Southeast Missouri State baseball completes sweep of Western Illinois behind solid pitching
Justin Murphy's transition from closer to starter has had its challenges, but he's proven to be more than capable of handling the role.
In his starting debut last weekend in Nacogdoches, Texas, the senior pitcher delivered six strong innings before getting lifted after walking two batters to start the seventh inning, a frame that ultimately proved to be the difference in the Southeast Missouri State baseball team's 5-3 loss against UT Arlington.
With the Redhawks clinging to a 3-1 lead against Western Illinois on Sunday afternoon, it appeared as if Murphy might lose command of his pitches again, as he quickly worked a 3-0 count against the first batter of the seventh inning.
Murphy responded with two strikes before working a 1-2-3 inning to conclude his second start and give way to reliever Carlos Vega, who threw two perfect innings and propelled Southeast to a 5-1 win that secured a three-game sweep of the Leathernecks at Capaha Field.
"You kind of start to feel that happening in the seventh inning of the day, but I went down 3-0 on the first guy," Murphy said. "I kind of found it again and got back in my rhythm and ended up attacking those guys and getting those three guys to shut down the inning."
Murphy secured his first win of the season in seven innings of work, allowing one earned run on three hits. He struck out three batters and didn't issue a walk.
"I thought Murph was outstanding," Redhawks coach Andy Sawyers said. "We played two games this weekend without allowing a walk, and if you're going to do that, you're going to have a chance to win every time you play. So I was really proud of Murph, and then Carlos was outstanding at the end.
"I just thought we were outstanding on the mound."
Southeast (5-2) never trailed and took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second. Kylar Robertson sent a one-out double into the corner in right field before scoring on Brian Lees' two-out double, which barely sailed over the outstretched arms of the right fielder.
The Redhawks extended their advantage to 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth when Tristen Gagan sent the first pitch he saw over the fence in left-center field.
Gagan's blast was one of three Southeast home runs on the day. He hit his first homer of the season in the bottom of the eighth on Saturday, a two-run shot that proved to be the difference in SEMO's 5-4 win over the Leathernecks.
"Beefy can drive runners in. ... I think you're going to look up, and I think he's going to have a shot to lead the league in RBIs," Sawyers said about Gagan, a transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. "He's got a knack for hitting with runners on base. If you look at his body of work in junior college, it was prodigious. I think he's going to be a very productive hitter for two years for us."
After giving up a single in the top of the first, Murphy retired eight straight batters before Johnathan Fleek put WIU (0-7) on the board in the top of the fifth with a solo shot to right field, cutting the Redhawks' lead to 2-1.
"I had the guy down 0-2, and they wanted a fastball away. But I ended up leaving it in," Murphy said. "He put a good swing on it and got it out of the yard, but you've just got to stay tough and get that closer mentality and get right back at the next guy and get that next out."
That's exactly what Murphy did, as he retired nine of the final 10 batters he faced.
"That's the benefit of being old, right?" Sawyers said. "We go senior-senior-senior on the weekend. I think when you're old, you're going to weather the storm a little bit. You're going to weather the emotional peaks and valleys of the baseball game. That's kind of one of the unintended consequences of being so veteran on the mound.
"He gives up a solo home run. Hey, it's the OVC. There's a lot of home runs hit. He's seen them before. He's going to go right back at it. It was strike one to the next guy, and he just kept getting after it."
In the bottom of the fifth, Trevor Ezell provided some insurance with a two-out homer to right field that pushed the Redhawks' lead to 3-1.
Ezell recorded his second hit of the day when he led off with a single in the bottom of the eighth. He advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Clayton Evans before scoring on Dan Holst's two-run shot to right-center, a ball that bounced off the top of the fence and fell on the other side, giving Southeast a 5-1 lead.
Holst finished 2-for-4 while batting in the No. 3 spot.
"I was just trying to hit a line drive somewhere and score the run from second," Holst said. "He happened to just hang a breaking ball, and I put a good swing on it.
"Trev really set the inning up with a really competitive at-bat. He hit a changeup through the hole, just smoked it. Evans did a great job of just getting him into scoring position, and I was just trying to do my job for the team and what we needed and was trying to hit a line drive somewhere."
The Redhawks combined for eight hits, including five of the extra-base variety, on a day that Sawyers said the offense performed in an average manner.
"I didn't think that was one of our best offensive days. I thought our approach got away from us a little bit," Sawyers said. "We get the two backside doubles there in the second, and then we depend on three home runs to score the rest of the way.
"We could play better offensively, but our pitching was just outstanding."
Vega was credited with the save, his first of the season, after entering to start the eighth inning with his team holding a 3-1 lead. He struck out one batter and was unscathed in his two innings of work.
"The plan was, because Vega threw 2 2/3 [innings] yesterday, to use Carlos for one. Then he got really efficient," Sawyers said. "We're learning these guys. I don't know what Carlos' bounce-back ability is yet, so I thought he was actually better today than he was yesterday. He was firm, I thought, today."
Javin Drake got the start and took the pitching loss for the Leathernecks, finishing with three strikeouts and no walks in six innings of work. He gave up six hits and allowed three runs, all of which were earned.
Southeast is currently riding a four-game winning streak and will return to action with another three-game series at Capaha. The Redhawks will square off against Big Ten opponent Purdue, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday.
"We went down to Texas and battled our butts off [on opening weekend]. We went 2-2, but I really thought we could've walked away 4-0, 3-1," Holst said. "I thought we played well this weekend.
"There's a lot of room for growth, but there's a lot of positives to take away from this weekend. And I think if we can just string the good things together and tighten some of the other things up, then we're going to be a really, really good ball team."