• Photo Showcase: MVC Championship, May 26
• Box Score: Creighton 8, Southern Illinois 6
• Postgame Video: CU's Ed Servais and Mike Gerber
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Jake Peter put the final stroke Saturday night on one of the most impressive comeback stories in the history of the Missouri Valley tournament.
Forget the championship game, which Creighton won 8-6 over Southern Illinois when Peter capped a four-run, seventh-inning rally with a two-run single.
No, this is a story about a team that came back from being dead in the water for much of the college baseball season. One that arrived in town a week ago with a record six games under .500 and clubbed its way back to the NCAA tournament.
Creighton coach Ed Servais said he doesn't think he's ever had a more satisfying experience in three decades as a college coach.
“It's hard for a coach to see young people suffer or they start to doubt themselves when they don't play well,” he said. “I always say it's not who you play but when you play them. Creighton was not a very good team two months ago, but we are now.''
The Bluejays will make a return trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999-2000. They will learn Monday where they'll wind up when seedings and pairings are announced at 11 a.m.
Right now, they couldn't care less where they're sent. First baseman Nick Judkins said this season's experience might top making the tournament last season, only because of the uphill route the Bluejays took in getting there.
“It's exciting from where we came back from,'' Judkins said. “Everyone counted us out. Everyone but ourselves. That's the most important thing. We stayed together as a group.''
After never trailing in posting three wins in bracket play to reach the final, CU didn't lead Saturday until Peter stroked a single into right-center field off Southern Illinois reliever Matt Murphy.
Creighton fell behind 4-0 as the Salukis got seven hits off Creighton ace Ty Blach. The Bluejays still trailed 6-4 in the seventh but tied the game on a sacrifice fly by Anthony Bemboom and a one-out, RBI single by Mike Gerber, the tournament's most valuable player.
Gerber's single moved Scott Thornburg to third, and Gerber wound up on second when Thornburg barely beat the throw from the outfield.
Murphy got Alex Staehely to ground out, with the runners holding, to bring up Peter. The freshman second baseman ripped the first pitch he saw from Murphy into right-center field, scoring both runners.
“We had talked all week about seeing the ball and putting a good swing on it,'' Peter said. “Mike had a huge hit to tie the game before me, and that really got the momentum going.
“He gave me a slider down, and I just stayed over the top of it and drove it.''
That left Creighton six outs away from the NCAA tournament. Reese McGraw, the fifth of six Bluejay pitchers, got the first three, pitching around a one-out single in the eighth.
The Bluejays then turned to Kurt Spomer, who had put them in last year's NCAA tournament by closing out the victory at TD Ameritrade Park last May. Spomer used a strikeout, a fly ball and a groundout to seal the win this time, recording his third save of the season but his first against a Valley team.
Like many of his teammates, Spomer has experienced his share of ups and downs this season. That's why finishing off the win that got Creighton back to the field of 64 meant so much to him.
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“I struggled at the beginning part of the year, but the coaches kept their faith in me and I did, too,'' Spomer said. “As bad as our season went, we knew deep down that we were the best team is this league. We just had to show it.''
The Bluejays proved themselves over the course of the tournament, knocking off top-seeded Indiana State in the opening round and then defeating Illinois State twice to clinch their spot in the final.
Creighton had hoped to get four or five innings out of Blach, who had one-hit the Sycamores and entered the game with a streak of 27-1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. The junior left-hander pitched a perfect first but gave up Jordan Sivertsen's homer to center field to lead off the second.
The Salukis used four infield singles and Brian Bajer's two-out double to tack three runs on to their lead in the third.
“You could tell we came out a little nervous,'' said third baseman Chance Ross, who like Gerber had three of Creighton's 12 hits. “But even down 4-0, I knew the way we were swinging the bats that we could come back.''
The Bluejays started chipping away, getting one in the third, another in the fourth and two in the fifth. The parade of relievers Servais brought into the game slowed the Southern Illinois attack and kept Creighton within two runs heading into the seventh.
“We just couldn't dent their bullpen,'' Southern Illinois coach Ken Henderson said. “We knew coming in that their bullpen was good and a little better than our bullpen. That was the difference.''
Creighton chased Salukis starter Cody Forsythe in the fifth. Forsythe, who hadn't allowed a run to the Bluejays in 16 career innings, had shut out Creighton 4-0 on April 21.
“We were hoping to get six or seven out of Cody,'' Henderson said. “He gutted it out, but obviously he wasn't as sharp as he was earlier in the week.''
Southern Illinois, which was trying to nail down its first NCAA berth since 1990, ends its season 31-28. Creighton will take its 26-28 record into regional competition.
“I don't care where they send us,'' Spomer said. “All I know is that we're going.''
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