Wichita State wasn’t much of a hitting team and certainly wasn’t much of a comeback team, so the end seemed certain early on Thursday.
That didn’t make it any easier after the final out. A frustrating season ended and the Shockers listened to coach Todd Butler for the final time and then said their good-byes, hugging and tearing up. WSU baseball won’t ever look the same after Illinois State held the Shockers to two hits in a 6-1 loss in an elimination game in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament at Warn Field.
“We went through a lot, all the suspensions and injuries,” WSU catcher Tyler Baker said. “I love this team. Everybody’s a competitor. We just didn’t perform like we should have.”
Big changes are coming, Eight seniors will depart and so will many others, including draft-eligible juniors such as MVC Player of the Year Casey Gillaspie. This season wrapped up former coach Gene Stephenson’s personnel influence, in large part, and next season’s roster will belong almost exclusively to Butler.
He doesn’t want to go through another season like this one. On Thursday, the fourth-seeded Shockers (31-28) scored three runs and totaled six hits in two games. They stayed alive with a 2-1 12-inning win over Southern Illinois on Thursday morning. Illinois State scored in the first three innings to go up 4-1 and WSU failed to mount a credible threat.
Redbirds starter Brock Stewart dominated the Shockers, striking out eight and allowing two hits in seven innings. Fourth-seeded WSU scored a run in the first inning and advanced only two more runners into scoring position. Jeremy Rhoades pitched two shutout innings to send the fifth-seeded Redbirds (33-21) into Saturday’s championship game.
“Stewart and Rhoades were much better than we were offensively,” Butler said. “They have movement on their fastball. They have velocity on their fastball. They pretty much did a great job and we didn’t.”
WSU’s Chase Simpson singled in the first inning. Daniel Kihle followed him with a single to drive in Casey Gillaspie, who walked. Stewart didn’t allow another runner until the fifth, when Tanner Kirk reached on an error. He hit Kihle in the seventh and Tyler Baker reached on a fielder’s choice. Rhoades walked Tanner Dearman in the eighth.
Not much to go on for WSU.
“(Stewart) was living low and if you live low the whole time it’s going to be hard,” Baker said. “He’s got a good change-up, and it looks exactly like his fastball.”
Stewart, a junior, started for the first time in college. He foreshadowed Thursday’s effort with five shutout innings a week ago in the regular-season series against WSU.
“My change-up was really working,” he said. “I think I only threw like three sliders, so it was fastball-change-up the whole game.”
Illinois State never let WSU starter Kris Gardner get comfortable, often swinging early in the count before he could get ahead and work the edges of the strike zone. Jack Czeszewski led off the game with a single and scored on a ground ball out by Paul DeJong. In the second, Logan Leverett tripled off the wall in right on a 2-0 pitch. He scored when Baker’s pickoff attempted sailed into left field.
Gardner’s control blew up in the third when he hit a batter and walked two. He walked Mason Snyder to load the bases and walked Leverett to force in a run, ending his afternoon. Joe Kelch singled off reliever Drew Palmer to score Mike Hollenbeck for a 4-1 lead. Dennis Colon singled in two runs in the eighth inning to give the Redbirds a 6-1 lead.
Three pitchers combined to deal the longest one-hitter since WSU revived baseball in 1978. The Shockers walked seven and struck out five.
. Eighth-seeded Southern Illinois (26-31) ended its season 4-9 in extra inning games and 10-15 in one-run games.
WSU freshman Sam Tewes held SIU to one hit over six innings, walking four and striking out three. Foster Vielock pitched a career-high 4 1/3 scoreless innings to earn the victory. WSU recorded its 35th one-hitter and its first since last season against Oral Roberts.
WSU, 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position, manufactured the winning run in the 12th. Parker singled with one out. SIU chose to pitch to Gillaspie and he singled to right on a 3-2 pitch by reliever Lee Weld. Parker motored to third. With the contact play on, Parker hesitated when Simpson banged a ground ball to Rostenhausler.
“We got lucky,” Butler said. “He should have been going on ground-ball contact.”
Simpson’s hustle to first made it work out. He beat the throw on a close play and Parker slid home safely, beating a throw home that sailed high.
“I didn’t want to make it an easy out at home,” Parker said. “I froze just for a second, and let him throw it to second and took off. Chase legged it out and that’s awesome whenever you have a guy do that.”
Kihle’s speed gave WSU a 1-0 lead in the fourth. He singled to center and the ball bounced in front of Dyllin Mucha, off his body and rolled toward the fence. Kihle kept running as Mucha jogged after the ball, with no backup from his teammates. Third-base coach Brian Walker kept wheeling him around and Kihle slid headfirst safely past a tag attempt by the catcher.