STILLWATER, Okla.- Jake McMahill never had a doubt. As he sat inside the Missouri State dugout in the ninth inning of Saturday’s elimination contest against Grand Canyon, he knew his offense was not done. He also knew his day on the mound was far from over.
Comebacks have defined this NCAA Tournament, just two days into regional play. There was LSU’s incredible 10-run rally to down Kennesaw State on Friday night, and Central Michigan’s 12th inning walk-off single earlier today. But Missouri State’s incredible surge over the final two innings of Saturday’s matinee in Stillwater was a sight to behold.
The Antelopes of GCU, 12-6 against NCAA Tournament teams entering the weekend, seemed well on their way to victory as the eighth inning rolled around, leading 6-1. The effects of Friday night’s struggle, a 10-5 loss to regional host and Big 12 Tournament champion Oklahoma State, seemed very much in the picture.
“Their first pitcher just stifled us,” Missouri State head coach Keith Guttin said Saturday. “We hung in there and had the right guys up and they delivered. Our guys are gritty and they don’t quit.”
But suddenly, it all seemed to fade, beginning with a two-run eighth for the Bears. McMahill was lights-out on the mound, having already thrown 2.2 innings. He struck out the first two batters he faced, induced a ground ball out, and put his teammates in the best position possible entering a situation without many alternatives. The Bears needed at least four runs, no less, or their season was effectively over.
“I was just trying to stay calm,” McMahill siad. “I knew we were going to get the lead. I just had to keep that same mindset.”
Insert Mason Hull. The No. 5 shortstop in the state of Illinois out of high school, Hull is a classic example of what drives mid-majors to incredible heights come tournament time. Overlooked for one reason or another, the senior left the statement moment in a comeback that was only made possible through the efforts of an entire team.
With a runner on first and the momentum very much on the side of Missouri State after Spencer Nivens’ three-run homer earlier in the frame, Hull connected on the fastball, driving it deep past the left field wall for a two-run shot—and more importantly, the lead.
“I was floating around those bases,” Hull said with a smile postgame. “It felt so good to put us ahead.”
It was that 8-7 lead that McMahill protected in a scoreless ninth inning, putting Missouri State into another elimination contest on Sunday at noon against Oklahoma State.
Missouri State has been here before. 11 prior trips to the NCAA Tournament to be exact. But very few on this roster have been around long enough to have experienced the tournament before, considering the last time the Bears were playing in June was in 2018.
But while few current players may have been part of the roster for that 2018 run, Guttin was there for that one and the previous 10. In fact, he has been at the helm of the Missouri State program since 1983, now in his 40th season. “He’s seen it all” as the cliche phrase goes, including several lasting memories of NCAA Tournament heroics, and still, Saturday’s comeback will not be forgotten easily.
“It’s right up there with them,” Guttin said, listing a few other memorable moments in the Missouri State baseball program’s NCAA Tournament history, “with the deficit that we had to come from.”
While incredible considering the stage Missouri State was on and how late the comeback began, it did not surprise Guttin. While significant attention is given to the ups and downs of regular season performances amongst “power-conference” programs, the mid-majors, such as Missouri State can easily fly under the radar. And only in June, when 64 teams are left standing before regional play begins, does the attention begin to shift towards many of these smaller-conference teams. The truth is that the highs and lows are just as much a part of everyday life when it comes to the mid-majors. The exceptional postseason performances are a natural result of that adversity formed during the regular season, something Guttin identified as a major driver in his team’s resilience.
“I think it’s the same thing we’ve seen all year,” Guttin said when asked what he saw from his team during Saturday’s comeback. “We had our ups and downs in the regular season. It’s a pretty steady group with great player leadership.”
That leadership has come from a variety of sources. Some, such as Hull, have been part of the continual building under Guttin to form another NCAA Tournament contender for the last four years. Others, notably McMahill, who transferred in this season from Evansville, and Vanderbilt transfer Will Duff, have taken different roads to becoming part of this 2022 team.
Ironically, for Duff, a junior infielder in his first season with the Bears, it took leaving his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, only to realize that it was in Springfield where he fit best. And that was with the Missouri State program, which had recruited him out of high school, and gladly welcomed him following two seasons with the SEC power, where he appeared in 18 games. He did not play consistently there, but found an immediate starting role with the Bears, having played in 45 contests this season, starting all but four of them.
“It’s an honor to be on this team,” Duff said Friday. “I couldn’t be more proud to be part of the Bears. I think the environment was very cool to be a part of.”
With their backs against the wall, the Bears responded, just as they did in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament less than two weeks ago, defying the odds to survive and advance.
It is not often that one finds an NCAA Tournament team that posted a sub-.500 record in conference play, but Missouri State is one of those rare cases. After an 8-13 mark in Missouri Valley Conference play, the Bears played in a single-elimination No. 6 vs. No. 7 seed matchup against Illinois State, opening the conference tournament. They won that one, 9-4, then shocked top-seeded Southern Illinois, 5-1, behind a complete game from Forrest Barnes. Timely performances such as that one began popping up at every turn, and in the blink of an eye, they were in a rematch with SIU. Missouri State dropped the first game, 9-6, forcing a winner-take-all contest late on Sunday afternoon. And after a 13-3 win, it was the sixth-seeded Bears set to represent the MVC, having fought through six games in five days for an opportunity such as the one they have been presented with in Stillwater.
The pitching could be a question mark for Missouri State entering Sunday’s contest against the Cowboys, who beat the Bears 5-1 on March 8. Guttin did not name a starter in the postgame press conference on Saturday, but suggested right-hander Ty Buckner could be an option. Whoever ends up on the mound on Sunday, Missouri State is entering the contest with plenty of confidence, and their season on the line. As they have proven for two weeks straight, that situation makes the Bears awfully dangerous, regardless of the opponent.
“This is one of the reasons I came here,” Hull said, “to play in the postseason.”
“We’re glad you did,” Guttin responded quickly.
And for good reason. The homer itself was memorable. But what it stands for, keeping the Bears’ season alive, is precisely what gives it its value.