launched a home run into the left-field bullpen.
That 3-2 SIU lead remained into the seventh inning, when the Bears sent 12 men to the plate and scored eight times on four hits against four SIU pitchers.
It was a 3-all game when Burger, the Valley’s Player of the Year, delivered with a grand slam just over the fence in right-center field. It was his 21st homer of the year and the 46th of his college career.
“You get to the part of the lineup where you can get hurt, and then Burger obviously, you get that guy up there in that situation and he’s going to make you pay,” Henderson said. “He did.
“I’m proud of our effort and proud of how hard we played. We just couldn’t get it done.”
SIU starter Michael Baird hadn’t pitched since taking a 4-3 loss to Missouri State on May 6, and he worked six strong innings Thursday before faltering.
He limited the Bears to two runs on six hits in the first six innings, then left after putting two runners on with one out in the seventh – on a hit-batsman and walk.
Three relievers were needed to close out the seventh.
“They’re good offensively, and we were hoping we could maybe get one more (inning) out of Baird,” Henderson said. “He just got tired … They’re good.”
It was a quick end to a Southern Illinois season that included two victories over Illinois, a three-game sweep of Tennessee Tech and a win over Valley power Dallas Baptist.
“Not the way we wanted it to be,” Lambert said. “We had a lot of talent, but there’s always next season.”
It’s the first time in seven trips to the Valley tournament under Henderson the Salukis left without winning a game — but it doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of the 12-player senior class.
“I’m proud of this group,” Henderson said. “I’m proud of our seniors and what they’ve done for this program and sticking with us. This team won 12 games two years ago, and they came back and brought respectability back to the program and laid the foundation for the future.
“I’m proud of those guys.”