Wichita State’s 6-5 loss to Creighton isn’t a disaster, because the Shockers got help and remain in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Maybe the Shockers will feel that way by Saturday afternoon when the series resumes. On Friday night, the result felt like a near-total collapse of starting pitching, defense and clutch hitting.
WSU didn’t play like a team on the verge of clinching a title until it was too late. Creighton took a 6-3 lead on a series of Shocker giveaways in the middle innings and held off a ninth-inning rally.
“Ridiculous,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “Those two innings are just inexcusable. We had a chance to control our own destiny.”
WSU (30-23, 14-5 MVC) still does, despite Friday’s misery. It is percentage points ahead of Illinois State, which lost to Evansville on Friday. The Shockers can wrap up the title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament with two wins. Creighton (27-13, 10-6) moved into third place, passing Missouri State.
The Shockers took a 2-0 lead in the fourth without hitting the ball out of the infield. They also left the bases loaded and that failure to get the big hit haunted them all game.
WSU starter Cale Elam cruised through the first four innings on 38 pitches and didn’t allow a hit. His control deserted him in the fifth and sixth and his defense made three crucial mistakes, two ruled errors. Elam walked the leadoff batter in the fifth, hit the next and walked Brennan Murphy on four pitches to load the bases.
“I gave them the fifth, and I gave them the sixth, too,” Elam said. “You’re asking for bad stuff to happen when you walk people.”
Elam, after a visit from pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, struck out the next batter. He had a chance to get out of the inning when Ryan Fitzgerald bounced a ball toward shortstop Erik Harbutz. He had to backhand it on the move, and it rolled off his glove and up his shoulder. Instead of WSU getting an out, or perhaps a double play, a run scored and the Bluejays kept the bases loaded.
Brad McKewon singled to left to drive in Kevin Lamb to tie it 2-all. A sacrifice fly gave the Bluejays a 3-2 lead. Jake Peter singled to center to make it 4-2, scoring Fitzgerald.
The Bluejays took a few pitches in the fifth after Elam ran through the lineup. In the second inning, he needed five pitches. He got through the third and fourth facing the minimum.
“You’ve got to change it up when you get that quick a pace going,” Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “We had to try to grind out some at-bats. We’re a much better offensive team when we take that approach.”
The Shockers cut the lead to 4-3 in the bottom of the fifth after Tanner Dearman’s leadoff double.
In the sixth, WSU’s defense made the game’s crucial series of mistakes. With two runners on and one out, Michael Blatchford bounced a ball toward third. Tyler Baker threw to second with little chance to get the runner and didn’t come close. That mistake loaded the bases for a moment, until second baseman Tanner Dearman unleashed a throw that sailed over first baseman Casey Gillaspie. Two runners scored and Creighton took a 6-3 lead.
WSU reliever Albert Minnis took over in the sixth and dominated with seven strikeouts. His effort went to waste because the hitters went quiet until the ninth. Creighton reliever Mark Winkelman stranded two runners in the sixth and retired WSU in order in the seventh and eighth. He tired in the ninth and WSU scored two runs, on RBI singles by Garrett Bayliff and Baker, to cut the margin to one. Bryan Sova got Gillaspie to fly out to center to end the game with runners on first and second.
“(Winkelman’s) curveball was very sharp and changeup was good tonight, he just ran out of gas,” Servais said. “You don’t usually see pitchers breathing that heavy.”
WSU doubled up Creighton’s hits 10 to 5 and recorded the game’s only extra-base hit. Two errors, eight stranded runners and a few bad pitches out-weighed those numbers. Gillaspie sat in the dugout long after most of his teammates retired to the locker room. Elam took all the blame and Stephenson took no joy in Illinois State’s defeat.
Worth noting — Creighton will try to win a series in Wichita for the first time since 2003 on Saturday.… WSU lost an MVC series opener for the second time.… Winkelman made his 126th career appearance, extending his MVC record.… WSU scored two ninth-inning runs and has scored in the ninth inning of four straight Valley games, totaling eight runs.
E — Harbutz, Dearman. LOB — Creighton 6, WSU 8. 2B — Dearman (2). S — Doggett. SF — Castagnini. CS — Bayliff.
|Elam L,5-3||5 2/3||4||6||3||3||2||2.44|
HBP — Green, Harbutz (by Strunc); Lamb (by Elam), Lucansky (by Minnis) . Umpires — Terry Harrison, home; Greg Mudd, first; Tim Cordill, third. T — 2:35. A —.3,081