On Saturday, Wichita State’s Erik Harbutz said it was about time he came through in the clutch. On Sunday, he made a habit of it.
Harbutz drove in the winning run for a second straight game against Bradley, smacking a ninth-inning double that led to two runs and a 7-6 victory. The celebration that followed looked a lot like Saturday’s, in which Harbutz earned a bunch of high fives and hugs by singling in the game’s lone run in the 10th inning.
WSU’s unlikely victory provided its first Missouri Valley Conference sweep and the third-place Shockers (32-22, 10-8 MVC) aren’t out of the race for second. Bradley (25-22-1, 8-13) lost to WSU at Eck Stadium for the 30th straight time after giving up three runs in the ninth.
“It was a roller coaster, but you couldn’t ask for anything more,” WSU centerfielder Kevin Hall said. “We could take this and run with it. This could be something that kind of gets us rolling into the end of the year.”
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All of that after a day in which the Shockers appeared to hand the game over several times. They didn’t get many breaks, and they didn’t deserve many, either.
“The great thing about this is, we know we didn’t play our best baseball,” Harbutz said. “I think we can build from this and play better baseball from here on out.”
The Shockers will happily stuff all the frustrations from the first eight innings in the trash and remember the ninth. The Braves led 6-4 entering the inning after scoring the go-ahead run in the eighth and an insurance run in the top of the ninth. Reliever Jacob Booden walked the first two batters and gave the Shockers hope.
“Once we got those runners on, we knew it was our game, and we were going to get it,” Harbutz said.
Reliever Danny Gifford struck out pinch-hitter Taylor Doggett, who couldn’t get a bunt down. No. 9 hitter Josh Halbert singled on a 3-2 pitch to left field, scoring Don Lambert from first. Left fielder Mike Tauchman bobbled the ball, allowing Hall to scoot to third.
Harbutz followed by smacking a 2-0 fastball to right. Bob Schuch tried to cut it off and the ball got past him. Halbert scored easily from first and the Shocker dugout emptied in search of Harbutz, who ran into right field and threw his helmet in the air. He went 0 for 4 in the first eight innings, at-bats which didn’t weigh him down at all.
“I want to be in those type of situations, runners on base, game one the line,” he said. “I’ve always been confident. I know I put in the work.”
The Braves led 2-0, came back from a 3-2 deficit to lead 4-3 and scored three runs in the final three innings against the best of WSU’s bullpen. It should have been enough, in the mind of coach Elvis Dominguez.
“Our kid (Booden) threw a great eighth, and then all of a sudden came out there in the ninth and can’t find the strike zone,” he said. “That’s expectations, that’s learning how to win. We basically handed them two free runners.”
WSU’s No. 9 hitters drove in four of its runs, two by Aaron Rea on a bunt in the fifth and two by Halbert, hitting .143 entering the weekend. He went 1 for 1 and drove in a run Friday after pinch-running. He got his first start since May 6 on Saturday and singled. Sunday, he drove in a run in the seventh to tie it 4-all and another in the ninth. Before the series, coach Gene Stephenson told the Shockers to forget their pop-ups and strikeouts and remember the line drives. Halbert listened.
“See yourself doing good things at the plate,” Stephenson said. “Go back to the video tapes of when you had good swings. See yourself doing those things. I think he’s the one guy, probably, it helped the most. Every opportunity he had today, and yesterday, he delivered for us.”
The Braves tortured the Shockers in the first eight innings.
Starter Tory Doerr allowed two hits in the first four innings, one a home run by Johnny Coy. Bradley took a 2-0 lead with three two-out hits against WSU starter A.J. Ladwig in the fourth. A throwing error on Rea allowed a run to score in the sixth, tying the game 3-all. In the seventh, WSU second baseman Dayne Parker lost a pop-up in the sun and Chris Godinez got to first safely. He stole second and scored on Max Murphy’s groundball off Halbert’s glove for a 4-3 lead. After WSU tied it, Bradley regained the lead in the eighth off closer Cale Elam when Schuch’s high chopper bounced over Halbert to score Jason Leblebijian from second. The Braves went up 6-4 in the top of the ninth when Elam walked in a run after a single, a hit batsmen and an intentional walk.
“Wow,” Stephenson said. “Every inning, we were giving them runs. It didn’t look very good for us. Our guys never quit, and their confidence, I still think, is growing. It’s like the turtle. But we’re growing in the right direction.”