There are no ifs, ands, or buts for the Wichita State baseball team if it wants to play in its first NCAA Regional since 2013.
"Win in Clearwater or go home," Baseball America writer Teddy Cahill bluntly put it.
Chances of an at-large bid have all but evaporated for Wichita State, so likely the final path to the NCAA Tournament is to win the American Athletic Conference tournament this week in Clearwater, Fla.
The Shockers (34-19-1) will open play as the No. 7 seed against No. 2 South Florida (32-18-1) on Wednesday at 8 a.m. The game will be streamed live on the Facebook page of American Digital Network Plus. Connecticut (32-18-1) and Cincinnati (28-26) are the other two teams in the pod. Win or lose, WSU will play later on Wednesday at 3 p.m. against the winner or loser of the other game.
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"We've all talked about it and we know basically this is it," WSU junior Luke Ritter said. "We've probably got to win it or at least come close to winning this thing. We've all kind of realized how our season has gone and we know that we have to win to keep playing."
WSU entered last week with an outside chance of being able to play its way into an at-large berth with a deep run in the conference tournament, not necessarily having to win. But those plans were foiled by losses to sub-100 RPI teams in Kansas State (130) and Memphis (186), which dropped WSU's RPI to a season-low No. 49.
Despite compiling a 25-5 non-conference record, WSU's resume is overshadowed by its 9-14-1 record and seventh-place finish in a nine-team conference.
"It's hard to get in with a losing conference record, especially five games under .500," Cahill said. "It happens occasionally, like in the SEC or the Big 12, but those leagues are No. 1 or No. 2 in conference RPI. The American is good, but I just don't think the committee is going to view anything under .500 as good enough to get in. It's a significant issue for Wichita State."
WSU manager Todd Butler points out that while WSU did not win a series against South Florida, Cincinnati, or Connecticut, it did win at least once against all three teams.
Most notably, the Shockers crushed South Florida's likely starter on Wednesday, Shane McClanahan, a likely top-10 draft pick, for six runs in three innings in a 17-2 run-rule victory in Wichita on May 11. There is confidence to build on.
"We've seen him and we've had success against him, but the bigger thing for us is just playing good baseball," Butler said. "We can't get caught up in the RPI and (NCAA Tournament speculation). The main thing is to not worry about all of that and just worry about our pitching, hitting, and fielding. If we can put those three things together, then we're going to be successful."
Butler has decided to start senior Adam Keller against South Florida on Wednesday. It will be the first season of the season for Keller, who has been WSU's best relief pitcher and sports a 0.98 ERA in 18 1/3 innings this season. WSU's ace Codi Heuer (6-5, 4.12 ERA) will start the second game on Thursday.
"We're going to have to piece the first game together," Butler said. "The big thing is going to be, 'Can we solve McClanahan offensively with our bats?' They have a good offense, too. They can hit. We're going to have to pitch it well enough and then get the bats going."
WSU's players feel like a run at a conference tournament championship isn't out of the question for the team.
"I know we're dangerous and I feel like no one is looking at us like a normal No. 7 seed," Ritter said. "I don't think they're wanting to play us because they know what we're capable of doing. When we have it going, then we're a very hard team to beat."