Not to get too dramatic, but that sixth inning mattered a lot for Wichita State. Everybody knew it. The scoreless Shockers trailed Bradley by a run and remained stuck in neutral for a fourth straight Missouri Valley Conference series opener, looking punchless against pitcher Joe Bircher.
“It was getting late in the ball game,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “We needed to have something happen, because we were down and he was very much in command up to that point.”
Then, Micah Green singled and the middle of the order came up big and the Shockers rolled to a 7-1 win to start a conference series with a win for the first time since April 6. For a team desperately fighting to move into the MVC’s upper division and make its NCAA at-large hopes more than a dream, that was one WSU had to get.
The win moved WSU from fifth into a tie for third in the MVC with Illinois State. The Shockers defeated Bradley for a 28th straight time at Eck Stadium.
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The Shockers (30-22, 8-8 MVC) roughed up Bircher, a senior lefty, for 11 hits and five runs in six innings. They scored four runs in the sixth and knocked out Bircher after two runners reached in the seventh. It was Bircher’s shortest outing since Feb. 17 and the most hits allowed in 13 starts. After scoring one run in three previous MVC series openers, the Shockers solved one of the conference aces.
“We figured out he was human,” Green said. “We felt really good once we saw him one time through the lineup. He could hit his spots, but we still needed to put the ball in play.”
WSU did just that in the sixth, helped by a Bradley (25-20, 8-11) error. With Green on first, Johnny Coy smacked a high chopper to shortstop Jason Leblebijian. Coy, running with a sore left hamstring, hustled to first. The throw bounced and first baseman Derek Sprout couldn’t glove the ball. Coy reached and Green went to third on the error.
“I was pretty impressed Johnny beat that out, because his hamstring has been hurting him,” Green said.
The Shockers stranded two runners in the second and two more in the fourth. Given a third chance, they took advantage. Casey Gillaspie, on his way to a 5-for-5 night, doubled to the wall in left to score Green and tie the game 1-all. Don Lambert singled up the middled to score Coy for a 2-1 lead. A walk to pinch-hitter Ryan Hege loaded the bases. Tyler Baker smacked a 1-2 pitch off the third baseman’s glove to drive in another run. Taylor Doggett’s sacrifice fly scored Lambert for a 4-1 lead.
“He handcuffed us for five innings,” Stephenson said. “We had some really good at-bats in the sixth inning, and that gave us some breathing room.”
WSU starter Josh Smith didn’t give the Braves much hope after they took a 1-0 lead in the third. He retired Bradley in order in the fourth. He faced the minimum in the sixth by picking off Mike Tauchman after a leadoff single. In the eighth, he worked around a two-base error by third baseman Josh Halbert by getting three flyballs for outs.
“He had a good, live fastball,” Stephenson said. “But these guys are a pretty good fastball hitting team. It was another blue-collar effort on his part.”
WSU’s defense helped Smith out of two jams. In the second, Baker picked off Sprout at second base for the final out of the inning with two runners on . In the fifth, Doggett threw out Bob Schuch at home from center field on a single by David Compitello, holding Bradley’s lead at 1-0.