Friday nights did not go well for Wichita State in Missouri Valley Conference games. Changing the day and venue didn’t help Shocker hitters combat the top pitchers in the conference.
The Shockers are on the brink of elimination from the MVC Tournament after Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to sixth-seeded Southern Illinois at Hammons Field. WSU’s NCAA at-large resume took a hit, although time for polishing exists in the double-elimination format. Not surprisingly, WSU will wake Wednesday up after a loss needing to find a way to score runs and execute. It went 3-4 in series-openers against Valley teams, twice getting shut out and scoring a total of four runs in the other two losses.
On Tuesday, SIU lefty Cody Forsythe, an All-MVC selection, didn’t allow a runner until the sixth inning. He went seven innings, struck out eight and allowed six singles, not many of which the third-seeded Shockers struck hard.
“We know we didn’t play well,” WSU shortstop Erik Harbutz said. “There’s some sense of urgency. We know we’ve got to do something in this tournament, and we’re going to start that (today).”
Tuesday’s loss likely makes today’s game an elimination game in two ways. Getting bounced out of the tournament with an 0-2 record could be a death blow to a team on the edge of NCAA consideration. If the Shockers (35-24) aren’t thinking that way, they should.
“We let this game slip away and we realize we still have some work to do to make sure we’ll be playing after this tournament,” WSU pitcher T.J. McGreevy said.
Tuesday’s game went bad from the start.
WSU’s Josh Smith gave up two runs in the first inning, while striking out the side. He gave up a home run to Chris Serritella in the third and a 3-0 deficit looked like 30-0 against Forsythe. He didn’t allow an earned run in seven innings in the regular-season meeting, but his defense betrayed him and WSU won 4-3 in 10 innings. He pitched even better in the rematch. He struck out two Shockers in the first inning, both looking. The Shockers, swinging early in the count, hit a lot of routine grounders and easy flyballs.
“He kept us off balance,” Harbutz said. “He commanded the zone, throwing it inside and outside.”
WSU coach Gene Stephenson took issue with home-plate umpire Wayne Harris early, telling him “You’re better than that” after one strike call. Forsythe took full advantage.
“The guy was giving me a lot of strikes,” Forsythe said. “I felt like I got in my rhythm real early. They were sitting on the curveball a little bit, and I had it going early, and I was able to sneak some fastballs by. Everything worked off of that.”
SIU (29-27) took a 4-0 lead with no outs in the fourth and knocked Smith out in his shortest outing of the season.
WSU got to Forsythe in the sixth when Dayne Parker led off with a solid single to right. Tyler Baker chopped a single to right field, pushing Parker to third. A wild pitch moved Baker to second. Josh Halbert loaded the bases when he bounced a ball high in the air that third baseman Austin Montgomery fielded while back-pedaling. After a strikeout, Harbutz guided a single over the first baseman’s head to score two runs. Johnny Coy singled in a run to cut SIU’s lead to 4-3.
Forsythe, with two runners on, struck out Casey Gillaspie looking and got Micah Green to fly out.
“I was in damage control at that point,” Forsythe said. “I was just trying to minimize the damage and we still were able came out of that inning with the lead.”
WSU failed to execute in the next two innings and wasted leadoff singles.
In the seventh, Don Lambert singled. Parker fouled off pitch with a hit-and-run called. Then he fouled off a bunt attempt before flying out to left field. With pinch-hitter Ryan Hege up, Lambert stole second. Hege popped up and Josh Halbert struck out to leave Lambert in scoring position.
It got more painful in the eighth for WSU when Kevin Hall led off with a single. This time it was Harbutz who couldn’t get a bunt down and he flew out to left. Hall, desperate to get to second with Coy up, got picked off by catcher Brian Bajer for the second out. Coy struck out to end the inning.
The mistakes in the seventh and eighth left Stephenson so angry he didn’t want to explain, yet he couldn’t help himself.
“Twice, we can’t get the bunt down, once in that inning and once before,” he said. “We worked more this year on bunting than ever before in 35 years. And we still can’t get the bunt down when we need to.”
That didn’t exonerate Hall, WSU’s best base-stealer. On a 2-1 pitch to Coy, he broke for second, then stopped and tried to return to first. Bajer’s throw beat him and Serritella applied the tag. Coy struck out to end the inning.
SIU hit back-to-back home runs off reliever Foster Vielock in the ninth to push the lead to 6-3. Gillaspie and Mikel Mucha singled to start the bottom of the ninth, but SIU reliever Todd Eaton retired the next three hitters to end the game.
“What beat us was our inability to handle anything the first five innings,” Stephenson said. “We have to be much better offensively. We’re just not very good.”
Starting today, WSU’s season likely depends on it.