Given a chance to close out the game on the road in the eighth inning, Wichita State closer Mitchell Walters was right at home.
Walters registered the final four outs — three by strikeout — of Wichita State’s 7-6 victory at South Florida, a crucial Game 1 win in a series that will decide the final team in the American Athletic Conference baseball tournament next week.
It was the eighth save of the season for Walters and the fifth save where he’s entered in the eighth inning. He entered the eighth inning with two outs and the game-tying run on second base, only to strike out the first batter he faced.
“I approach it the same way I would if I had a clean inning,” Walters said. “Confidence is key and knowing coach trusts me helps me trust myself and get the job done.”
WSU improved to 25-28 overall and 8-14 in conference play, while USF dropped to 25-26 overall and 7-15 in conference play. The Shockers can lock up their spot in next week’s AAC tournament with a win in either Friday’s 5:30 p.m. game or Saturday’s noon finale.
After Walters allowed a run and recorded just one out in his last appearance earlier this week in a win over Oral Roberts, Butler still trusted the junior to close out a crucial victory.
“He’s been good all year for us,” Butler said. “He has great extension and his fastball was 90, 92 (mph) tonight. He was throwing a breaking ball for a first-pitch strike a lot and he closed it out for us. He did a fantastic job for us. He pounded the zone and threw strikes, which is what you need to do in a one-run game.”
Needing Walters didn’t seem likely after the fifth inning when WSU broke a 1-1 tie with five runs to take a 6-1 lead. After Luke Ritter delivered a RBI single, sophomore Paxton Wallace hit a bomb straight away that cleared the fence for a grand slam.
It was the ninth home run of the season for Wallace, tied for the team lead with Ritter, and the third home run in his last 27 at bats.
“That was huge for us, four runs in one swing and it was to deep center field,” Butler said. “It was an absolute bomb. That kind of got us going there.”
WSU tacked on another run in the sixth inning, as Ritter scored on a wild pitch to extend the lead to 7-2. That appeared to be all of the help WSU needed when starter Clayton McGinness exited after his fourth straight quality start.
After throwing a complete-game, one-run victory to beat No. 8 East Carolina last weekend, McGinness followed that up by striking out a career-high eight batters and allowing two earned runs in seven innings. It was his fourth straight start of throwing at least seven innings and allowing two earned runs or less.
“He’s been throwing as well as anybody the last month,” Butler said. “He’s been absolute dynamic for us.”
But USF began its rally as soon as WSU went to its bullpen.
Aaron Haase walked the first two hitters he faced, then Butler went to Alex Segal, who registered one out but also walked to load the bases. Mason Pleimann entered with the bases loaded, but gave up a 2-RBI single and 2-RBI double sandwiched around an out.
That’s when Walters entered to escape the jam and close out the game for WSU.
Despite scoring seven innings, WSU’s offense was frustrated it didn’t produce more. The Shockers had 10 hits, walked three times and had six batters hit by a pitch that totaled up 13 stranded runners for WSU.
“Getting Game 1 is very big for us,” Walters said. “We know we have to win, but we also know if we press too hard then it will be hard to overcome that. So we just kept it loose and we’re hoping this momentum will take us into the next game and come out here and get two more wins.”