Creighton baseball clinches first Big East tournament title with win over Xavier

Creighton celebrates after winning the Big East tournament title.

MASON, Ohio — Creighton reliever John Sakowski figured a squeeze bunt was coming.

The potential tying run stood on third base with one out in the top of the ninth. Never mind the fact that the Jays had been locked into yet another slugfest in a hitter’s paradise — and Xavier had already launched three homers in an intensity-filled contest.

The Musketeers needed to score. So coach Ed Servais called timeout to visit Sakowski on the mound, and they strategized about what could come next.

Sure enough, on the first pitch, the batter squared around and chopped the ball back toward a weary Sakowski, who later admitted that his legs were feeling heavy as he extended deeper into a relief outing than what’s typical for the right-hander out of Creighton Prep.

But he wasn’t going to give in. Not with a Big East tournament title and an NCAA regional automatic bid on the line.

Sakowski bolted off the mound, fielded the bunt and sprinted right at the Xavier runner, who froze halfway down the third base line and couldn’t avoid getting tagged out by the determined junior pitcher.

The next pitch — Sakowski’s 70th — ended the game. A groundout. And the Jays celebrated their first tournament title since joining the league and a dramatic 9-8 victory at Prasco Park.

“Normally, if you field (the bunt) fast enough, you look back the runner at third, but he was going, so I went and got him,” Sakowski said. “Unreal feeling. That was crazy.”

There was a hint of irony in that moment — to have a gorilla-ball tournament essentially decided by a bunt.

On Thursday, Creighton came back from an 8-4 deficit by scoring three times in the eighth and ninth innings to beat Seton Hall 10-9 in the tournament opener. Then the Bluejays survived a 17-13 marathon by launching an event-record six home runs against St. John’s on Friday.

Both teams’ bats were on fire early Saturday, too.

Xavier, which stayed alive with an 11-3 elimination game win in the afternoon, jumped in front 3-0 in the first inning. The Jays answered with a grand slam from senior Jack Strunc in their half of the first.

Creighton scored three times in the bottom of the fourth. Xavier answered with three in the fifth.

The Jays added two more runs in their half of the fifth. The Musketeers answered with two runs in the sixth to pull within 9-8.

Every pitch from there seemed to carry a serious threat of disaster for the man on the mound. The momentum swung back and forth. And the pressure grew. Sakowski entered in the sixth and said he quickly realized he’d never experienced an atmosphere like it.

Especially in the ninth. Sakowski walked the leadoff man and surrendered a one-out single to put runners on first and third — but he managed to wiggle out of the jam.

“With first and third and one out, everybody told me, ‘The pressure’s on them, just get your job done,’” Sakowski said. “That was all the confidence I needed.”

His performance was one of many important contributions for a Jays squad that had to rely on production from all parts of its lineup. Creighton also called on 10 pitchers throughout the weekend.

It was the full-team effort Servais had envisioned for his ballclub, which entered the Top 25 rankings at No. 25 on Monday, extended its winning streak to eight games and clinched an NCAA regional berth for the first time since 2012.

“They decided that they wanted both — the regular season and the tournament (titles),” Servais said. “And even though they knew we were probably going to get to a regional whether we won this game or not, they still wanted it. That’s what’s really impressive to me.”

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