Wichita State Shockers

WSU finally slides past Bradley

PEORIA, Ill. —As Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson stood on the steps of the visitor's dugout Thursday at Bradley's O'Brien Field, he was greeted by an old friend — former Bradley assistant coach John Dyke.

Dyke's greeting was an age-old baseball adage: "No such thing as a routine play in baseball."

Stephenson could only chuckle and shake his head following his team's 8-6 win over Bradley in the opening game of their final Missouri Valley Conference series.

With the scored tied at 6 in the top of the ninth inning, WSU catcher Chris O'Brien, who had earlier extended his hitting streak to 22 games, hit what appeared to be an inning-ending pop-up to Bradley shortstop Jason Leblebijian.

"When I hit it, the first thing that went through my mind was that I had just missed it," said O'Brien, who finished the night 3 for 5 with a home run and two RBIs. "I thought I had gotten myself out."

But Leblebijian had misjudged the ball and as he drifted backward, his foot slipped slightly on the lip of the outfield grass. That small distraction was enough to take his eye off the ball, and the ball popped in and out of his glove to allow Micah Green to score from third and Don Lambert to score from second.

"I saw that he had misjudged it a bit, but it looked like he was still going to catch it," O'Brien said. "When I saw that ball pop out of his glove, it was a whole new feeling."

Bradley coach Elvis Dominguez refused to saddle Leblebijian with the blame for the loss.

"That didn't cost us the game, not at all," Dominguez said. "We left nine guys on base tonight.

"We had plenty of opportunities and just didn't convert them."

The ending was a stunning turn of events, especially after the Braves bolted to a 5-1 lead and chased WSU ace Charlie Lowell with three runs in the bottom of the fourth.

"I just couldn't run my fastball in," Lowell said. "I started leaving it out over the plate and those guys were just diving on it.

"Every mistake I made tonight, they found."

Lowell's counterpart, Joe Bircher, eased through the first five innings, his only miscue a first-inning home run to WSU centerfielder Kevin Hall. It was the first home run Bircher had surrendered in 90 innings this year.

"Joe was cruising," Dominguez said.

The Shockers added to Bircher's home run tally with a two-run shot by O'Brien in the sixth solo and a solo shot from Preston Springer one batter later to make it 5-4. Following a solo home run by Bradley's Rob Elliott in the sixth, WSU tied at 6 in the seventh thanks to a two-run homer by Johnny Coy.

"I'm so proud of the kids for the way they rallied," Stephenson said. "They put together some good at-bats against Bircher and just kept chipping away."

Bench Award — O'Brien was one of 13 semifinalists announced Thursday for the annual Johnny Bench Award presented by the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission.

O'Brien is batting .416 with eight homers and a team-high 61 RBIs. He also leads the team with 23 doubles, and has walked 35 times while striking out just 15.