A pack of 12 youngsters, with their baseball uniforms on and pens ready, waited for autographs by the Wichita State dugout after Saturday’s 15-5 win over Illinois State.
Most wanted first baseman Casey Gillaspie’s signature. A few wanted WSU coach Todd Butler to recruit them.
It was that kind of fun baseball day for the Shockers, who swept a road series for the first time this season and handed the Redbirds their first sweep at home since 2009. The win also guaranteed WSU (29-26, 13-8 Missouri Valley Conference) a winning season, a modest goal that appeared iffy on Thursday.
Tuesday’s rematch in the opener of the MVC Tournament meant both teams rested pitchers and produced games something between exhibitions and serious business. As seemed preordained, the Shockers are the fourth seed in the tournament, their lowest MVC finish since the 1984 team also finished fourth, and will face fifth-seeded Illinois State (30-21, 10-11).
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“They’re getting ready for the tournament, and so are we,” Butler said. “It’s kind of tough weekend to figure out where you’re at. What happened this weekend has nothing to do with the tournament. Everyone will elevate their intensity.”
The Shockers won close games Thursday and Friday before Saturday’s seven-inning run-rule decision over the slumping Redbirds. They can claim success and momentum for the tournament, for what that may be worth.
“This weekend was huge for us, getting confidence and seeing how we match up with them,” WSU closer Foster Vielock said.
Illinois State, which has lost six straight, reached the bottom of its pitching staff with an ugly crash. Starter J.D. Learnard walked six in 1 2/3 innings and Ben Hecht followed with five walks in 2 1/3 innings. Six pitchers combined to walked 12 and give up 11 hits, mixing in three wild pitches and four hit batters.
“The first couple days, our bats were pretty (quiet),” WSU right fielder Garrett Baylff said. “Today, we came out and set a good tone going into the tournament.”
Part of that tone came from Bayliff, who went 3 for 4 with a walk in his first appearance in the leadoff spot this season. Butler like his patience and wants him there in the tournament. He moved Daniel Kihle, who rarely walks, to No. 6 and he responded with two walks and a three-run triple.
“I like being at the top of the lineup,” Bayliff said. “Getting on base for the big guys. Hopefully, I’m there on Tuesday.”
WSU pitchers didn’t allow a run until little-used T.J. Looney struggled through the sixth, allowing five runs. Starter Kris Gardner solidified his role as the fourth starter, should it be needed in the tournament, with four strikeouts and 3 2/3 innings. Relievers Ray Ashford, Drew Palmer and Vielock didn’t allow a hit.
After two close games, the Shockers took control early on Saturday, even while missing a few chances. They scored two runs in the first inning on one hit, three walks and an error. Two wild pitches by Learnard — both behind left-handed hitters — helped.
WSU made it 3-0 on Gillaspie’s RBI single, scoring Bayliff after a two-out walk. A three-run third made it 6-0 and Hecht helped with two walks and a hit batter. His bases-loaded walk to Tanner Kirk forced in a run. Bayliff singled in Erik Habutz and Kirk scored on a groundball out.
The Shockers made it a laugher with seven runs in the fifth. Bayliff drove in two runs with a single past a drawn-in infield Daniel Kihle tripled to right-center to make it 12-0. Gillaspie homered in the sixth, batting right-handed, to drive in two runs and give WSU a 15-0 lead.
WSU went to the bullpen and gave some of its lead back in the sixth. Looney, pitching for the first time since April 29, gave up five runs on two hits and a walk. Pinch-hitter Jack Czeszewski hit a grand slam to right field to cut WSU’s lead to 15-5 and endanger the run-rule.
Vielock ended the inning and kept the run-rule lead intact by retiring five straight hitters.