Wichita State can’t control what’s happening in Carbondale, Ill., where its fate in the Missouri Valley Conference baseball race lies in the hands of Illinois State heading into the regular season’s final day.
But so far, the Shockers’ final home series against Big Ten member Northwestern is serving as a good momentum builder for the conference tournament.
Sophomore A.J. Ladwig pitched six scoreless innings, and fellow Omaha native Casey Gillaspie belted his second grand slam of the season as WSU defeated Northwestern 5-0 on Friday in front of 3,027 at Eck Stadium.
Relievers Aaron LaBrie and Brandon Peterson completed the seven-hitter as the Shockers (33-25) registered their third shutout of the season. Third baseman Erik Harbutz broke a scoreless tie in the seventh with a two-out RBI single. Gillaspie followed in the eighth with his ninth homer of the season off Wildcats reliever Reed Mason.
“We need all the momentum we can take,” said Gillaspie, who was 0 for 7 in the series before ripping a 3-2 fastball over the left-field fence. “It’s kind of been a roller coaster ride for us this year. It’s good to get some wins, and hopefully, we can come out tomorrow and get another one.”
Another victory over Northwestern won’t impact the MVC race. Illinois State secured a share of the title with a 2-0 victory over Southern Illinois on Friday, and can claim it outright along with a No. 1 tournament seed by completing a series sweep over the Salukis on Saturday.
But WSU, which will be co-champions and the tournament’s top seed with an SIU victory on Saturday, followed Thursday’s 8-2 victory over Northwestern with another solid performance.
“I like the consistency of the last two nights,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “But it’s all about what you can do tomorrow. It’s all about the next day. Once this game’s over, the focus needs to be on what we’re going to do tomorrow and how we’re going to be able to do it.”
The Shockers were able to ponder those possibilities with a good feeling, thanks in part to Ladwig. The right-handed starter, facing a 75-pitch limit, went toe-to-toe with Northwestern’s Brandon Magallones for six scoreless innings. Ladwig, who allowed five hits and struck out four, didn’t factor in the decision, but lowered his ERA from 5.18 to 4.73.
“I pretty much had everything working, and I’ve got a good defense behind me,” Ladwig said. “I prepared the same and went out there with the same mentality.”
Ladwig turned things over to LaBrie, who pitched a scoreless seventh. Then WSU’s offense finally broke through against Magallones.
After Gillaspie and Johnny Coy flied out to start the bottom of the seventh, left fielder Mikel Mucha sliced a towering ball to left, which bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double. Harbutz rolled a 1-2 pitch between third and short, and with Mucha running on contact, he scored easily for the game’s first run.
The Shockers broke it open an inning later. Michah Green led off by reaching on third baseman Kyle Ruchim’s fielding error. Tanner Dearman beat out a bunt single, and Garrett Bayliff moved the runners to second and third by nearly doing the same.
After Mason intentionally walked Tyler Baker to load the bases, the switch-hitting Gillaspie batted from the right side against Mason, and delivered his second homer in three games.
“I knew he didn’t want to throw me off-speed because he had nowhere to put me,” Gillaspie said. “I was sitting fastball and luckily I got it right down the middle.”
For Stephenson, it was the perfect complement to Ladwig’s second consecutive promising start.
“A.J. did a really good job,” Stephenson said. “I think the fact that he was ahead in the count most of the night, and made pretty good pitches most of the time was a good sign. And I was really grateful that we did get the grand slam.”
Worth noting — Bayliff followed a 4-for-5 night on Thursday with singles in his first two at-bats. He raised his batting average to .379.… Stephenson said before the game that outfielder Taylor Doggett, who strained a ligament in his right elbow prior to Thursday’s game, was available for pinch-running duties.… LaBrie’s two scoreless innings lowered his team-best ERA to 0.91.… Ladwig and Magallones each picked off a baserunner.
E — Ruchim. DP — Northwestern 2. LOB — Northwestern 7, WSU 4. 2B — Livingston (4), Morton (10), Mucha (7). HR — Gillaspie (9). S — Mucha, Bayliff. CS — Stevens.
WP — Magallones, Ladwig. HBP — Green (by Magallones). Umpires — John Knight, home; Doug McClure, first; Phil Plantz, third. T — 2:19. A — 3,027.