PADUCAH, Ky. -- Southeast Missouri State University still faces a major uphill battle in its bid to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
But at least the fifth-seeded Indians are alive and kicking, thanks to Thursday's 6-1 victory over top-seeded Austin Peay, which became the first squad eliminated from the six-team event despite winning the OVC's regular-season title.
Southeast (27-27), bouncing back from Wednesday's first-round loss to Eastern Illinois, will play fourth-seeded Eastern Kentucky at 3 p.m. today. A win would send the Indians into Saturday's championship round, where they would need two more victories.
"It feels great. It's a big lift off our shoulders," Southeast left fielder Eric Horstman said. "We just have to take it one game at a time and see what happens."
Said shortstop Ernie Bracamonte: "We needed that. We're down to single elimination now and we can't look ahead."
The Indians rode the brilliant pitching of Derek Herbig, several highlight-reel defensive plays and early timely hitting to beat the Governors (35-21), who were crushed by sixth-seeded Samford 15-3 earlier Thursday.
Austin Peay and Samford were scheduled to play Wednesday, but rain pushed their contest to 9 a.m. Thursday. After the Govs were hammered, they had to turn right around and play Southeast less than an hour later.
"After Austin Peay had gotten stung, I felt it was important for us to jump on them early," Southeast coach Mark Hogan said.
Southeast did just that, getting to OVC pitcher of the year Jeff Mault (11-4) for a 5-0 lead after three innings.
It was more than enough for Herbig, a sophomore left-hander who has been Southeast's most consistent starter this season but had not worked a complete game.
That changed Thursday as Herbig (5-4) went all nine innings, allowing seven hits while striking out five and walking two. He threw 131 pitches and helped bail out Southeast's thin pitching staff.
"It was something our team needed, and the fielding was just awesome. You have to give our defense credit," Herbig said. "It might be the first nine-inning complete game I've ever pitched. It's a big win for us."
Bracamonte made two dazzling plays from deep in the hole, Horstman saved three fourth-inning runs with a diving catch that stranded the based loaded, freshman right fielder Brent Lawson made two nice catches, and first baseman Freddy Lopez picked three throws in the dirt.
"That was probably the best we've played all year, and what a job Herbig did," Hogan said. "You couldn't have asked for a better performance. What guts."
Southeast only matched Austin Peay with seven hits, but five came in the first three innings as the Indians took control early.
Third baseman Gary Gilbert continued his late-season hot streak with three hits and three runs batted in, giving him five hits and six RBIs in the first two games of the tournament. Bracamonte doubled twice and had an RBI.
Southeast jumped on top in the bottom of the second inning as Gilbert singled, went to third on Eric Hoffman's double and scored on a wild pitch.
A four-run third followed, featuring three hits, including Bracamonte's RBI double and Gilbert's two-run double. Hoffman also had an RBI on a ground out.
Gilbert's RBI double in the fifth made it 6-0, and Herbig spent much of the rest of the game on cruise control.
"Derek really picked everybody up with his pitching," Horstman said. "It was a big lift."
Austin Peay broke Herbig's shutout bid in the seventh, thanks in part to a routine fly ball that was lost in the sun and fell for a double. The Govs had a run in and still had the bases loaded with one out.
Herbig threw three balls to Alfredo Burkeen and appeared on the verge of being lifted in favor of ace reliever Brad Smith. But Herbig battled back to a full count, then got Burkeen to ground into a double play. The lefty was never threatened again.
"I'm proud of the way we bounced back," Hogan said. "Now we have to see if we can keep it going."