Spencer Nivens went from earning the final roster spot on Missouri State’s baseball team last fall to all-Missouri Valley Conference this spring. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

As Missouri State battled past Illinois State and Mother Nature on Tuesday (and Wednesday) to keep its baseball season alive, one of the most surprising success stories continued as well.

Missouri State leadoff hitter Spencer Nivens was named an all-Missouri Valley Conference player on Tuesday morning, a few hours before the Bears opened an elimination game in the Valley Tournament at Hammons Field.

That game, thanks to two rain delays totaling 18 hours and 17 minutes, concluded Wednesday morning as the Bears posted a 9-4 victory. Now the Bears will play on and, as the No. 6 seed, attempt to beat the odds just like Nivens has.

Last man in

The redshirt freshman from Columbia truly has earned his way, winning a multiplayer battle for the 32nd and final roster spot last fall to now being recognized as one of the league’s best players.

“We went into the fall, and candidly, we have a 32-man roster and we had four guys, possibly five, that were not on scholarship vying for the last spot,” Missouri State coach Keith Guttin said. “Spence won the battle of the group. There were other guys we absolutely wanted to keep, but couldn’t. 

“He got off to a great start and it hasn’t stopped.”

Nivens had an RBI, walk and run scored in the victory over Illinois State. He’s one of three Bears to start all 52 games and is hitting a team-leading .362 with eight home runs, 45 RBIs and reached base in 31 straight games.

The rain delays were frustrating, especially the second which occurred as the Bears took a 9-4 lead into the ninth and forced a return 14 hours later to finish. But what’s a little extra waiting, especially if you’re Nivens and had to wait an extra six weeks last fall to even make the team.

“This has been crazy with the rain delay yesterday and postponing to get three outs today,” Nivens said. “It’s been a wild ride and we came out on top. That’s all that matters, really.”

Nivens came to Missouri State following a stellar career at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia. He spent last season as a redshirt and worked on his game, but still had no guarantee of being on the team when the team convened last fall.

“I came in not really knowing if I was going to make the team or not,” Nivens said. “I wound up making the team and being an everyday player. It’s been a crazy ride.”

Nivens said his mindset was to “just put my head down and work and not listen to what people say and not let anybody work any harder than you.”

Added Guttin: “It’s really kind of a neat story,” Guttin said. “He’s a great student, a great kid, from a great family. He’s going to be a staple going forward.”

Spencer Nivens is one of three Bears to start all 52 games and leads the team in batting average while playing all three outfield positions and first base at various times. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Nivens comes from a baseball family

Nivens grew up in a baseball family. His dad, Matt, played baseball at Mizzou from 1994-97 and still ranks in several career top-10 offensive categories. 

“He’s been huge and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him,” Nivens said of his dad.

The left-handed-hitting Nivens has shown an ability to spray the ball to all fields — much as Matt Nivens did against the Bears in the ‘90s. Missouri State hitting coach Joey Hawkins said Spencer Nivens’ good batting eye — he is tied for the team lead with 35 walks — has been a balancing act in also being aggressive and ready to mash.

“He won an opportunity on this team and when you have a guy who is hungry, that is a good start,” Hawkins said. “Other than that, he has a really good swing and always has. It was about refining his approach, which was getting him to swing a little bit more.

“He always had a good strike zone management, which he has showcased all year. The fact he has been a little more aggressive, we’ve seen the extra-base hits and homers.”

Unfortunately for the Bears, Nivens and the many other solid offensive contributions have been diminished by leaky pitching much of the season. The Valley tourney is the last chance to put it all together.

Illinois State took a 4-2 lead on Tuesday before rain midway through the fifth inning led to a 3-hour, 35-minute delay. The Bears came out swinging when action resumed, getting a solo home run from Drake Baldwin and a trio of two-run shots — from Cam Cratic, Mason Greer and Will Duff.

Then came more rain, forcing the Bears to return to get three outs the next morning. The game ended about 24 hours following the all-conference announcement, which saw Nivens and Baldwin named second-team all-Valley.

“It means a lot,” Nivens said of the recognition. “Being a younger guy coming in and working hard, it’s a small reward that’s not really on my mind right now. I have one thing on my mind and that’s winning the tournament.”

Missouri Valley Conference Tournament glance

When do the Bears play again?

That, and the rest of the tournament schedule, is in limbo because of rain. Missouri State upset top seed Southern Illinois 5-1, while No. 2 Evansville defeated Indiana State 9-1 in the late games Wednesday.

The schedule for Thursday, May 26, (weather permitting) is:

7:30 p.m.: No. 3 Dallas Baptist vs. No. 4 Bradley

As of 2 p.m. May 26, Missouri State is scheduled to play the Dallas Baptist/Bradley loser at 3 p.m. Friday, May 27.

Follow MVC-Sports.com, MissouriStateBears.com or @MVCSports on Twitter for the latest updates.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton