Wichita State freshman Brady Slavens picked the ideal time to hit his first college home run.
The Olathe Northwest graduate blasted a three-run shot in the top of the ninth inning to highlight the Shockers’ 6-2 victory over top-seeded and No. 7-ranked East Carolina in the opening game of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Tuesday afternoon in Clearwater, Florida.
Slavens entered the game with a .227 batting average in 132 at-bats. The home run was Slavens’ lone hit on Tuesday.
“I’ve been waiting a while to do that and I don’t think I could have picked a better time to do it this year,” Slavens told The Eagle in a phone interview. “Coach has a lot of confidence in me and that really helps. I love that he believes in me and I’m just happy that we got this win.”
The No. 8 seed has beaten the No. 1 seed for the third straight year in the double-elimination AAC Tournament. The Shockers (27-29) advanced in the winner’s bracket, where they will face Connecticut (34-22) at 2 p.m. Central time Thursday.
WSU is also the only team in the American (and just one of two nationally) to beat ECU twice this season, as the Shockers claimed a 3-1 win over the Pirates (42-14) at Eck Stadium on May 11.
“It’s good for these players and I’m really happy for our guys, they deserve this,” Butler said. “We’re pleased to beat a top-10 team in the country. We’ve played them four times now, been in all four games and beat them twice. Right now this team is having a lot of fun and playing good baseball and we’re enjoying it. These guys have earned that.
“I know that finishing eighth is not good and that’s unacceptable to me, but we’re still playing and we can win this tournament. This is why you play 56 games to get to this point and to see guys keep growing and competing is just a lot of fun. This is the most fun time of the year.”
WSU senior Clayton McGinness was the constant in both games. After throwing the first complete game of his career in the 3-1 victory 10 days ago, McGinness came back with his fifth straight quality start on Tuesday: one earned run in 6 1/3 innings.
He didn’t register the win on Tuesday, as he exited with the score tied 1-1 in the seventh, but Butler made it clear afterward the Shockers would not have won without him.
“He was fantastic once again and he has been absolutely legit for the last four or five weeks,” Butler said. “Just sensational.”
WSU appeared as if it was continuing its frustrating trend of leaving runners in scoring position, as the Shockers were 4-for-41 against ECU in the three-game homestand two weekends ago. On Tuesday, WSU recorded outs in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position in the first seven innings.
But that changed in the top of the eighth inning when Ross Cadena dropped a RBI single into center field that scored Paxton Wallace, who led off the inning with a double.
Alex Segal, who relieved McGinness in the seventh inning, earned the win when he was able to retire ECU’s lineup in order in the bottom of the eighth.
It was another freshman, this time David VanVooren, who sparked the Shockers to start the ninth with a drag bunt down the third-base line. He moved to second on a ground out by Jordan Boyer, then ECU intentionally walked Luke Ritter. Wallace tacked on an insurance run with a two-out single to right field, extending WSU’s lead to 3-1 before Slavens’ homer.
After fouling off two straight pitches, Slavens read a fastball off the hand of ECU reliever Ryder Giles in a 2-2 count and sent the ball over the right-field fence.
“I was just looking for a base hit, not necessarily a home run,” Slavens said. “He gave me a good pitch and I put a good swing on it and it worked out for me.”
The home run was almost necessary. WSU closer Mitchell Walters allowed a leadoff home run, then back-to-back singles. Butler pulled him for Jacob Lindemann, who recorded two straight outs but walked a batter. That loaded the bases and brought the game-tying run to the plate: ECU’s best slugger, Spencer Brickhouse.
But Lindemann coaxed a ground ball to second base. WSU finished with 12 hits against the top pitching staff in East Carolina, as Cadena (three), Boyer (two) and Wallace (two) all finished with multi-hit days.
The Shockers will now have a day of rest, although bad news came Tuesday when probable Game 2 starter Tommy Barnhouse began having back spasms, which makes his status for Thursday unclear. But for now, WSU can celebrate a win.
“Our team vibe is really, really good right now,” Slavens said. “We’re very confident and we’re on a good streak these last few weeks of the season. Right now we’re to the point where we feel like we can win any game against anybody.”