EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Close to 30 scouts from major league teams sat behind home plate at Braun Stadium to see Evansville pitcher Kyle Freeland face Wichita State.
He gets WSU’s approval as a worthy first-round draft choice after Friday’s 15-strikeout performance over eighth innings. Freeland, a junior lefty who throws in the low 90s with a wicked slider, dominated in Evansville’s 5-1 victory in the series opener.
“He’s the real deal,” WSU catcher Tyler Baker said.
“Fantastic — best left-handed pitcher I’ve seen all year,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “I knew he was good, but he’s fantastic.”
WSU (16-17, 2-5 Missouri Valley Conference) lost its seventh straight game, the team’s longest streak since the 2009 team lost eight in a row. The Shockers remain in last place in the MVC. Evansville (21-11, 3-1) played its first MVC series since winning two of three against Indiana State in March.
The scouts also came to watch Freeland face Shocker first baseman Casey Gillaspie, who may join Freeland as a first-round draft pick in June. Gillaspie struck out looking in the first — a full-count call he disagreed with by flipping his bat — and swinging in the fourth. He singled on an 0-1 slider in the sixth to drive in WSU’s run.
Both of them built their first-round resumes last summer in the Cape Cod League, where Gillaspie led the league with eight home runs and Freeland compiled a 2.25 ERA with 48 strikeouts and four walks. They never faced each other, although they talked briefly while teammates at the league’s All-Star game.
“I kind of scouted him a little bit,” Freeland said. “We knew that setting up fastball early and then going to the breaking ball was going to be our best chance with him and it worked.”
Freeland pitched Gillaspie carefully in the first at-bat, staying away and falling behind 3-0. A strike, a foul ball and the called third strike ended the inning. In the fourth, Gillaspie came up with Dayne Parker on second and struck out on a 2-2 pitch. In the sixth, Gillaspie punched a slider to right to drive in Daniel Kihle.
“I didn’t see much fastballs in the zone,” Gillaspie said. “He’s got a good slider and he competes. He’s a lot better than anybody else in the Valley, I can tell you that.”
Freeland allowed four hits and didn’t walk a batter while throwing 80 of his 109 pitches for strikes. He went to a three-ball count twice and struck out both hitters. In the fourth, he struck out four Shockers, a necessity after Parker reached on a wild pitch.
Baker, who entered the game 3 for 5 in his career against Freeland, went 2 for 3 with a double off the glove of center fielder Kevin Kaczmarski. Freeland’s slider didn’t bother Baker as much as did other Shockers, allowing him to get a fastball to hit.
“He threw sliders for balls on me,” Baker said. “He was coming with the fastball and I was looking fastball.”
Evansville gave Freeland plenty of run support in the second inning, all on Jake Mahon’s double off the top of the wall in right field with two outs. WSU’s A.J. Ladwig walked John Jyawook with two outs to load the bases and Mahon hammered the first pitch, coming a foot or two from clearing the wall near the 330-foot mark.
The Shockers tested Freeland briefly in the sixth after Kihle reached on a throwing error by shortstop Devin Williams to start the inning. Kihle moved to third on Parker’s single. He scored on Gillaspie’s single to right, a hit that extended Gillaspie’s streak to 19 games.
Freeland recovered to induce a chopper over the mound from Chase Simpson to start a double play. He struck out Garrett Bayliff with the count full to strand Parker at third.
The Shockers met in left field after the game and headed back to the hotel with a familiar feeling after seven straight losses on the road. Facing a pitcher with Freeland’s talents may make it easier to stomach. The pitching matchups come back toward WSU’s level on Saturday and Sunday.
“Just like the first six games we’ve lost on the road so far, we’ve got to clear it and keep plugging away,” Gillaspie said.