Not feeling like they did about this time a year ago became a great motivator for Missouri State’s baseball team, which opens the NCAA Tournament on Friday as the No. 8 overall seed.
The Bears bring a nation’s best 16-game winning streak and a 45-10 record into their opening game against Canisus at Hammonds Field. Iowa and Oregon complete the regional field. The winner of the double-elimination event meets the survivor of the regional at Oklahoma State next weekend in a best-of-three Super Regional for a berth in the College World Series.
This year marks the first time Missouri State has served as a regional host, including 2003, when the Bears advanced to the College World Series after playing two regional rounds on the road.
It might have seemed unfathomable for Missouri State to reach their first postseason since 2012 and ninth in program history after the team finished last season 26-31.
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“We didn’t feel like we got our butts kicked, but in a lot of games, we found a way to lose,” said catcher Matt Fultz, a junior who played at Lee’s Summit West. “The frustrating part is we knew were better than our record.”
Matt Hall, a left-handed starting pitcher who played with Fultz in high school, remembered a sense of defeat when the Bears trailed late.
“This year, we have 22 come-from-behind wins,” Hall said.
There’s not much Keith Guttin, in his 33rd year as the Bears’ coach, hasn’t seen in the game. Last year slogged along because of injuries, not enough offense and rarely any momentum.
It added up to Guttin’s fifth losing season, but he saw a promising horizon with a returning cast on offense led by center fielder Tate Matheny, son of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, and a loaded pitching staff.
Jon Harris, a right-hander, and Hall performed well in the Cape Cod League, the top summer league for returning collegians.
“Guys go there, and when they come back they’re different cats,” Guttin said. “To be in that environment every day and to be around those quality players makes a difference.”
The top two starters have rolled. Harris, chosen Missouri Valley Conference pitcher of the year, is 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA. Hall, an all-conference pick at 10-2 with a 2.17 ERA, carries a 31-inning consecutive inning scoreless streak into the postseason.
Jordan Knudson, a sophomore from Lee’s Summit High, is 5-1, 3.11 as the team’s third starter, and Bryan Young from Staley High picked up his school-record 14th save, preserving the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game victory over Bradley on Sunday. One of the old record holders was nine-year major-leaguer Shaun Marcum.
The staff brings a 2.75 ERA into the regional, seventh-best in the nation, and this ranks among Guttin’s best defensive teams.
“They go hand-in-hand,” Guttin said.
The Bears aren’t a power or speed team, but a .292 team batting average and .395 on-base percentage helps generate 6.3 runs per game, more than enough for a staff that yields precisely half as many runs.
Missouri State got off to a solid start, but the ambition changed as March turned into April. The Bears won at Arkansas, then took two of three from then-No. 16 Dallas Baptist, a conference team that had defeated Missouri State seven times in nine games last season, including in the league tournament.
“They kind of had our number last year,” said senior second baseman Dylan Becker, who played at Shawnee Mission East and is one of a handful of Bears with NCAA Tournament experience.
The early success served as a springboard and the Bears never cooled off. Missouri State rolled through the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in Wichita last weekend, outscoring four opponents 26-7.
The NCAA path starts at home, but if it continues next week, it’s unlikely Missouri State can play in Springfield despite a seed that gives it home-field advantage. The Bears share Hammons Field with the Springfield Cardinals, and the Class AA team is home the next weekend.
“We’ll think about then,” Guttin said. “We didn’t get this far wondering about what might happen down the road.”