NORMAL, Ill. — On Tuesday, Wichita State departed Bass Field looking down and endured a lengthy verbal beating from coach Gene Stephenson after a loss to Southern Illinois.
It seemed like the start to a bad end in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Maybe the end of Stephenson’s time at WSU.
Instead, it turned into the start of something special. WSU is back in an NCAA regional for the first time since 2009 after Saturday’s 5-2 win over Illinois State in the MVC title game on a cold and rainy night.
“After we lost that first game, we knew if there was any team that could come back from it, we were the team,” reliever Aaron LaBrie said. “The more we kind of sat there and realized how things were going to stack up, I think guys realized we can do this.”
WSU (39-26) did it the hardest way possible, winning four elimination games before handling the top seed on its home field. Illinois State (39-19) cruised into Saturday with three wins, outscoring opponents 22-5. WSU starter Cale Elam, on three days rest, braked the Redbirds hitters with a nasty changeup, pinpoint control and baffling movement on his fastball. He pitched Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to SIU and welcomed a chance to return to the mound.
“In the back of our mind, we were always thinking we were going to get back to this game,” he said. “Whenever I’m tired, on short rest, I don’t throw it as hard, but everything moves a lot more.”
Elam held the Redbirds to eight hits and two runs over seven innings, striking out seven. LaBrie struck out three in the final two innings and ended the game with a runner on first with a ground ball to first baseman Casey Gillaspie.
"It was a frustrating night,” Illinois State coach Mark Kingston said. “Balls didn’t fall in for us like they did for them.”
After Gillaspie stepped on first to retire Daniel Dwyer, he ran to celebrate with LaBrie in a mid-air body bump. The rest of the team soon joined them in a joyous dog pile behind the mound, as MVC personnel passed out championship T-shirts. They moved the mob in front of the dugout, where they posed for pictures with the championship signs and passed out hugs and high fives.
Stephenson watched with a big smile and hoped the victory knocked down some of the pessimism surrounding his program. Stephenson’s contract runs out after the 2014 season. WSU has made no move to offer him an extension, leading to speculation this could be his 36th and final season at the school. WSU athletic director Eric Sexton, who left the tournament after Friday to tend to duties at the NCAA golf championships in Atlanta, has said only that Stephenson will be evaluated after the season.
“All the negatives that are out there, everybody talking … I’m very proud of these guys,” Stephenson said. “We played great defense. We pitched well. We hit well.”
Illinois State’s Chris Razo, the MVC Pitcher of the Year, struggled to throw strikes and WSU took advantage in the first inning. With one out, Garrett Bayliff walked and motored to third on a hit-and-run single by Tyler Baker. He scored on Gillaspie’s ground ball to second, a ball slowed by Bass Field’s long turf. The Redbirds got Baker at second, but Gillaspie hustled to first to beat the throw in a close play and avoid the double play.
In the fourth, Bayliff’s two-out single to center scored Erik Harbutz, sliding in ahead of the throw, for a 3-1 lead.
That run somewhat eased the sting of WSU’s miserable third inning.
Razo loaded the bases, walking two hitters, with no outs. He rebounded to strike out Johnny Coy, looking, and Mikel Mucha. A ground ball by Micah Green ended the inning.
Coy redeemed himself in the seventh in the same situation, roping a single to left field off reliever Jeremy Rhoades to score Bayliff and Baker for a 5-1 lead.
“They were busting me in my first three at-bats,” Coy said. “The first pitch was a strike away, and I was thinking that he just threw a strike away. He got (a curveball) just enough up that I was able to drive it.”
The Redbirds scored a two-out run after Mike Hollenbeck doubled in the second. Brock Stewart drove him in with a bullet over second base into center field.
Elam closed the seventh striking out leadoff hitter Brett Kay on a changeup to strand two runners. The Redbirds cut the lead to 5-2 on a sacrifice fly by Paul DeJong, scoring Hollenbeck after his one-out double.
“My changeup was really good all night to left-handers,” Elam said. “Baker called a changeup and luckily we got the swing and miss.”
LaBrie replaced Elam in the eighth to protect a 5-2 lead. Mucha gave him a lift with a spectacular diving catch in shallow left field to rob Chad Hinshaw of a base hit to start the inning. LaBrie gloved a rocket by Zach Johnson and then walked Rick Aguilera. On a full count, he struck out Kyle Stanton to end the inning.
Worth noting — Bayliff extended his hitting streak to 14 games with a third-inning single. He had a 15-game streak earlier this season and hit . 458 (11 for 24) in the tournament with seven RBI.… Coy led WSU with eighth RBI, hitting .391 (9 for 23) with a home run and a double….Mucha, in addition to several outstanding catches in left, hit .450 and drove in seven runs.… WSU hit .351 in five games and walked 31 times to 33 strikeouts. The Shockers didn’t commit an error, running their streak to nine game. Before the streak started, they committed nine errors in five games.
DP — WSU, Illinois State 2. LOB — WSU 9, Illinois State 7. 2B — Green (9), Hollenbeck 2 (6). 3B — Harbutz (2). SF — DeJong.
HBP — Gillaspie (by Rhoades). Umpires — Greg Harmon, home; Tim Catton, first; Mike Droll, second; Bill McGuire, third. T — 2:29. A — 938.