OMAHA — Games at TD Ameritrade Park are endurance contests, where it is all about maintaining and waiting for the other team to flinch.
Wichita State played that game much better Friday than it did Thursday, defeating Creighton 2-0 to even the final Missouri Valley Conference series of the season at 1-1. WSU regained sole possession of third place and can wrap up that spot with a win today.
WSU entered the weekend with a chance to finish second in the MVC and enter post-season on an eight-game win streak, both goals that would have helped its NCAA at-large resume. After Thursday’s 7-3 loss, the Shockers (34-23, 11-9 MVC) will hope they can win today, finish third and build on that resume in the MVC Tournament next week. Losing a series to the MVC’s last-place team is likely disastrous to an at-large possibility.
“We needed that one,” WSU closer Cale Elam said. “Any time the game is on the line and we need a game, I’m always going to want it.”
Elam pitched three scoreless, hitless innings to record his ninth save. Starter Kris Gardner held Creighton (22-27, 6-13) to six hits and two walks in six innings. No Bluejay reached third until the sixth inning.
WSU’s offense broke out of extreme frustration in the seventh inning when Casey Gillaspie smacked a leadoff double to right field. To that point, WSU had 11 hits in the series, all singles. Gillaspie, 0 for 6, beat the Creighton pitching and the wind blowing in to give his offense momentum.
“I was seeing it good all day, but there were a couple pitches inside I missed,” he said. “I knew they were going to come with a cutter on that 3-2 pitch because I had been fouling that off all night. I was just lucky enough to get something up and hit it.”
Creighton starter Shane Liska got Gillaspie to pop up in the second. He struck him out in the fourth with a runner on second, causing Gillaspie to throw his batting helmet when he reached the dugout.
“I just didn’t want to walk him,” Liska said. “I wanted to be aggressive in the zone and force him to hit it. I made a bad pitch and he put a good swing on it and got it to the gap.”
Gillaspie moved to third on a wild pitch. With one out, pinch-hitter Ryan Hege lifted a sacrifice fly to left field to score Gillaspie. Hege, with one plate appearance in the past five games, started to get ready when he saw a lefty warming up. TD Ameritrade, home of the College World Series, offers a small batting area close to the dugout, a good friend to pinch hitters.
“I knew that was going to be a good situation for me,” he said. “I was going to try to drive the ball and get it up in the air. Even through the wind, I had to get a good swing on it and just get the ball up.”
The Shockers added another run in the eighth, helped by uncharacteristic mistakes by Creighton. Josh Halbert reached when second baseman Jake Peter tried to reach across his body to snag a groundball. It bounced out of his glove. Erik Harbutz followed by bouncing a ball toward left field. Shortstop Alex Staehely fielded it and threw off line to Peter, allowing Halbert to reach third. He scored on a double-play ball off the bat of Dayne Parker.
A two-run leads feels like twenty at TD Ameritrade, where it is 408 feet to center and 375 in the alleys. With the wind blowing in, outfielders play shallow and neither team is generating much power.
Gardner doesn’t allow hitters to generate much power, due to his ability to change speeds and keep hitters swinging off balance. The Bluejays snuck a few grounders past the Shockers, but they didn’t hit a ball fiercely until Scott Thornburg doubled to left to lead off the seventh.
“He forces you to chase pitches you normally wouldn’t, because he nibbles on the corners,” Stephenson said. “In the seventh inning, he missed his spot and that’s all.”
With Thornburg on second, Stephenson went to Elam. He got Peter to fly out. Brennan Murphy’s groundball moved Thornburg to second with two outs. Chance Ross ended the threat by grounding out to second baseman Dayne Parker.
“We did a good job defensively, playing everybody the right way, and we got some groundballs,” Elam said. “At that point in the game, you just have to come in and shut them down and hold him at third. There’s not a lot of baseball left.”
WSU’s offense slumbered through the early innings.
In the third, Harbutz popped up and Parker fouled out with runners on first and second. In the fourth, Don Lambert led off with a single and moved to second on a balk. He stayed there after Johnny Coy fouled out and Gillaspie and Micah Green struck out. Kevin Hall led off the next inning with a single. He was thrown out easily trying to steal on the next pitch and nobody else reached base.
Creighton’s offense did no better.
WSU catcher Tyler Baker threw out two runners. He nailed Brad McKewon trying to steal second in the first inning with one out. In the third, Murphy tried to get to third on a pitch that eluded Baker momentarily. He easily threw out the runner for the second out of the inning. The Bluejays followed with two singles, but Nick Judkins ended the threat by fouling out. Gardner issued a two-out walk to Bemboom in the sixth, and it almost cost him. A throwing error on Harbutz moved runners to second and third. Gardner got Mike Gerber to hit a bouncer to Gillaspie to end the inning.