Saturdays are lot more pleasant for Wichita State with Kris Gardner on the mound.
The Shockers lost five previous Saturday games in the Missouri Valley Conference, twice denying them a chance to sweep and three times sending them to Sunday desperate to avoid one. On Saturday, Gardner and reliever Cale Elam combined on a four-hitter in WSU’s 1-0 victory over Bradley in 10 innings at Eck Stadium.
“Kris pitched one hell of a game,” WSU shortstop Erik Harbutz said. “We didn’t get him the win, but we got the win and we needed it bad.”
Harbutz supplied the winning run with a single that drove in Tyler Baker with two outs. The win pushed the Shockers (31-22, 9-8 MVC) a season-high nine games above .500 and into sole possession of third place. Bradley (25-21-1, 8-12) lost to WSU at Eck Stadium for the 29th straight time.
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Gardner threw a career-high 8 1/3 innings, most by any Shocker this season, to put them in position to sweep their first MVC series. He allowed four hits and struck out four. Elam finished with a dominant 1 2/3 innings, striking out three of the five batters faced and not allowing a ball to leave the infield.
“Kris Gardner was lights out,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “Cale Elam did equally as good a job. I’m just thankful we finally scored a run.”
That it took that long is a credit to Braves starter Justin Ziegler, who entered the game with an unimposing ERA of 5.37. He threw better than that in recent starts and continued that trend Saturday. He held WSU to four hits, frustrating the Shockers with a series of lazy flyballs. WSU didn’t get a runner to third until the eighth inning.
“He was spotting up pretty good and he had a good changeup,” WSU left fielder Mikel Mucha said. “We were getting under the ball a lot, and when the wind is blowing in you can’t do much with that.”
Gardner and Ziegler produced similar results with a similar approach. Nothing overpowering. Both of them kept the hitters taking weak swings by channging speeds and throwing strikes.
“A carbon copy of what Ziegler did,” Bradley coach Elvis Dominguez said. “It was basically in-out, up-down and (Gardner) was able to command a great changeup. Both pitchers did, which kept hitters at bay.”
The Braves didn’t test Gardner until the third, when Mucha threw out a runner at the plate to keep the game tied. In the fourth, Gardner retired three straight batters to strand a runner at second. Then he retired 15 of the next 16 batters. Early in the game, Gardner threw a lot of fastballs. In the middle innings, he changed course. Throughout, he took advantage of Bradley’s aggressive swings and got the Braves to hit his pitches.
“My breaking stuff got a little better,” he said. “My curveball got a little sharper. My changeup command got a little better, and that made the biggest difference.”
Gardner made his third straight Saturday start, second against an MVC opponent. WSU is 2-1 in those starts and Gardner has kept the Shockers close in all three.
On Saturday, that was good enough to give WSU’s offense an opportunity. With one out and Tyler Baker at first, Josh Halbert bounced a ball to second baseman Chris Godinez, who couldn’t handle it cleanly. Instead of turning a double play, Godinez settled for throwing Halbert out and Baker moved to second. A balk by reliever Rob Kennedy put Baker at third. He got ahead of Harbutz 0-2 before serving him a fastball. Harbutz punched it into left field.
“He got me down 0-2, and that point I was just trying to battle,” Harbutz said. “He gave me one out over the plate and I smacked it. I was thinking it was about time I did something like that. It was a good feeling.”