Whether or not coach Gene Stephenson believes it, Wichita State is the Missouri Valley Conference’s most consistent baseball team.
The Shockers are in first place, by a few percentage points, because they are the only MVC team that hasn’t lost a weekend series. They are a sparkling 8-1 on the road, including two conference sweeps. One more good weekend and WSU can clinch at least a share of the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the MVC Tournament. The Shockers play fourth-place Creighton at Eck Stadium and a sweep guarantees all that.
“The mission is to go 3-0, but we’ve got to worry about Friday first and we can’t look ahead because that gets minds in other places,” center fielder Taylor Doggett said.
WSU (30-22, 14-4 MVC) is done with MVC games after this series. Second-place Illinois State (31-17, 11-4) plays Evansville and at Southern Illinois. The Shockers hold the tie-breaker by virtue of their series win in late March.
Even with all that conference success, Stephenson reminds his players that have yet to put together three straight days of good baseball. That is something Illinois State can claim — the Redbirds recently won 12 straight, although four came against lower-level schools. WSU swept last-place Bradley, but Stephenson wasn’t happy with all three days. It swept Missouri State in a series shortened to two days by rain.
Creighton (26-13, 9-6) boasts the MVC’s top power ranking (RPI), No. 67 according to warrennolan.com.
“For us to win this league, we’re going to need three very good days,” Stephenson said.
WSU’s lack of consistency can be traced to a starting rotation that is unreliable or unknown past Friday starter Cale Elam and an offense that lacks pop. Stephenson declined to name a starter beyond Friday, although it is likely freshman Garrett Brummett will remain in the rotation for his second MVC start. The Saturday spot will likely stay with sophomore A.J. Ladwig, despite his struggles to hold an 8-0 lead in Sunday’s 11-9 win at Missouri State. Drew Palmer, who started three MVC games, is out of for the season with an unspecified injury, Stephenson said. In Tuesday’s 7-5 loss to Kansas, coaches held what amounted to auditions for a starting job, if not on the weekend, in the MVC Tournament, by looking at Kris Gardner, Zach Beringer, Austin Sanders and Tobin Mateychick. Gardner and Mateychick showed the most promise against KU.
“We’ll wait and see what happens Friday,” Stephenson said. “I can’t think beyond (Friday) and whatever it takes to get it done.”
That could mean trouble against the Bluejays, who are tied with Bradley for the MVC lead with a .295 batting average and lead with a .398 on-base percentage. They also lead the MVC with 70 sacrifice bunts, more than double most teams.
Bunt drills took on an increased importance in recent weeks as WSU prepared for Creighton and Evansville.
“They’re going to try to bunt the ball and move guys over,” WSU reliever T.J. McGreevy said. “The advantage of us is they’re trying to give us outs. We just have to make those routine plays.”
A few more extra-base hits would help the pitching. On Monday, WSU ranked No. 15 nationally in hits (507), tied for 41st in walks (204) and 75th in batting average (.285). A reliance on singles is keeping WSU from cashing in those runs and WSU ranks below 150 in doubles per game and home runs per game and is No. 134 in slugging percentage (.370).
Winning three straight against Creighton — and making a run in the tournament — will require consistency of focus and effort the Shockers rarely exhibit. Its longest winning streak is four games, which is the minimum they would need to win the MVC Tournament. Grabbing the No. 1 seed could make their path easier later this month in Normal, Ill.
“You can’t ever relax, even if you’ve won the first two games,” McGreevy said. “That third one is just as important as the Friday night game, especially this weekend because we can control everything.”