NORMAL, Ill. — This is what Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson envisioned all season: Casey Gillaspie and Johnny Coy smacking baseballs, scaring pitchers and driving in runs.
While it didn’t turn out that way, the middle of the order showed up big in Wednesday’s 11-4 win over third-seeded Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Bass Field. If they can continue, the timing is perfect.
Second-seeded WSU (35-26) plays seventh-seeded Southern Illinois or sixth-seeded Indiana State at 9 a.m. Thursday in an elimination game. Should WSU win, it plays again at 4 p.m. Creighton (30-18) competed for the final time as an MVC member and will officially exit for the Big East on July 1.
The Shockers made Creighton’s last glimpse of the Valley a blur of pitching changes and outfielders futilely chasing line drives. Gillaspie and Coy homered to lead WSU’s 17-hit attack. Sophomore starter A.J. Ladwig saved the bullpen, a crucial contribution for a team in the losers bracket, with a career-high eight strikeouts and his first complete game.
“Better now than never,” Gillaspie said. “We have a lot of ability to carry a team offensively. It stinks that it hasn’t happened the whole year, but if we can continue to do that, it’s going to be really special.”
WSU struggled to score against Creighton while losing two of three games earlier this month, costing it the MVC title. The Shockers looked like a different team on Wednesday while jumping to a 3-0 lead in the first inning and chasing starter Austin Groth. They continued to pound away, scoring multiple runs in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh. Gillaspie drove in three runs with two hits and walked three times. Coy who doubled in the third inning, went 3 for 5 and drove in two runs with his first home run since April 6. Erik Harbutz went 3 for 5 and scored twice. Tanner Dearman walked twice in addition to his 2-for-3 day. Tyler Baker drove in two runs with two hits, one a double off the wall in the first inning.
“We haven’t had too many games like that where we hit the ball consistently as a team,” Coy said. “Everybody felt really relaxed before the game and confident. We got big hits with runners in scoring position.”
WSU coach Gene Stephenson compared the production from Gillaspie and Coy to bears waking up from of hibernation. Gillaspie homered for the third time in eight days, giving him 10 this season. He hit seven in his first 22 games before a power slump.
“Hungry,” he said. “I’m glad to see some of our big guys start to hit. That helps us a lot.”
The game started 2 hours and 42 minutes late because of rain and lightning. The Shockers waited in their bus before returning to the hotel. They returned ready to hit. Dearman and Bayliff singled and Baker made it 1-0 with his double. Gillaspie drove in Bayliff and Baker with his single. After Coy’s single, it took a spectacular running catch by centerfielder Mike Gerber to keep Mikel Mucha from another extra-base hit. Creighton coach Ed Servais pulled Groth and reliever Taylor Elman ended the inning without further damage.
“They came out attacking,” Servais said. “Before we could get a guy up in the bullpen, it’s 3-0. I really felt that first inning set the tone for the rest of the day.”
Creighton pestered Ladwig, cutting the lead to 3-1 in the second inning and 5-3 in the fourth. Ladwig, however, kept those innings from careening out of control. He scattered 10 hits and didn’t walk a batter. After battling out of trouble in the early innings, he sat Creighton down in order in the fifth and cruised the rest of the way. Gerber’s solo home run in the sixth provided Creighton’s only noise late in the game.
“The first couple innings, it took awhile adjusting to the mound,” Ladwig said. “After that, I had all three pitches working. I got some strikeouts with my fastball, a couple with my changeup and maybe one or two with my slider.”
Ladwig’s effort gives the Shockers a chance to win two games Thursday with a pitching staff still in good order. That job becomes much easier if Gillaspie and Coy can keep their revival going.
DP — Creighton 3. LOB — Creighton 5, WSU 8. 2B — Castagnini (8), Murphy (1), Baker (11), Coy (9). 3B — Fowler (2). HR — Gerber (5), Gillaspie (10), Coy (3). S — Green. SF — Bayliff. SB — Dearman (11). CS — Makovicka, Gillaspie.
WP —Bamesberger, Ladwig. HBP — Micha (by Bamesberger. Umpires — Brdet Bruington, home; Wayne Harris, first; Tim Catton, second; Jason Stidham, third. T — 2:28. A — na.