Wichita State is out of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, and it is difficult to choose the most painful aspect of the two-day ordeal.
Start with NCAA baseball at-large hopes that are on life support after an 0-2 showing at Hammons Field. The starting pitching collapsed — neither lasted more than three innings. The hitters totaled 11 hits, all singles. The defense, a strong point all season, committed three errors in the finale.
Wednesday’s 7-0 loss to second-seeded Missouri State sent the third-seeded Shockers dragging off the field to an uncertain future. Hoping for an at-large bid seems wildly optimistic.
Coach Gene Stephenson won’t know for sure until Monday’s selection show, but he knows the Shockers hurt their case dramatically. He holds out some hope WSU’s power ranking (RPI) of No. 45, before the game, will carry the Shockers, perhaps in front of top-seeded Indiana State (No. 49), which also went 0-2. The balance that helped the Valley earn the No. 6 ranking nationally during the regular season is playing havoc in the tournament with NCAA resumes.
Stephenson knows this: MSU (38-19) needs to win the tournament and everything needs to break right in others for WSU to have any chance to grab one of 34 at-large spots.
“If Missouri State wins this, and gets the automatic qualification, we will be the second-highest in the RPI (in the Valley),” Stephenson said. “If we’re still in that range, we should get every consideration. We certainly did just as well as Indiana State did here. We’ll have to say some prayers and hope some of them are answered.”
Stephenson wasn’t sure how the rest of the week will play out. He might keep the players around Wichita until Monday. He might send them home.
“I haven’t decided,” he said. “If we send them all somewhere, we can always bring them back.”
WSU (35-25) came to Springfield on Sunday with a clearer outlook. Its NCAA resume, bolstered by a top-50 strength of schedule and seven wins in eight games, appeared solid. It needed to win a few games and avoid going 0-2 at all costs. Instead, the Shockers never led in two games and took the 0-fer exit for the first time since 2001.
Missouri State’s Cody Schumacher held WSU to two hits and cruised through a 103-pitch complete game with eight strikeouts.
“We just didn’t show up,” right fielder Don Lambert said. “I didn’t hit. A lot of guys didn’t hit. It’s about the worst time you could have to not have good games.”
It is bad enough to go out in two games. It is much worse to go out the way the Shockers did.
“It’s pretty much as bad as it’s going to get,” second baseman Dayne Parker said.
On Tuesday, WSU fell behind 2-0 in the first inning on its way to a 6-3 loss to Southern Illinois. On Wednesday, it got worse.
Its most consistent asset — defense — broke down. Even reliable strike-thrower Kris Gardner couldn’t find the strike zone and didn’t get out of the first inning.
“You come out at the start of the game and get behind everybody and it’s not going to work out real well,” Gardner said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
The Bears started the game with four straight singles off Gardner, who fell behind every one. After Keenen Maddox drove in Kevin Medrano for a 2-0 lead, a double play gave WSU a chance to keep the score reasonable.
“At that point, you feel a little weight off your shoulders,” Gardner said.
Then things got ugly. Gardner hit Derek Mattea. Brock Chaffin bunted in front of the plate, which still wasn’t a big problem with two outs. But catcher Tyler Baker picked up the ball, turned and threw into foul ground past first base. Brent Seifert scored on the error. Third-base umpire Mike Droll pointed Mattea home, for a 4-0 lead, after ruling third baseman Josh Halbert obstructed his path.
Chaffin is a big guy — 6-foot-3, 250 pounds — who bunts often, so it shouldn’t have taken the Shockers by surprise.
“We should never have thrown the ball,” Stephenson said. “We were hollering from the dugout “Eat it, eat it, eat it.’ We threw it, and it got away.”
MSU coach Keith Guttin called for the bunt and it worked better than he could have imagined. The difference between a two-run deficit and a four-run deficit seemed huge for a team with limited ability to rally.
“The 4-0 game, that will kind of break somebody’s spirit some times,” Chaffin said. “It kind of breaks them down early.”
Eric Cheray dropped a hit just in front of Mikel Mucha in left to drive in another run and MSU’s lead grew to 5-0 in the first inning.
That provided plenty of cushion for Schumacher, a junior right-hander from Topeka. He didn’t give up a hit until Mucha singled with two outs in the third. No other Shocker reached base until he walked Casey Gillaspie and Taylor Doggett with two outs in the seventh. Then Parker smoked a ball back to the mound that bounced off Schumacher’s foot. He recovered in time to throw out Parker. Baker singled to lead off the eighth and didn’t advance.
WSU scored all its runs in the tournament in the sixth inning Tuesday. Leading hitter Johnny Coy went 1 for 8 with six strikeouts in two games. First baseman Casey Gillaspie went 1 for 7 and struck out twice. Leadoff hitters Mucha and Kevin Hall combined for two hits and four strikeouts.
“Totally dominated, except for one inning, the whole tournament,” Stephenson said. “Cody Schumacher was outstanding. (SIU starter) Cody Forsythe, yesterday, was outstanding. If there’s another Cody out there that we have to face, we’d probably never get a hit.”