NORMAL, Ill. — NCAA regional sites, keep your batting cages. All Wichita State needs is a stockpile of imaginary baseballs.
The Shockers returned to NCAA play for the first time since 2009 with Saturday’s 5-2 win over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game at Bass Field. WSU hit .351 in six tournament games, homered three times and walked almost as often (31) as it struck out (33).
That timely hitting, power and patience eluded the Shockers many times during the regular season. In the tournament, something clicked, perhaps something born out of frustration.
The second-seeded Shockers took their normal batting practice routine before Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to seventh-seeded Southern Illinois. On Wednesday, they declined their batting practice and decided to “free swing” in the outfield. It’s mental batting practice, with players working on their swing without baseballs.
It looks like yoga with bats.
Once it worked for Wednesday’s 11-4 win over Creighton, the Shockers never ventured inside a batting cage again.
Silly? Coincidence? Superstition? Maybe. All the Shockers care about are results, and the results gave them a chance to dog pile in celebration late Saturday on the field’s cold, wet artificial turf.
“Why change it?” WSU left fielder Mikel Mucha said. “We just come out and free swing and that’s kind of been our motivation.”
After the loss to SIU, the Shockers battered the remnants of four pitching staffs, including Illinois State’s MVC Pitcher of the Year Chris Razo, at a .374 clip during their five-game streak that clinched the automatic NCAA spot.
“You don’t want to break routine when you’re doing well,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “It was just a routine that we decided to go do. Our focus and our intensity was absolutely off the charts, not just (Saturday), but since we lost that first game.”
WSU (39-26) learns its regional assignment Monday at 11 a.m. (ESPNU, Ch. 244). Ending the program’s longest NCAA drought since Stephenson revived the program in 1978 eases a burden on the players. Nobody on the roster played in a regional game and no Shocker wants to be known for a streak of that nature.
“We’ve been close a couple times and came up short,” designated hitter Johnny Coy said. “It’s huge. We got it done, and that’s all that matters.”
WSU returns to NCAA play for the 28th time, all under Stephenson. It went every season except 2001 from 1987 to 2009. Since then, however, it failed to build the needed at-large resume and lost in MVC Tournament title games in 2010 and 2011. The signature decoration at Bass Field is a billboard of the Redbirds dog-piling at Eck Stadium after their win in 2010.
“It’s big for the program to finally get back there,” pitcher Cale Elam said. “You had that stigma. That’s what your goal is at Wichita State every year, the NCAAs.”
Elam, a junior, provided the pitching complement to the hitters’ revival after Tuesday. He lasted just four innings Tuesday, giving up eight hits and three runs. He returned on Saturday to face the top-seeded Redbirds and limited them to eight hits and two runs over seven innings. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter,
“His changeup, he can throw it in any count,” WSU catcher Tyler Baker said. “If you saw him in the dugout, he was just locked in. I knew, with a full count, I could call anything and he was going to get it there.”
The Shockers take a season-long five-game winning streak into the regional. Fans aren’t the only ones wondering why it took so long.
“We knew we could have done this all year long,” Elam said. “Maybe Tuesday was a wakeup call. With the offense hitting the way it is, this pitching staff is going to keep us in a lot of ball games.”
The assignment gets tougher in a regional. With another week to free swing in preparation, maybe the Shockers can keep hitting.