Another day, another must-win game for Wichita State.
It's been that way for more than a month and the Shockers responded like few WSU teams. The Shockers (41-18) play Illinois State (30-22) in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship today with an NCAA regional berth at stake.
Playing with a sense of urgency is second nature after WSU fell behind Illinois State in the MVC race and endured a four-game losing streak in early April. Since then, they have gone 20-5 and caught the Redbirds on the final day of the regular season to share the title.
"This team realizes what it's like to have their backs against the wall," shortstop Tyler Grimes said. "The pressure is always going to be there, but we know how to handle it."
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Today, the main handler will be sophomore pitcher Jordan Cooper, starting against a team he has dominated. In three games against the Redbirds, he is 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 29 strikeouts. All 12 hits allowed are singles.
He threw 104 pitches on Tuesday in a win over Missouri State in the tournament opener. He went to pitching coach Brent Kemnitz weeks ago to make sure he would start today's game on short rest. Kemnitz guards his arms, but is fine with pitching on three days rest on occasions such as this. Cooper won't be on a pitch count. It all depends on how the game unfolds.
"I feel good," he said. "I got my running in. I've been doing whirlpools. I should be good to go."
That is exactly what the Shockers want to hear for the biggest game of the season. Cooper, the MVC's Pitcher of the Year, is 7-0 with a 1.37 ERA at Eck Stadium this season, totaling 60 strikeouts and three walks.
"That's our guy," Grimes said. "We want him on the mound in any clutch situation, because we know he's going to take care of us."
With Cooper as a dominant Friday starter, WSU sprinted home this season. Logan Hoch led a bullpen revival. Johnny Coy and Bret Bascue became fixtures in the lineup to join Preston Springer and Cody Lassley as consistent power sources. The defense improved when the lineup became more consistent.
WSU went 16-4 in their final 20 regular-season games, a record equaled by regional-host teams in 1999 and 2002. The last WSU team to win more down the stretch is the 1998 team that went 18-2.
"We've matured a lot," WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. "We have confidence that when we play well, we're going to be able to beat anybody. It's taken some time to develop, but it's come together at the right time."
If there's a more recent team to compare the Shocker to, it's the 2006 version. That team went 20-3 to start the season before a 4-10 stretch soured things. WSU closed that season 15-5 before losing early in the MVC Tournament and compiling an RPI ranked No. 47. Their at-large chances seemed iffy. They made it, and Stephenson later said selection committee members told him the Shockers were in no danger.
He doesn't know if this season will turn out the same way, should WSU lose today's game. Its RPI ranks No. 53 and it owns three non-Division I wins and few marquee victories. Any discussion of at-large resumes with WSU coaches requires an angry recitation of the RPI's shortcomings and bias against Northern schools.
Bottom line: Stephenson firmly believes WSU is a regional-caliber team. He's not sure if the selection committee will see it the same way.
"Similar (to 2006), I'm sure," he said. "But the problem lies in the fact it's a different committee. More committee members are non-coaches. In many cases, they may not — and I want to emphasize may — be in tune with all the aspects of college baseball around the whole country. I don't know that for sure. That may be the case."
The only safe path is to win today. The Shockers are used to that situation.
WSU 6, Evansville 5
Evansville000 011 120 — 5 Wichita State012 002 10x — 6
E — Fick, Baez, Lassley, Goro, Grimes. DP — Evansville, WSU. LOB — Evansville 10, WSU 5. 2B — Wallace 2 (22), Springer (19), Bennett (10), Goro (3). S — Wallace. SB — Smith (13), Heithoff (4), Baez (21), Jones (19), Hall (20). CS — Stamets, Baez.
Heithoff L,3-56 2/3664553.65
Hoch S,41 1/3100102.18
WP — Guy. HBP — Springer (by Heithoff); Wallace, Smith (by Hoch). PB _ pearson. Umpires — Home, David Riley; first, Bret Bruington; second, Tim Catton; third, Greg Harmon. T — 3:04. A — 3,245.