OMAHA — One win short.
That will be the story of the season for Wichita State baseball.
Top-seeded Creighton defeated WSU 3-1 on Saturday night at TD Ameritrade Park in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. With the Shockers’ RPI in the 70s, the loss will keep them out of an NCAA regional for a second straight season, the longest drought since 1978 and 1979, coach Gene Stephenson’s first two seasons after the program’s revival.
The loss also denied WSU (39-26) a 40-win season for the second time in Stephenson’s 34-year tenure. The second-seeded Shockers also came up painfully short in the MVC standings, one game behind Creighton.
With WSU’s history, the second-place tournament trophy rates a spot, at least metaphorically, in the trash bin behind the Holiday Inn that housed the team Saturday night. The “Congratulations on a great season” line from the public-address announcer after the game sounds like a taunt to coaches, players and fans who remember what a great season really feels like.
“It’s very disappointing from our standpoint, but we’ve had a very disappointing year,” Stephenson said. “Creighton was the better team tonight, and Creighton’s played much better all year long. This city should be proud of them.”
The Bluejays (44-14) won their second tournament title and wrapped up a spot in an NCAA regional in front of a crowd of 6,939 at the new home of the College World Series.
“The fact that this crowd was into this game from the get-go, I think our kids threw harder tonight than they had all year,” Creighton coach Ed Servais said. “I can’t say enough about the crowd.”
Creighton won it in familiar fashion with great pitching, defense and just enough offense. Jonas Dufek and Ty Blach, Creighton’s top two starters, held WSU scoreless into the seventh before turning the game over to the bullpen.
“They were making good pitches when it came down to it, and we didn’t make any adjustments,” WSU center fielder Kevin Hall said. “They had their game plan, and they stuck to it.”
WSU’s offense faded in the tournament before a revival against Indiana State’s depleted pitching staff on Friday. Dufek and Blach, pitching on short rest, put WSU back on ice.
Dufek, who pitched Wednesday morning, struck out five in 2ð innings. His off-speed and breaking pitches tempted the Shockers into a series of off-balance swings.
“Dufek’s off-speed stuff was pretty sharp to begin with, and I don’t know if we expected that after he started recently,” Hall said. “He stuck with it.”
Dufek stranded two runners in the first inning with a flyball off the bat of Johnny Coy.
Blach, who pitched late Wednesday night, struck out catcher Chris O’Brien twice with a runner at second base. With many other Shockers struggling, those two at-bats went a long way to deciding the game.
“They were throwing extremely hard,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know if it was the stage or the crowd or whatever. They were throwing a lot better than they did in Wichita.”
O’Brien singled in the first inning to extend his hitting streak to 29 games.
But WSU’s offense, as it did often this season, faltered when Coy and Preston Springer slumped. Both struggled in the tournament and nothing changed in the title game. Add in Hall’s three strikeouts as the second hitter in the order and the Shockers never put pressure on the Bluejays.
“Let’s give credit to their pitchers,” Stephenson said. “They had our number.”
The Shockers avoided a shutout in the eighth when O’Brien drove in Josh Halbert with a groundout. But Springer stranded Tyler Grimes at third with his groundout.
WSU pitched well enough to win. Starter Charlie Lowell, the MVC’s Pitcher of the Year, gave up six hits, most of them well-placed groundballs, in six innings. He also pitched on short rest after starting Tuesday.
“I didn’t have my best stuff tonight, and they came ready,” Lowell said. “They had good at-bats all night. Even when I got guys out, they battled up there.”
Lowell helped the Bluejays take a 2-0 lead in the first inning by hitting Nick Judkins with one out. Jimmy Swift’s single moved him to second. Judkins scored on Trever Adam’s bouncer to left. With two outs, Scott Thornburg singled to drive in Swift.
The Bluejays placed their hits well. Stephenson lamented playing third baseman Dayne Parker too close to the line, thinking perhaps he could have kept the RBI singles on the infield and prevented a run.
“That was rough,” Lowell said. “They took advantage of every mistake I made.”
A running catch by right fielder Don Lambert, one of many during the tournament by speedy Shocker outfielders, robbed Alex Staehely of extra bases and kept the inning from getting out of control.
Dufek threw 43 pitches, 27 strikes, before exiting with two outs in the third. Blach struck out O’Brien with a runner on second to end the inning.
Lowell shackled Creighton until the fifth.
Mike Gerber led off with an infield single and moved to second on a bunt. Judkins’ bloop into right moved him to third. He scored on Jimmy Swift’s sacrifice fly to center for a 3-0 lead.