Kansas players talked about how big it is to beat Wichita State, and the question is: Why?
The reason isnt going to make anybody in black and yellow happy. It isnt because WSU is a heavy favorite or a national power those days are past. It isnt so much because of a rivalry. Its because a loss to the Shockers represents a bad loss for a team trying to shore up its NCAA regional at-large resume.
That is where the programs are in 2013. Kansas defeated WSU 7-5 on Tuesday at Eck Stadium in front of a season-high crowd of 4,320. The Jayhawks felt relieved to avoid hurting their power ranking after they gave the Shockers chances to rally from a five-run deficit.
We cant afford to lose any more, Kansas designated hitter Connor McKay said. Were trying to get that NCAA berth any way we can.
Kansas (31-18) entered the game with an RPI ranked No. 41, according to warrennolan.com. WSU (30-22) stood at No. 132. The Shockers wont play a game with NCAA regional implications until the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Not so with the Jayhawks, who are trying to make their case for a spot in the 64-team field, ones the Shockers used to take for granted. Now, theyre playing spoiler and KU coach Ritch Price had to hope his team didnt relax after sweeping Baylor.
We would move back out of the top 50 with a loss, especially where WSUs RPI was, Price said. When you come off (playing) Texas, you come off Oklahoma, its hard on a Tuesday night.
The loss left WSU coach Gene Stephenson looking for positive signs and he found some. Starter Kris Gardner looked better than in past outings, although he didnt make it out of the fourth. Reliever Tobin Mateychick likely earned another look in this weekends series against Creighton with his hitless 2 2/3 innings. And the Shockers rapped out 13 hits, including Micah Greens first home run of the season and a 3-for-5 night for Garrett Bayliff.
Those positives, however, came up short and and the Shockers lost their fifth straight game to a Big 12 opponent. As in 2009, they lost all four meetings with Kansas and Kansas State.
Its a little frustrating, because were close to being all right; were close to being pretty good, Stephenson said. Gardner threw about as well as he can. He stayed ahead of hitters as much as he possibly could. I was really encouraged with Mateychick. I think hes ready to help us now.
One rotten inning ruined the Shockers.
KU blew the game open with five runs in the fifth inning to take a 6-2 lead. Justins Protacios speed set up the inning when he beat a throw by shortstop Erik Harbutz to lead off with a single. He scooted to third on Kevin Kuntzs hit-and-run single _ through the hole vacated by Harbutz _ and scored on another infield single. WSU had a chance to keep it tied 2-all, but catcher Tyler Baker threw into left field trying to get Kuntz at third, leading a double steal. He scored for a 3-2 lead and the Shockers fell apart.
Baker threw after Alex DeLeon struck out on pitch from reliever Zach Beringer. DeLeons backswing tagged Baker on his left arm, throwing him off-balance as he completed the throw.
I shouldnt have thrown it, Baker said. It kind of threw me off, but thats no reason to throw it that bad.
Two walks _ one by reliever Zach Beringer and one by Austin Sanders _ loaded the bases and McKay drilled a fastball into right-center for a triple, past centerfielder Taylor Doggett playing shallow, to give KU a 6-2 lead.
One inning, Stephenson said. You cant have those. I wish we had that one inning back.
WSUs first chance to rally came and went quietly in the bottom of the fifth. A double by Bayliff started the inning. Baker singled and, with one out, Micah Green reached after getting hit by a pitch. KU starter Tanner Poppe struck out Erik Harbutz by getting him to reach for a pitch off the plate. He overpowered freshman Tanner Kirk, striking him out with a high fastball that Kirk swung through.
The Shocker loaded the bases again in the seventh with no outs. They scored two runs without benefit of a hit. Greens groundball scored one and Harbutz drove in another with a foul ball to left. Junior Mustain struck out Mikel Mucha with the bases loaded to end the inning and perserve a 7-4 lead. In the eighth, Taylor Doggett led off with a bloop triple. Tanner Dearman hammered a ball that centerfielder Tucker Tharp caught on a dive to save extra bases.
I didnt think I caught it until I hit the ground and I looked at my mitt, Tharp said. I was fortunate it went in my glove, because if it didnt, things might have been a lot more interesting.
Doggett scored to cut the lead to 7-5 on Dearmans blast. The Shockers put runners on the corners before KU summoned closer Jordan Piche to strike out Green and end the threat. Piche pitched a perfect ninth for his 10th save.
Worth noting The Eck Stadium field lights went out during the seventh inning, causing a 20-minute delay with Kansas at bat. The delay ended the night for WSU pitcher Austin Sanders, relieved by Tobin Mateychick. WSU associate athletic director Brad Pittman said a main breaker tripped. Lights in the press box and grandstand remained on. Home-plate umpire Doug McClure ejected KU reliever Drew Morovick after Baker scored on a close play in the seventh. Baker tagged on a foul ball to left and slid in, barely beating the tag in McClures view. Harbutz took a ground ball off the throat, after he slipped, in the first inning. He remained in the game.
E Tharp, Harbutz, Baker. DP . LOB KU 7, WSU 12. 2B Bayliff (9). 3B McKay (1), Doggett (2). HR Green (1). S Kuntz, Dreiling 2 SF Smith, Harbutz, Dearman. SB Kuntz (11), Suiter (17). CS McKay, Harbutz.
HBP Green (by Poppe). Umpires Doug McClure, home; Larry Waggoner, first; Greg Mudd, third. T 3:26. A 4,320.