Wichita State’s baseball season is over. In one Manhattan Regional game it scored and failed to pitch. In the second, it pitched and couldn’t manage much offense.
That sums up another inconsistent, frustrating season, one in which coach Gene Stephenson believes his team lost confidence early and didn’t recover until late May. Arkansas eliminated Wichita State from NCAA play with a 3-1 victory on Saturday afternoon at Tointon Family Stadium.
Friday’s 20-11 loss to top-seeded Kansas State dumped the Shockers into the elimination round and Arkansas ace Ryne Stanek, who is expected to be a first-round draft pick, dumped them into (39-28) an uncertain summer.
Stephenson likes the way his team played since mid-May, especially when it won five straight games in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Going 0-2 in the regional — against the Big 12 champion and an SEC power — didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for the future.
“It’s all about confidence, and the one thing that gave us, finally, a little push is that we began to get a little more confident in ourselves,” Stephenson said. “It’s hard to be confident the way we were floundering around at Long Beach State and Hawaii and to start the season.”
The question is, Will Stephenson be around to see that future play out? His contract expires after the 2014 season and WSU athletic director Eric Sexton has not offered an extension, leading to speculation WSU will buy out the remaining season and end his 36-year tenure at the school. Stephenson declined to comment on his contract, preferring to focus on the game.
That puts the focus on Stanek, a 6-foot-4 right-hander from Blue Valley High who throws in the mid 90s. He allowed two hits — one a home run by Casey Gillaspie — in seven innings and walked a season-high six while striking out three.
“With a guy like that, it is pretty tough to get quality at-bats when he has command of all three pitches,” Gillaspie said. “He had a good fastball and his changeup was really good today.”
Stanek didn’t need his best to shut down the Shockers, helped by errorless defense and hard-hit balls that went right to his fielders. He walked Tanner Dearman to start the game and Garrett Bayliff smacked a sinking line drive that shortstop Brett McAfee picked off the turf and doubled Dearman off first base. In the fourth, Tyler Baker smashed a line drive directly into the glove of first baseman Eric Fisher, in front of Gillaspie’s homer. Stanek escaped his biggest jam in the second inning after walking Gillaspie and Johnny Coy to start the inning. Mikel Mucha’s sacrifice bunt moved them to scoring position. Stanek struck out Erik Harbutz and induced a flyball from Micah Green to end the inning.
The Shockers tested Stanek, just not often enough.
“We hit some balls hard early in the game,” Gillaspie said. “We just could not string anything together.”
Stanek, who considered WSU before signing with Arkansas, is 4-0 in five NCAA postseason starts with a 1.62 ERA.
“He has done a great job all year of getting out of jams,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “That is what the good ones do.”
The second-seeded Razorbacks (38-21) scored two runs in the first inning, helped by an error and a walk, and added another run on three straight singles in the seventh.
Arkansas’s Joe Serrano started the game with a bouncer that glanced off pitcher A.J. Ladwig’s glove. Ladwig stumbled while scrambling after the ball and first baseman Gillaspie couldn’t handle his throw. Ladwig walked Dominic Ficociello, and with one out Tyler Spoon scored both with a single to left field.
“I had it in my glove and I kind of slipped on the mound,” Ladwig said. “I tried to hurry it. I probably had more time.”
Gillaspie, charged with the error, took the blame.
“I should have caught it,” he said. “It kind of ran a little bit on me and I thought it was going to be lower and it just hit my glove.”
Ladwig recovered to shut down the Razorbacks until the seventh. Jacob Mahan and Jake Wise singled and No. 9 hitter Brett McAfee drove in Mahan with a single for a 3-1 lead.
In the eighth, Bayliff walked with one out. Reliever Michael Gunn picked off freshman pinch-runner Daniel Kihle for the second out and struck out Baker on a high fastball to end the inning. Arkansas closer Colby Suggs retired the Shockers in order in the ninth.