Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State baseball has chance to finish strong

Beating Kansas State in 11 innings on Tuesday doesn't mean Wichita State is more likely to sweep Bradley. The Shockers didn't magically flip a switch, no matter how dramatic and uplifting a scene played out at Eck Stadium.

However, Tuesday's 7-6 win is a made-to-order way to start a crucial week. If the Shockers can't build a modest win streak on the strength of Tuesday's win, pitcher Charlie Lowell starting tonight and a series against the last-place Braves, then sack up the bats.

"I don't know if it's going to help or not," WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. "If we go in there and win, then everything's going to be great."

The Shockers (33-24, 11-7 Missouri Valley Conference) enter the series in third place. A sweep of Bradley (22-27, 4-14) could win them at least a share of the title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. First place Creighton (12-6 MVC) and second-place Missouri State (11-6) play in Omaha. As long as neither sweeps (and WSU does), the Shockers are in good shape. If Creighton wins the series 2-1, WSU ties the Bluejays. If MSU wins 2-1, WSU finishes alone in first.

"We're going to have to sweep to win conference, and this is a great confidence-booster for us," shortstop Tyler Grimes said after driving in the tying and winning runs Tuesday. "After this game, you've got to be feeling confident."

The Shockers won two in a row for the first time since late April against Oklahoma State and Southern Illinois. For fans looking for positive momentum, there are things to notice.

* WSU's defense isn't dragging games down with as much frequency as earlier in the season.

The Shockers haven't committed more than one error in five straight games. If it hadn't been for an error on pitcher Aaron LaBrie, who mishandled a bunt Tuesday, the Shockers register back-to-back errorless games for the first time since late March.

Second baseman Walker Davidson continues to vacuum every ball hit his way. Shortstop Tyler Grimes, who struggled for much of the season, hasn't committed an error in five games.

"When you have continuity of staying with the same lineup, people begin to understand," Stephenson said. "And we've had a few practices that have helped us understand where we need to be a little bit better. Our positioning has been pretty good, and our performance has been pretty good."

* Closer Cale Elam appears back on track with his past two outings.

Elam, a freshman, shut down the Wildcats after they rallied to tie the game. He struck out three and didn't allow a batter to reach in 2 2/3 innings.

"Cale's slider was outstanding," catcher Bob Arens said. "He was able to spot his fastball. He was able to get guys out with groundballs."

In his previous outing, Elam held Indiana State to one hit over two innings.

Those are better results than last week, when Elam didn't record an out in the ninth inning of an 8-7 loss to Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles scored four runs in the ninth, battering Elam for four hits and a walk.

* Lowell's presence on the mound is the best sign for the Shockers.

Lowell enters tonight's game with a 5-0 record in MVC games, compiling an 0.79 ERA, 57 strikeouts and 15 walks. Even when he struggled last week against Indiana State, Lowell held the Sycamores to two hits and no runs over seven innings.

None of those trends means this series will be easy. WSU hasn't swept at Bradley since 2001. Joe Bircher, tonight's Braves starter, is 2-3 in MVC games with a 2.49 ERA, 30 strikeouts and nine walks.

"You put all these things together, good and bad, and pull out anything you want," Stephenson said.

Kelley makes progress — WSU pitcher Tim Kelley threw 15-20 pitches in practice on Wednesday before the team departed.

Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said Kelley reported a minimal amount of discomfort in his right elbow. Stephenson said he will be on the 27-man conference roster. The best-case scenario is that WSU can get Kelley an inning or two on Friday or Saturday against Bradley. Depending on how that goes, he could pitch out of the bullpen in the MVC Tournament.

"He had good command," Stephenson said. "Brent said that in his opinion there's not another guy alive in college baseball that could lay out four-to-six weeks and come out and have command in the bullpen like that."

While Kelley is unlikely to play a big role for WSU in the season's final weeks, Kemnitz will be glad to get him on the mound to help his draft prospects in June.

"Now the pro people will see he's going to be fine," Kemnitz said.

Kelley, a senior, hasn't pitched since March 30 at Hawaii. He was WSU's No. 1 starter before the injury, going 3-1 with a 1.69 ERA. Kelley, from Tulsa, is 23-11 with a 3.41 ERA in his career.

Hege won't return — Sophomore utility player Ryan Hege is no longer on the team. Hege, from Maize, packed up his equipment and left Eck Stadium after an argument with coaches before Tuesday's game.

"I haven't heard from him," Stephenson said. "I don't expect to. It appears that he's decided he doesn't want to be part of the team."

Hege, who redshirted in 2010 after transferring from Cowley College, was upset when he didn't start Tuesday's game at catcher in place of Chris O'Brien. Freshman Bob Arens started in place of O'Brien, who rested to ward off back tightness.

"Some things were said that I felt were untrue," Hege said. "I just decided that it would be the best fit for me if I left. The only reason I left was because of how heated the argument got. I had no intentions of leaving."

Hege said he intends to play somewhere else next season. He played in 32 games and started 24 in right field. He started eight straight games before losing the position to Don Lambert in mid-April and hasn't started since. He hit .237 with two home runs and two doubles.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle