For years, some Wichita State fans wanted the Shockers to throw their best pitchers in mid-week games against Big 12 opponents.
Not by design, that has been the case over the past two weeks. The Tuesday and Wednesday starters cruised while the Saturday and Sunday guys struggled. After Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Oklahoma State in 11 innings at Eck Stadium, WSU coaches have some thinking to do before they set the rotation for this weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference series against Missouri State.
“Oh sure,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “We’ll let you know.”
Or maybe there isn’t much to think about.
Lefty starter Kris Gardner made a strong case for moving up in the rotation with a career-high six strikeouts in five scoreless innings. He allowed one hit and didn’t walk a batter. His solid work — and that of three relievers — paid off for WSU (23-17) when Dayne Parker singled to drive in Tyler Baker with the winning run. Gardner threw 51 pitches, with 33 strikes, reaching a three-ball count once. He didn’t allow a leadoff runner to reach base and threw eight first-pitch strikes to the 16 batters he faced.
That efficiency will look tempting to coaches after starters Mitch Mormann and Albert Minnis failed to reach the fourth inning last weekend at Evansville. Gardner, using a variety of off-speed pitches, handled the Cowboys (18-17) with a series of groundballs and weak flyballs. OSU didn’t get a hit until the fourth, when Robbie Rea doubled with two outs. Gardner stranded him there with a strikeout of cleanup hitter Jared Womack.
“My changeup was working pretty well,” Gardner said. “I was spotting my fastball, and they were getting themselves out. I didn’t miss a whole lot of spots tonight.”
When he got ahead in the count, he was able to produce off-balance swings. Gardner won’t blow up the radar gun — location and deception are his assets.
“You know exactly what you’re going to get (from Gardner),” Parker said. “All we need is someone out there consistent each time that gives us our best chance.”
Gardner knows Tuesday’s game likely served as an audition, but it’s not something a pitcher wants to obsess over before the game.
“You’d make yourself crazy if you dwell on when you’re going to throw during the week,” he said. “You always want to be able to take on that role, but if that’s what the coaches want of me, I’m ready to do it.”
Gardner got a lot of help after he departed in a 0-0 game. Tobin Mateychick, also a candidate to start on the weekend, gave up one run in 2 1/3 innings. Closer Cale Elam pitched three scoreless innings, allowing two hits, and struck out two. His infielders helped him by turning double plays to end the 10th and the 11th.
“Our pitching was pretty darn good all night,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Parker made it all work out with his game-winning single on a 3-2 pitch from OSU’s Chase Stevens. He drove in Tyler Baker, who singled with one out, moved to second on Mikel Mucha’s single and stole third. Parker went ahead in the count 2-0 against Stevens, a junior who averages 12.63 strikeouts per nine innings. Stevens evened the count at 2-2, but Parker doesn’t mind hitting with two strikes.
“He’s a calm and collected hitter and he feels comfortable, so it doesn’t bother him,” Stephenson said. “He worked the count well, and, boy, he hit the ball right on the nose.”
Parker, who won the Missouri Valley Conference player of the week honors after hitting .409 in five games last week, extended his hitting streak to seven games.
“I knew they had been throwing sliders quite a bit,” Parker said. “He left one hanging, and I hit it.”
OSU pitchers frustrated the Shockers most of the game. WSU took a 1-0 lead in the sixth when Mikel Mucha drove in Erik Harbutz with an infield single. Before that, the Cowboys played air-tight defense.
Starter Randy McCurry issued two two-out walks in the first, then struck out Casey Gillaspie on a 3-2 pitch. In the second, Ryan Hege with one out but missed a signed and was thrown out stealing second.
WSU’s best chance came in the fifth, and it came up a few inches short of scoring. With a Taylor Doggett at second, Parker slapped the ball toward right field. Second baseman Robbie Rea dove and gloved it. Parker beat the throw to first and Doggett kept coming toward home. First baseman Wes Jones threw home, and catcher Jared Womack tagged the sliding Doggett.
Two walks loaded the bases with two outs. Gillaspie bounced a ball that Jones had to stretch to catch. He fumbled the ball, but his throw beat Gillaspie in a close play.