The Valparaiso University baseball team is going to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
The Beacons locked up a spot in the eight-team event that will begin on Tuesday in Terre Haute, Ind. by pulling out a thrilling 7-6 victory over Illinois State on Thursday afternoon at Emory G. Bauer Field. Valpo scored three times in the bottom of the eighth to grab the lead, then usual weekend starter Bobby Nowak (Cedar Lake, Ind. / Hanover Central [Kankakee]) came on to nail down the save.
How It Happened
- The scoring started in the bottom of the third, when Kaleb Hannahs (West Terre Haute, Ind. / West Vigo) made his first plate appearance since April 9 after being sidelined by an injury. He showed no signs of rust, ripping a solo homer to left field.
- The Redbirds gained the lead in the fourth on a two-run homer, then the theme of long balls continued in the bottom of that inning when Jake Skrine responded with a go-ahead two-run job of his own.
- Starting pitcher Griffin McCluskey (Normal, Ill. / Normal Community) logged five innings of three-hit ball, but issued back-to-back walks to start the sixth and was removed from the game with Valpo clinging to a 3-2 lead. Illinois State went on to score twice in the inning and grab a 4-3 advantage with McCluskey charged with four runs for the game. He received no decision.
- The seesaw affair continued in the sixth when Matt Olive (Minneapolis, Minn. / Blake School) ripped a run-scoring single to tie the game at four. Illinois State scored twice in the seventh to jump back in front at 6-4.
- The bottom of the eighth inning started as Nolan Tucker (Cedar Lake, Ind. / Hanover Central) reached on a dropped third strike, then Kyle Schmack (Wanatah, Ind. / South Central) was hit by a pitch. Ryan Maka (Oak Forest, Ill. / Oak Forest) grounded an RBI single through the right side to cut the Illinois State edge to one. Later in the inning, a suicide squeeze bunt produced the tying run with Olive laying down the sacrifice and reaching safely as a throwing error caused runners to end up at second and third.
- With the game tied 6-6, Valpo called for another suicide squeeze, but the batter bunted and missed. The ball bounced away from the catcher, allowing Maka to score and Olive to reach third. Since the runners were in motion with the pitch, the play was scored as a double steal including a go-ahead steal of home for Maka.
- Nowak came in for the ninth and picked up the first two outs in succession before a dropped third strike allowed the tying run to reach base. That runner stole second before Alex Ryan (Lake Mills, Wis. / Lakeside Lutheran) made a nice catch on a deep fly ball to center field to wrap up the heart-pounding victory.
Inside the Game
- Valpo will finish ahead of multiple teams in the Missouri Valley Conference standings for the first time since joining the league.
- The Beacons secured their 20th overall victory, the team’s first 20-win season since its final year in the Horizon League in 2017.
- Valpo grabbed its 10th league victory, the program’s highest total since joining The Valley.
- Head coach Brian Schmack secured his 188th career victory, moving into sole possession of third in program history for career wins by a head coach. He surpassed his predecessor Tracy Woodson.
- Valpo will finish no worse than eighth in the MVC standings and could end up as high as the No. 6 seed in the MVC Tournament depending upon how the remainder of the weekend unfolds across the league.
- Grant Jablonski (Mishawaka, Ind. / Mishawaka) picked up his second career win, both this season. He allowed two runs on three hits while walking none over three frames.
- Nowak nailed down his 10th career save, moving into a tie for sixth in program history in that category, joining Jon Tieman (2017-2021) and Dallas Cawiezell (2005-2007).
- Maka led the way with three hits, while Olive, Skrine and Ryan all enjoyed multi-hit games as well.
- Skrine’s home run was his team-leading ninth of the season, while Hannahs delivered his first of the year and his eighth in a Valpo uniform.
- The Beacons improved to 7-3 in one-run games this season.
Valpo (20-23, 10-14 MVC) and Illinois State will lock horns on Friday at 1 p.m. at Emory G. Bauer Field. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.