TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Wichita State coach Todd Butler didn’t see a team desperate to extend its season in his dugout in the opener of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
“This is the time of the season where you see guys really play with intensity,” Butler said. “We’re still playing the same way. I’ve watched this team all year and you would think there’s a little bit more grit. That’s something we’re going to have to work toward in the future.”
Fourth-seeded WSU sank into the losers bracket with a 6-0 loss to fifth-seeded Illinois State on Tuesday at Warn Field. The Shockers face elimination at 8 a.m. Wednesday against top-seeded Evansville, which lost its opener to Southern Illinois 9-1.
The Shockers (29-27) struck out 12 times and stranded 13 runners on the way to their fifth shutout defeat. The players weren’t sure if a lack of urgency caused the scoring drought or if the failure to cash in scoring opportunities sapped the energy.
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“It’s hard to get pumped up when you’re not doing the job,” WSU catcher Tyler Baker said. “Everybody wants to do the job, but when you don’t get it done, you feel bad about it.”
WSU stranded a runner at second in the second inning and left the bases loaded in the third. It put leadoff runners on in four of the first six innings.
“Whenever you can’t score, or even get one run out of it, it kind of deflates the whole team,” pitcher Cale Elam said. “It’s hard to have any real spunk when you can’t get anything going.”
The Redbirds (31-21) snapped a six-game losing streak, the last three to WSU in the final series of the regular season. The Shockers knew those wins carried nothing forward into the tournament.
Illinois State starter Dan Savas, limited to three innings against WSU on Thursday, held the Shockers to four hits in 6 1/3 innings, striking out eight to survive his six walks. Illinois State, despite a late-season slump out of NCAA at-large consideration, rejuvenated its season with strong pitching and timely hits.
“It’s a new start, no question about it,” Illinois State coach Mark Kingston said. “We played great for most of the season before a couple tough weekends. It doesn’t change who we are.”
WSU put eight runners in scoring position. Savas showed the Shockers his average slider early in the count and sharpened it up with runners on base. WSU knew what was coming and couldn’t get any good swings off him.
“He made pitches with runners in scoring position,” Butler said. “You tell guys that’s the pitch you’re going to have to hit with runners at second and third base. That’s all you’re going to get in that situation.”
After allowing Savas to work around runners in almost every inning, the Shockers put pressure on again in the seventh, trailing 2-0. Tanner Dearman walked to lead off the inning and Garrett Bayliff dropped a hanging curveball over the shortstop. Dayne Parker smoked a line drive at the shortstop for the first out.
That gave WSU first baseman Casey Gillaspie a shot to change the game. Kingston hooked Savas and went to junior closer Jeremy Rhoades. Gillaspie bounced his first pitch to second base to start a double play and end the inning.
“Play of the game,” Kingston said. “Great matchup. That’s what everybody wants to see.”
Illinois State walked Gillaspie seven times last weekend and put him on with an intentional walk in the third. There was no way to pitch around him in the seventh and risk moving the tying run to second with one out.
Rhoades started him with a fastball low and Gillaspie didn’t regret his choice to swing.
“I was just looking for something I could hit hard,” Gillaspie said. “I got it, I just missed it a little bit.”
The two met again in the ninth with Rhoades protecting a 6-0 lead. The Shockers loaded the bases for Gillaspie and Rhoades went soft, striking him out with two changeups and a slider.
The Redbirds took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Brock Stewart’s RBI single, driving in Mason Snyder after his one-out double. In the sixth, Snyder walked with one out and scored from third on a wild pitch by Elam. WSU reliever Aaron LaBrie gave up his first home run of the season in the eighth, a three-run shot by Stewart to right field for a 5-0 lead.
Stewart’s blast sucked any remaining hope out of the Shockers, who lost their tournament opener for the third straight season. In 2012, they departed Springfield, Mo., the next day 0-2. A year ago, they rebounded to win the tournament at Illinois State. Tuesday, they tried to convince themselves they can do it again.
“There’s no reason why we can’t do it again,” Gillaspie said. “It’s going to be tougher, just like it was last year, but I think we can do it.”