Losing record doesn't keep Creighton out of NCAAs

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Creighton NCAA college baseball coach Ed Servais addresses his players in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, May 29, 2012. Creighton was one of the worst offensive teams in the nation while finishing last in the Missouri Valley Conference in the regular season. However the Bluejays made the most of their conference tournament, winning four in a row to make the NCAA tournament as one of two teams in the field with a losing record. They open regional play Friday at No. 2 national seed UCLA. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Creighton coach Ed Servais would argue it takes more than pitching and defense to win a championship.

His Bluejays had plenty of both in the regular season yet finished last in the Missouri Valley Conference.

The missing ingredient — their long dormant offense — showed up in a big way last week during their amazing run through the Valley tournament.

Now the Bluejays (26-28) are preparing for the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. They open regional play Friday at No. 2 national seed UCLA (42-14), and Servais and his players are supremely confident.

"We'll play well this weekend. Whether that's good enough to get it done, we'll find out," Servais said. "We're not going to lose the game on Friday night. We're going to force UCLA to beat us."

Creighton's regular-season struggle was stunning. The Bluejays had seven starting position players among 18 returnees from the team that won 45 games and swept the MVC regular-season and tournament titles.

They lost 10 of their first 12 MVC games and went through a stretch in which they lost 17 of 24 games overall. Entering the second week of May their .229 team batting average and 4.3 runs a game ranked 287th and 256th, respectively, out of 291 Division I teams.

They batted a paltry .215 and averaged just three runs in regular-season conference games.

"Toward the middle of the season everybody was frustrated and we kind of felt we had to start getting more hits to get more results," center fielder Mike Gerber said. "Hitting isn't easy to start out with. When you're thinking that way, it doesn't get easier."

It was apparent by early April that the Bluejays wouldn't win the regular-season title or be in position for an at-large NCAA bid, so they began plotting their run in the conference tournament.

"What it taught me was to stay the course, no matter how bleak it might get and no matter how many people are questioning you," Servais said. "Stay with what you believe in and it will turn out positive."

Creighton has a reputation for strong pitching and defense. Neither was a problem this season. Ty Blach (6-5), who has made a nation-leading 20 starts, leads a staff that has a 3.42 ERA. The Bluejays are eighth nationally with a .979 fielding percentage.

Servais' offensive philosophy relies heavily on the bunt and hit-and-run. Problem was, the Bluejays couldn't seem to get anyone on base to move around until the conference tournament.

Creighton got a one-hit shutout from Blach in the tournament opener against Indiana State and outscored four opponents by a combined 34-14 while winning the automatic bid in the nation's fifth-ranked conference. The Bluejays finished with a come-from-behind 8-6 win over Southern Illinois.

They batted .356 over the four games to raise their season average to .248.

Gerber, a .247 hitter for the season, batted .625 (10 for 16) with seven RBIs. Brennan Murphy, a .250 hitter, batted .500 (7 for 14). Jake Peter, a .229 hitter, batted .375 (6 for 16) and drove in the go-ahead runs in the championship game.

The team's top two hitters, Nick Judkins and Chance Ross, combined to bat .412 (14 for 34).

Creighton and Sacred Heart (25-30) are the only schools in the 64-team NCAA field with losing records.

The Bluejays believe their momentum from the Valley tournament and experience from playing at the Oregon State regional last year will help them in Los Angeles.

"We know what the emotions are going to feel like when we get in there on game day," said Blach, who will start against the Bruins.

UCLA, like Creighton, is built on pitching and defense. The Bruins are batting .310 but are built to play small ball in their spacious park.

"I like the matchup," Blach said. "It's favorable for us because it's going to be a close game with the way our two teams play. Anybody has a shot at the end. That's all we're asking for is to have a shot there in the eighth or ninth inning, for someone to come up with a big hit to win the ballgame."

 
 
 

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