By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
Pittsburg State baseball coach Matt Murray grew up with four brothers, so he knows all about backyard battles between familiar foes with a mutual respect and a mutual level of competition.
In that sense, last weekend in Hays, Kan., was a lot like a brotherly duel for him.
Murray led his Gorillas to a 2-1 series win in the first round of the MIAA Postseason Tournament. Their opponent?
The No. 5 Central Missouri Mules, who Murray helped coached for the last five years as Tom Myers’ assistant.
Furthermore, Murray moved from head coach at Claremore (Okla.) High School to an assistant coach at Kansas State, where he was hired by head coach Brad Hill, the former Central Missouri coach who led the Mules to the 2003 national championship.
“For me, it was certainly interesting,” Murray said on Wednesday. “I’m very close friends with Coach Myers and I feel like I was a big part of the recruitment and development of a lot of their players, so obviously I’m close with those kids and really like them.
“It was a lot like playing against your brothers. I know you and I love you, but we’re going to compete with you. We shake hands, give each other a hug and move on.”
The Gorillas shocked the Mules with an 11-3 win on Saturday to take a 1-0 lead in the series, which had been displaced some 300-plus miles west to Hays after a rare May snow fell on Warrensburg.
Pitt State then found itself with a 4-0 lead in Game 2 before the Mules exploded for a 16-4 win, also on Saturday afternoon.
But the Gorillas rebounded on Sunday for a 9-7, 10-inning win that saw them lose a three-run lead in the eighth inning.
“I think that game was a testament to our club because once they came back and tied that game, a lot of things could have happened,” Murray said. “But I watched their reactions and they just held steady and continued to play. They kept plugging away and kept after it.”
The win was just the 12th in 74 games for Pitt State in the all-time series with the Mules and put the Gorillas into today’s semifinal round against Missouri Southern.
The Gorillas will likely send ace Matt Stalcup — 7-3 with a 3.46 ERA — to the mound against the Lions, but also well-rested and available is George Brandecker. Brandecker is 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA and threw a one-hit shutout against the Lions on April 24.
“The key for us against any of the teams up there will be to pitch well,” Murray said. “We have to keep doing a good job of keeping the leadoff hitter off base each inning. It won’t happen that way every inning, but that is a key.
“And defensively we have to keep making sure we have good pre-pitch and post-pitch communication and make the routine plays.”
The Gorillas have been solid offensively. Their top seven hitters — who have started an average of 48 of their 50 games — are all hitting above .300.
Brad Foss leads the team with .383 average while hitting 17 doubles and driving in 34 runs. Tory Stoffregen has a team-high 46 RBI while hitting .356.
Ryan Bilovesky, hitting .306, leads the team with 11 home runs, including a key two-run homer in the series clincher against UCM.
“We have to continue to have a great approach at the plate,” Murray said. “We have to force pitchers to throw over the white part of the plate and get baserunners in scoring position.”
The Gorillas haven’t won the MIAA Tournament since 1999, when they beat Central Missouri and advanced to win a pair of games in the regional tournament.
“Being here at Pitt State in my first year, it’s such a great place with great community support,” Murray said. “We want to continue our success and try to bring back a championship for the university and the alumni and community.”